The Los Angeles Lakers went into the free agency frenzy of 2015 with a plan. After selecting D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., and Anthony Brown in the draft, the team had a 2015-2016 lineup that projected to look like this:
PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Jordan Clarkson/Jabari Brown
SF: Kobe Bryant/Nick Young/Anthony Brown
PF: Julius Randle/Ryan Kelly/Larry Nance Jr.
C: Tarik Black/Robert Sacre
They were also taking a look at promising young big man Robert Upshaw as well as Jonathan Holmes and Michael Frazier II, though they were long shots to make the roster.
For Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, building a competitive squad around that roster wouldn’t be easy. The team featured a plethora of young players with little to no experience, which makes them hard to count on during the grind of an NBA season.
The veterans weren’t any better though. Kobe Bryant was coming off of his third season-ending injury in as many years, and no one knew how much he had in the tank. Nick Young had lost his swag in the prior season and the three years remaining on his deal made him a toxic contract, while Ryan Kelly had struggled so badly in his sophomore campaign that he was at risk of being waived during training camp. Youngsters like Tarik Black, Jordan Clarkson, and Jabari Brown had shown promise during the second half of last season, but there was concern that they were simply putting up numbers on a bad team.
In other words, Kupchak had a roster full of question marks, and it’s difficult (if not impossible) to plug holes when you don’t have any idea where the leak will come from. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that now, nearly a month into the 2015-2016 NBA season, the roster he assembled isn’t quite fitting together.
It was clear that the team needed a rim protector, and with an agreement to send a 2nd round pick to Indiana for Roy Hibbert in his back pocket, Kupchak played with house money in free agency and went after the marquee big men. The foray into max contract land wasn’t without its opportunity cost though. Ed Davis, who had by far the highest PER of any Laker last season, signed with the Portland Trail Blazers on a great deal (3 years, $20 million) while the Lakers were handcuffed waiting for the whales to make up their minds. Eventually Greg Monroe, DeAndre Jordan, and LaMarcus Aldridge all refused to take the Lakers money, but by then, a good chunk of the mid-tier free agents were off the board.
With the main targets gone, Kupchak pulled the trigger on the Hibbert deal and inked dependable reserves Brandon Bass (one year, $3 million with a player option) and reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams (3 years, $21 million). Marcelo Huertas, an international veteran with a flair for passing, was brought in to backup rookie D’Angelo Russell at point guard, and Metta World Peace was given a training camp deal thanks to his impressive work mentoring Julius Randle.
On paper, it made sense. The Lakers lineup would look something like this:
PG: D’Angelo Russell/Marcelo Huertas
SG: Jordan Clarkson/Lou Williams/Jabari Brown
SF: Kobe Bryant/Nick Young/Metta World Peace/Anthony Brown
PF: Julius Randle/Brandon Bass/Ryan Kelly/Larry Nance Jr.
C: Roy Hibbert/Tarik Black/Robert Sacre
Ultimately, Jabari Brown had to be waived in order to get the roster down to the league-maximum of 15. With a roster full of question marks and coming off of the worst season in team history, it appeared as though Kupchak had done an admirable job of putting together an improved squad. The lack of a rim protector to play with the reserves was striking, but otherwise, the plan was clear.
In an ideal world, Hibbert’s verticality would be enough to make the starting five’s defense respectable, and Lou Williams would give the bench another scorer in case the bad version of Nick Young showed up again. Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown would likely spend most of the year in the D-League and wouldn’t be counted on for major minutes.
Similarly, it wasn’t clear what Ryan Kelly would bring to the fold, and with that being the case Brandon Bass would be needed to take on the lion’s share of the minutes backing up Julius Randle at power forward. Bass has a long history of dependable and steady play, so his addition seemed like a wise one. Marcelo Huertas, known for his ability to distribute the ball, would have plenty of targets on the second unit with Williams, Young, and lob-finisher Tarik Black.
Essentially, the starters would run Scott’s traditional sets with some healthy doses of pick-and-roll added in to maximize the skills of Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell, and the bench would be a free-wheeling, offensive machine with Huertas as the engine, defense be damned. During preseason, it even looked as though Kelly could occasionally fill in with the second unit, giving Huertas a small army of snipers to feed. It would be beautiful chaos.
Unfortunately, you know what they say about the best laid plans. In spite of solid play from Hibbert, the Lakers have featured the third-worst defensive rating in the league. Given the spacing and ball movement that dominates modern NBA offensive schemes, it’s clear that one solid defensive player simply can’t make up for four poor ones.
For his part, Huertas dazzled during the preseason, but has struggled greatly now that teams are determined to make him a scorer rather than a passer. With his offensive effectiveness stunted and his defense catastrophic, the maestro that was intended to conduct the bombastic bench has been borderline unplayable.
That, combined with surprisingly strong play from Metta World Peace, has caused head coach Byron Scott to shift the lineup of his second unit, using Williams at point guard, where he is less comfortable — and less effective. Lou is constantly having to hoist shots with defenders draped all over him, and his field goal percentage has plummeted to a dismal 33 percent. While Lou had some success scoring with defenders in his grill in Toronto last season, he is now responsible for creating for others as well as himself, which appears to be asking too much.
Scott tried to solve the problem last night against the Blazers by adjusting his rotation so that either Russell or Clarkson was running the second unit, which allowed Williams to shift to his more comfortable role off the ball. The move made sense, but it came at the cost of the surprisingly good Larry Nance Jr.’s minutes, who had become the clear favorite at backup power forward.
In another departure from the projected opening day rotation, Scott opted to start the season employing a small bench frontcourt of a resurgent Ryan Kelly at power forward and Brandon Bass, who is undersized for his usual power forward spot, at center instead of Tarik Black. After proving this combination wasn’t working, Scott removed Kelly and inserted Nance to play alongside Bass. Nance’s athleticism and quick feet were impressive, but with the log jam in the Lakers lineup, his minutes — and development — were sacrificed in order to try to plug the backup point guard hole caused by Huertas’ struggles. It seems every leak the Lakers plug simply opens up a new one.
Bass has remained the backup center even though the position is clearly out of his wheelhouse, but with four players on the team who can solely play power forward and all (for the most part) deserving minutes something had to give. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, Black has mostly been banished to the bench, and the second unit, intended to be a bastion of offensive freedom and creativity, now often features at least two players playing out of position. Their offensive rating, once expected to be their strong suit, is now just 58.3, which for the uninformed is really, really bad.
The bottom line is that with so much positional and skill set duplication on the roster a trade will likely be needed to alleviates the logjam. It will probably have to come after December 15th, which is when players signed over the summer are eligible to be dealt. A veteran like Bass figures to at least have some value on the market, and it isn’t fair to anyone to continue to ask him to bang against opposing centers when that clearly isn’t his game.
Similarly, the emergence of Metta World Peace means that one of Nick Young or Lou Williams will probably find themselves in a new zip code at some point. Ironically, Ed Davis would have fit in rather nicely with the second unit as a rim protector, but Kupchak ultimately used that money to obtain Lou Williams instead. That’s not to say that Williams wasn’t a good signing, as he was an absolutely fantastic value, but Davis’ skill set would certainly compliment the bench crew more at this juncture. Now, the Lakers may find themselves dealing one of Williams or Young in search of a Davis-type player.
At least the starting five appears to be set (for now anyway). Hibbert is the ideal type of player to add to the young core of Clarkson, Randle, and Russell, and sometime in the future an athletic three-and-D small forward would be a nice fit as well. For the time being, they will soldier on with Kobe at the three, which isn’t perfect but there simply aren’t any other realistic options.
It’s still early, but it’s already clear that the Lakers roster just doesn’t feature enough complimentary pieces. The team will still improve as the young players find their way, but ultimately, some moves are going to need to be made in order to get an optimal performance out of the team and thus speed up development.
Until then, Byron Scott will have to continue doing what he can to plug the rapidly appearing holes in this leaky ship.