As it currently stands, the Los Angeles Lakers have 14 players on an intriguing but unbalanced roster.
Adding one final contract might help the equilibrium, but it’s more likely management will use the tried-and-true process of multiple training camp invites as an audition process.
The Lakers will head to Honolulu in the fall for the first time in nearly a decade, holding camp among the swaying palm trees and azure seas. Team president Jeanie Buss made the announcement, per Lakers.com:
Hawaii has been like a second home to the Lakers since my father first took the team there in 1988, The love and support we’ve always received from the people in Hawaii has meant so much to us over the years, and we’re thrilled to be returning there next fall and seeing so many of our loyal fans.
An island sojourn is a great way to kick off the season for a team that has stumbled so badly in recent years. It’s the dawning of a new age for a storied franchise—let the Hawaiian genesis begin!
But there’s still the matter of an uneven depth chart to deal with before the action starts.
Los Angeles has nine players with three or fewer years of experience on the roster, all but two of whom are rookies or sophomores. The team also has five power forwards and six guards. Two of those guards—Kobe Bryant and Nick Young—can and will play at the small forward even though it’s not their natural position.
This dynamic took an even more curious turn when head coach Byron Scott suggested that Bryant, in his 20th season and coming off yet another serious injury, could basically cover most of the bases.
“Kobe can play one, two and three,” Scott said, per David Aldridge of NBA.com. “There's no doubt in my mind. And there's some games, against some teams, where he'll probably play four.”
What, no 5, Byron?
As for obvious needs, there is only one quality center on the roster with Roy Hibbert arriving in July via a trade with the Indiana Pacers. He’ll also be the team’s main line of protection. This is just slightly worrisome, considering the Lakers had the league’s second-worst defense last season, per ESPN.com’s Hollinger efficiency ratings.
Hibbert will be backed up by Robert Sacre, who averaged 0.6 blocks last season and started 18 times out of his 67 appearances. And then there’s Tarik Black, a classic tweener who has been forced into playing the 5 even though he’s better suited at the 4. But with Julius Randle, Brandon Bass, Larry Nance Jr. and Ryan Kelly lining up for minutes, Black will be slotted in at center.
According to ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes, there was an expectation that the Lakers would sign undrafted rookie Robert Upshaw earlier this summer but that hasn’t yet materialized. While the 7-foot shot-blocker would theoretically strengthen the team’s low-post presence, contract discussions seem to be on the back burner.
“It’s unlikely Robert will contribute next year on this team to win games,” said Lakers general Mitch Kupchak, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “If we did something with Robert, it would be based on potential going forward. It’s hard to look at any rookie.”
There’s also the small forward issue to contend with now that the Wesley Johnson era has moved to the other side of the hallway at Staples Center. Anthony Brown, whom the Lakers selected with the No. 34 pick out of Stanford in June, has the potential to be a potent three-and-D player but will first have to earn his wings.
Until then, Bryant will likely shift to the 3 for the majority of his twilight campaign, Scott’s multipositional comments notwithstanding. Young will get the majority of the leftovers coming off a lackluster season, coaching flare-ups and summer trade rumors that fizzled—presumably for a lack of takers.
“(Kupchak) says, I’m talented, but just work with coach,” Young said recently, per Medina. “Work off of coach and make sure everybody is on the same page.”
Being on the same page will also involve finding team balance when it comes to scoring the rock. This year’s model has no lack of shot-happy players, including Bryant, Young, recently signed Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, D-League scoring whiz Jabari Brown and last season’s All-Rookie First Team selection Jordan Clarkson.
If there’s any one obvious way to balance out this group of wild cards, it could be by signing an experienced small forward with talent for locking down opposing teams’ best players.
Among the free agents still waiting to dance are Dorell Wright, who’s coming off a broken hand, Tayshaun Prince, who has almost as much wear on his tires as Bryant, and Michael Beasley, who has never locked down another player in his life.
In other words, it's not a crop percolating with options.
It will also be interesting to see what transpires with Upshaw, who is a free agent and fair game for all teams. There are few available centers who possess the prospect’s potential upside—he led the NCAA in blocks before being dismissed from Washington in January.
In a perfect world, the Lakers would find a way to balance the roster sooner rather than later. Barring such a solution, the team will enjoy the rest of its summer vacation before heading off to the Big Island to sort things out in the fall.
Of course, coming off the worst season in franchise history, it’s hoped that training camp is more than leis and luaus.