Saturday, October 16 2021
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Barring an unexpected trade, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to have one of the most financially lopsided rosters in NBA history. The trio of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis combine to make over $120 million in the 2021-22 season, and individually, all three of them will make more than the $32.2 million owed to the entire rest of the roster. At the moment, the Lakers have more players making the minimum (seven) than not (five). If they fill out their three remaining roster spots with minimum salary players, they will have twice as many players at that salary as not. 

That reality made the Lakers particularly appealing to free agents expecting to make roughly the minimum. The presence of those three superstars ensures contention, but the lack of depth beyond them ensured that playing time would be available. The Lakers were able to build a roster largely around minimum-salary players in part because they could sell free agents on the idea that they could play major roles in their rotation. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Kent Bazemore turned down more money and years from the Golden State Warriors to join the Lakers partially because he believed they’d be able to give him a bigger role. Other free agents likely held that same belief. Joining most contenders for the minimum means competing with incumbent role players for playing time. Joining the Lakers meant competing with other minimum-salary free agents. 

And therein lies one of the biggest challenges awaiting Frank Vogel this season. Despite starting the offseason with practically no depth, the Lakers managed to recruit a roster that, in some ways, is overflowing with it. There are 240 minutes of playing time available in a basketball game. With three roster spots left to fill, the Lakers already have players who averaged over 300 minutes per game last season.

This hardly means that the Lakers are among the NBA’s deepest teams. Remember that in most cases, players who are available for the minimum are available for the minimum for a reason. Even if some took less money to join the Lakers, they’ve meaningfully downgraded from the more balanced supporting cast of the past two seasons. Generally, teams prefer consolidated rotations with seven or eight players holding key roles. 

Those minimum players make it harder for the Lakers to trim the rotation down that far. Previous iterations of this group had reliable 3-and-D role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green to play major minutes, but most of this year’s signings veer towards either the “3” end of the spectrum (Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk) or the “D” end of it (Dwight Howard). Even players with more balanced track records carry risks. Bazemore is a reliable defender who shot 40.8 percent from behind the arc last season, but was below league average in the four seasons prior at 35.1 percent. Trevor Ariza’s shooting numbers are similarly inconsistent, and at 36 years old, there’s no telling how much longer he’ll be able to maintain his defensive performance. 

These are hardly disqualifying weaknesses. The Lakers signed these players because they believe that they can contribute, and many ultimately will. It’s just hard to envision most of them doing so at the 30ish minute clip that teams generally prefer out of key players deep in the playoffs, especially when you factor in redundancy. 

If there’s one thing this Lakers roster doesn’t lack, it’s ball-handlers. The James-Westbrook duo alone ensures that the Lakers can have at least one Hall of Fame point guard or point guard-adjacent floor general on the floor at all times … yet the two players on this roster making more than the minimum but less than the star trio derive most of their value from handling the ball. Talen Horton-Tucker is a 28.5 percent career 3-point shooter whose potential lies in his remarkable ability to score at the rim. Westbrook obviously does that in spades and benefits most from teammates that can create space for him to do so. Kendrick Nunn can do so, but he lacks Horton-Tucker’s defensive upside. Monk similarly overlaps with Nunn as a score-first guard that struggles defensively. 

It’s hard to have too much ball-handling, a skill that has proven increasingly valuable in the postseason setting, but the Lakers’ choice to maximize it at the expense of other, more supportive skills is going to make life difficult on Vogel as he constructs this rotation. Returns on ball-handling start to diminish rather quickly compared to, say, shooting or defense because, in the simplest of terms, only one person can handle the ball at a time, whereas every player on the court defends and generates gravity. The Lakers have to balance their needs for shooting and defense along with this glut of ball-handlers, and they have to do it given the real flaws of their players. This is not going to be an eight-man rotation, but based on the math above, it can’t be a 12-man rotation either. There isn’t a clear pecking order among the role players, yet there aren’t enough minutes for all of them, either. Depending on who fills those final three roster spots, either now or through in-season additions, the logjam could get even tighter. 

So how can Vogel sort through this complicated mishmash of players? Some of the questions are easier than others. It starts with two key questions: 

  • Who is starting at center? If the answer is Anthony Davis, some of the backcourt pressure lightens as Bazemore probably plays more minutes at small forward. If the answer is not Davis, then it suddenly appears as if more minutes are being devoted to the Howard-Marc Gasol combination. That in turn pushes Davis down to power forward and James to small forward. There are still enough forward minutes for Ariza and Anthony, but everybody else has to fight for minutes at the guard spots.
  • How do the Lakers stagger their stars? By far the likeliest answer here is that Westbrook and Davis play together while James sits in the first quarter, and then LeBron leads his own bench unit while they rest in the second. Westbrook-only lineups have struggled in recent years, so pairing him with Davis creates extra support in those James-less minutes that have haunted the Lakers ever since he got to Los Angeles. A possible alternative, though, might be to play Westbrook as the lone star. Doing so might mean losing a few bench minutes, but it would give him more space to seek out his own shot for short stretches. More importantly, it would give James and Davis opportunities to play together against bench lineups, something they haven’t been able to do in two years together thus far. Imagine the carnage the James-Davis pick-and-roll could produce with optimal spacing against bench defenses. Such lineups would be unstoppable. 

Once the Lakers know who is starting and how they’re aligning their stars, they can begin to construct lineups that specifically make sense around them. For the sake of preserving Davis, Gasol is probably going to open the season as the starting center. With a bit of extra spacing out of that spot, the Lakers can prioritize defense a bit more at shooting guard. That makes Bazemore a likely choice for the final starting slot. 

Things get tougher from there. The Lakers have placed an enormous degree of organizational faith in Horton-Tucker … but do they trust him enough to play him next to Westbrook? If the answer is yes, their spacing is compromised, and if the answer is no, he’s basically confined to James-led bench units. The real competition here is between Nunn, Monk and Ellington. At best, only two of them can get steady minutes given their defensive limitations. Ellington has the most valuable specific skill set for this roster. He’s also the oldest and likely the most comfortable with an unsteady role. Nunn and Monk overlap, but they’re younger and carry sorely needed upside. In a perfect world, the Lakers would love for Monk to outplay Nunn, as Nunn’s $4.9 million salary could net them more in an in-season trade than Monk’s minimum pact. 

If there’s a battle between the two, it will likely play out at training camp. The same might be true of Ariza and Anthony at forward if Davis isn’t a full-time center. Ariza’s defense is badly needed. Limiting Anthony’s minutes carries enormous political ramifications. James recruited his longtime friend himself. Vogel saw firsthand how difficult it is to manage expectations with former All-Stars when Andre Drummond joined the team midseason. Whether it’s Anthony or others, there are going to be disappointed veterans here. There aren’t 300 minutes to go around. 

With a group of imperfect supporting players, Vogel is going to have to weigh what each brings individually and decide how best to allocate those skill sets. The process is going to be ongoing, and injuries are going to wind up answering many of these questions for him. Right now, the Lakers have 12 players fighting for minutes. When the dust settles, they’re hoping they can trim that number down a fair bit. They might not have a clear path to seven or eight for the postseason, but for now, just figuring out a 10-man regular-season rotation is going to be one of Vogel’s greatest challenges as coach of the Lakers. 

Source: CBSSports.com

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