After an eventful offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers have started training camp in anticipation of the 2016-17 NBA season. There is excitement within the organization, spurred by the retirement of Kobe Bryant, the hiring of a new head coach who could not be any different from his predecessor, a group of young players who seem poised to take a leap forward, and select veterans who have something left to contribute both on and off the court. Players, coaches and fans alike are ready to move on from the losing atmosphere which has hung over the franchise like a cloud the past three years.
Of course, when the season begins reality will set in. For one thing, the Lakers are projected by most experts to win no more than 25 games. That would be an improvement over their 17-65 record last year, but it still means the team will lose two or three games for every one contest it wins, which over time will test the resolve of players and coaches alike. Another factor is that some players will have to deal with the disappointment of not making the regular rotation and seeing little playing time.
NBA teams carry a maximum of 15 players, but it is rare for a team’s nightly rotation to include more than 10 players — on some teams, it is eight or nine. That means, barring injuries, at least five Lakers players expected to make the roster are likely seeing little playing time this season.
In recent years, it was relatively easy to predict which members of the squad would be relegated to cheerleader status. For example, last year, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly, Metta World Peace, Nick Young and Marcelo Huertas were destined to sit at the end of the bench. Some of the excitement this year stems from the fact that there are more possibilities to mix and match players, and it is harder to predict precisely who will not make the rotation.
Last year, for example, Huertas played very little most of the season. When he finally got a chance down the stretch, ball movement vastly improved on offense and a team starved for assists finally got some. He followed up his strong finish to the season with solid play in the summer Olympics. On a roster heavy with big men and light on guards, it is possible Huertas could surpass Jose Calderon to earn a spot in the rotation as the backup point guard on a second unit that includes Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram, and Larry Nance, Jr.
Last year, Roy Hibbert was the team’s only true center who dressed for games and played regularly. Tarik Black and Sacre spent much of the season in street clothes while Brandon Bass, a forward, played backup center.
This year’s squad is expected to have four centers, Black, Timofey Mozgov, Ivica Zubac, and Yi Jianlian. Many observers also expect that Larry Nance Jr. to see time at the five spot in a small-ball lineup. At least two of these players will end up with little (if any) playing time, but it is not easy to predict precisely who that will be and it is unclear if the coaching staff even knows at this moment. Mozgov is going to be the starter for sure, but who among the others will emerge as a part of the regular rotation remains to be seen.
Black and Luke Walton have a strong connection going back to Black’s college days when Walton was an assistant coach and mentor, and the two became friends. Black was inexplicably ignored by Byron Scott, so he could easily have chosen to leave this summer in free agency, and the Lakers could easily have decided to let him go. Yet Black is back and with a very healthy salary increase. He has publicly stated that Walton promised him a fair shot to make the regular rotation. Based on all these factors, even in the face of stiff competition, one cannot ignore the possibility that Black will crack the rotation.
There was considerable surprise around the NBA when the Lakers reached all the way to China to sign Jianlian late in the offseason. He disappointed as a first-round draft choice and has been gone from the NBA for six years. But he was scouted heavily at the Olympics where he emerged as the third leading scorer among all players and showed great skill at hitting three point shots. If Jianlian makes his three-pointers on a consistent basis this fall and holds his own on defense, a seven-footer with that skillset is hard to ignore.
While it would be easy to assume that young Zubac is the odd-man out in his rookie season, if Walton is true to his word that playing time will go to those who earn it, it could make a difference in Zubac’s case. He has received praise the past month on his zeal for playing defense and the new sky hook he has developed. Zubac looked like the real deal this summer and will be a fan favorite for sure, which helps from a marketing perspective. Mitch Kupchak keeps downplaying expectations for Zubac, but if he makes a case for himself in preseason, it will not go unnoticed.
It is easy to assume that Nick Young will be out of the rotation if he makes the team. The fact is, virtually everyone predicted he would be cut or traded but he is still on the roster and at training camp, which may infer the team has not given up on him. It could still happen, but if the Lakers were determined to part ways, there are valid reasons why it should have occurred by now. Young did not thrive in Byron Scott’s system, whose old-school ways did not jive with Young’s free spirit. There is a new young coach and a fresh system that may better suit Young’s talents, and while it is a long-shot, it is not inconceivable that Young’s shooting touch could return.
In Walton’s system, it is critical to have players who can knock down outside shots when they are open. Anthony Brown’s future depends on hitting those shots far more consistently than he has shown thus far in his brief career. Brown, however, has the potential to be one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, so it is hard to give up on him. Minutes will be scarce at small forward since Luol Deng and Brandon Ingram play that position, but Brown could get a shot at the two spot, a position he often played in the Summer League. Lou Williams is a defensive liability, and his shots are often off the mark, so it is possible that if he falters, Brown could step into that role, but only if becomes the shooter the team thought it was drafting last year.
In the end, it is likely that the five players who will sit at the end of this season’s bench will be Zubac, Black, Brown, Young, and Huertas. As the foregoing demonstrates, however, with a new coach and a fresh start, this list is not inevitable or cast in stone. Zubac or Black could leapfrog Jianlian, Brown or even Young could supplant Williams, and Huertas could beat out Calderon. Remember, it is not just a question of overall talent; it is how individual players complement the skillset of the others with whom he will share the court.
Part of the intrigue of this year’s training camp is finding out the rotation that will be established by the coaching staff and who among the players fails to crack that rotation. A surprise or two is entirely possible.