Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka deserve kudos for what could turn out to be the Lakers’ best summer since 1996 when they landed guards Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher in the draft and center Shaquille O’Neal in free agency.
This summer, the Lakers not only signed LeBron James, the best player on the planet, to a four-year contract to join their talented young foursome of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart but also signed five savvy free agent veterans as back ups. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley give the Lakers the best and deepest 15-man roster they’ve had during the last five years.
Barring any last minute moves, the Lakers will start the season with fifteen players with guaranteed contracts, including nine players on long term contracts (Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, James, Wagner, Mykhailiuk, Bonga, and Deng) and six on short term contracts (Zubac, KCP, Rondo, McGee, Stephenson, and Beasley). While intriguing, the players on short term deals are likely temporary placeholders to be replaced by a superstar next summer.
Which means Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton’s primary objective will be to build a deep, versatile, and potentially championship caliber rotation around LeBron James and the Lakers’ talented foursome of budding young stars.
Signing LeBron has shifted the Lakers into a dual mode where the goal is to win now but still continue to accelerate the growth and development of their four young stars: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. The Lakers are going to give these four young kids the chance to shine while playing big minutes with LeBron but with a savvy veteran backing up every single one of them, able and ready to take over their position if necessary.
We’ve already seen peek previews in the media of the Lakers’ likely starting (Lonzo, Hart, Ingram, LeBron, McGee) and closing (Lonzo, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, LeBron) lineups so it’s not too difficult to figure out what happens in the middle, especially if you presume the Lakers want to take advantage of their depth by including 10 to 12 players in their standard rotation, keeping everyone fresh so they can run faster on offense and press harder on defense.
Here’s a simple rotation model for the Lakers that details projected starters, backups, and closers for a half of a game. The model splits the half into three 8-minute shifts manned by three different 5-man lineups. For simplicity, it assumes starters play the first 8 minutes of the half, backups play the second 8 minutes, and closers play the final 8 minutes of the half. The backups can replace starters and closers replace backups via multiple substitutions or a single five-man hockey style substitution. Actual minutes will obviously vary.
The above model produces a rotation of ten players, with five players playing 16 minutes per half and five playing 8 minutes. Lonzo, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, and LeBron are playing 16 minutes per half or 32 minutes per game and Rondo, KCP, Svi, Kuzma, and Wagner are playing 8 minutes per half or 16 minutes per game. These figures will obviously vary. Starters could play more than 8 minutes and injuries or foul problems could change the rotations.
I’ve included Svi Mykhailiuk and Moritz Wagner as part of my backups because I think they could be big contributors by the playoffs if given a chance early but Luke might easily decide to give those minutes to vets like Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley since the Lakers want to win now. There’s been a lot of talk about competition for the starting positions but the real competition is going to be between the Lakers’ rookies and savvy vets.
While Magic has already warned that it could take a couple of months for LeBron and the young Lakers to get rolling, how the team and individual players perform during the first half of the season is going to be a huge factor in what the team does at the trade deadline. How Lonzo, Brandon, Kyle, and Josh play could determine whether they’re traded midseason. Same goes with Lance and Michael, who could easily become part of a trade package.
The Lakers’ deep and versatile roster gives Luke Walton the opportunity to put together a championship caliber rotation. The starting lineup powered by LeBron and Lonzo could evolve into the second coming of Showtime while the Rondo/Kuzma bench could lead the league in points scored. Best of all, this season is just the first step in a journey to build another Lakers’ dynasty. The real target is the 2020 NBA Championship. This year is just preparation.
It’s going to be a fascinating season, one Lakers’ fans have been dreaming about for years. We’re going to find out just how good an NBA head coach Luke Walton can be and whether our young guns are ready for prime time.