Remarkably, after the departure of Marc Gasol, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker look like they’ll be the only returning pieces from last season, barring a belated re-signing of Wesley Matthews (which would be smart, by the way).
Los Angeles is the oldest and most accomplished team in the NBA. They’re also one of the deepest and most versatile. Everybody on the active roster has a case to be in Frank Vogel’s rotation.
The team still has two roster spots to fill, though they will reportedly keep at least one open for a midseason buyout addition.
Training camp begins Sept. 28, the preseason opens on Oct. 3, and the regular season tips off on Oct. 19. Let’s use this moment to catch our breath and project what the Lakers’ depth chart could look like. The possibilities are limitless.
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Rajon Rondo
Obviously, Westbrook is slotted in at No. 1 here. The biggest question is — how much will Rondo play, at least during the regular season?
“They have talked to me about roles with this team, and what they look forward to me bringing to the team this year, versus the past couple of seasons.” Rondo said on the Mason & Ireland show. “Just being ready when my number is called. Obviously, we have a lot of depth at the point guard position. Understanding that I’m not going to be playing as much as I would like, or possibly want to, but at the same time being a mentor for young guys… just doing what I do best.”
The veteran will still offer immense value in the film room and, at this stage of his career, might be better off saving his legs (and best basketball) for the playoffs. If so, Nunn — the team’s fifth-highest paid player who has averaged 15.1 PPG over his two NBA seasons — can handle primary backup duties for much of the regular season.
The Lakers will likely stagger lineups to always have either LeBron or Russ on the floor, and James will be the primary orchestrator when he’s out there without Westbrook.
Shooting Guard: Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, Nunn, Malik Monk
I could see Ellington beginning the season in the starting lineup, yet also dropping out of the rotation at times if he doesn’t shoot well. Ellington is the team’s best pure sniper and off-ball mover, and they’ll need his spacing in lineups with Russ, LeBron, and Davis.
I asked Wayne Ellington about his elite off-ball movement. He mentioned (not surprisingly) Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen as inspirations, and believes his ability to create space for LeBron, Russ, and AD can be just as important to the Lakers as hitting 3s: pic.twitter.com/2VbDZYIePD
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) August 6, 2021
Horton-Tucker might emerge as the team’s fourth-best player, though I can see him getting more run at the 3, where the Lakers are a bit thinner. Nunn is a true combo guard who can provide a scoring punch from the two-spot in certain lineups.
“I’m a point guard, combo guard, however you want to call it in today’s game,” Nunn said. “I just bring my strengths to the game, whether it’s at the 1 or the 2. On-the-ball or off-the-ball.”
Monk will get his chances, too, though the rest of his game is a bit less polished than Ellington. Whoever shoots better between the two of them may end up as the starting 2.
Small Forward: Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Horton-Tucker
Power Forward: LeBron James, Ariza, Carmelo Anthony
This is assuming Davis starts at center, which seems increasingly logical with the floor-spacing Gasol heading back to Spain. On paper, the Lakers’ best starting lineup features Davis at the 5 and James at the 4, with Dwight as the backup and Jordan as down-bench insurance for Howard.
In that case, I can see Vogel sliding Ariza into the starting lineup for his 3-and-D abilities, though I wouldn’t rule out Bazemore getting a shot in certain matchups. Bazemore is not as lengthy as Ariza, but he’s a slightly better three-point shooter and can switch onto guards more easily. Ariza can deal with power forwards more adeptly.
Whether THT spends more time at the 2 or 3 this season is hard to predict — frankly, like much of the roster, he’ll swiftly vacillate between the two spots, and may even see some point guard opportunities. Either way, I believe Horton-Tucker will see 25-30 minutes per night and is a longshot candidate for Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year, should the Lakers use him in that role. The extent to which he improves his ball-handling, defense, and outside shooting will be an X-factor in the Lakers’ pursuit of championship No. 18.
Anthony will get his opportunities to score in second-unit lineups run by Westbrook, but he’s the only player in the Lakers frontcourt without any defensive value. That could limit his minutes overall.
Vogel deployed an 11 man rotation throughout much of last season, constantly mixed and matched (partially a result of nonstop injuries) and called on nearly everybody to make contributions at some point. I expect him to do the same with a roster this experienced and deep. Come postseason, he’ll switch it up again and tighten the screws. Of course, health will determine a lot of his moves, once again.
Los Angeles will ask everybody to check their ego at the door and accept their role, which may vary from game to game. There will be ups and downs along the way, as Westbrook and Anthony acknowledged in their intro remarks, and plenty of variables to sort out.
These are good problems to have.