LA Lakers: Roster Questions and Kobe
Lakers training camp is well on its way and the first preseason game is this Sunday. It’s like I found an oasis after this long, hot summer without Lakers basketball. Man, is it invigorating. But, there are still some questions facing the NBA’s most storied franchise. With two big ones in particular: What’s the final roster going to look like, and how is Kobe going to mesh with it?
The roster is already looking like a great blend of young blood and well established veterans. The Lakers will be combining Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, and Nick Young with the kids: D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Brown, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black. As far as players that look like lock-ins to wear the purple and gold they seem to be it. There are some players with guaranteed contracts but with only 4 roster spots open behind these guys that guaranteed contract doesn’t guarantee a place on the team.
The two players with guaranteed contracts that look like they’re going to be the odd men out are, Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre. Ryan Kelly showed some promise, and playing out of position last season didn’t help his perception, but the PF position looks pretty stacked with Brandon Bass, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr all vying for playing time. He’s going to have to ball out in training camp and preseason to win the spot but the odds are against the oft injured stretch-4. He has surprisingly good handles for his size to compliment his outside shooting ability, his defense leave some to be desired and he lacks in athleticism. Maybe Detroit will throw a second rounder our way for him, I hear Stan Van Gundy likes stretch-4s. Robert Sacre can ride a bench, wave a towel, and fire off finger guns better than anyone else in the league. His celebrations per game are head and shoulders above the league, only Kent Bazemore comes close. On the court, Sacre rarely saw minutes outside of garbage time, and with good reason. Last season we witnessed what he can do with 16 minutes a game on the depleted Lakers roster, and he isn’t particularly good, he didn’t fill a niche. Usually you can point to something and say “He does that pretty good”, but Sacre doesn’t have that. I think Bobby Sacre may have run his course in the NBA. With these two out of the picture what will the Lakers do with the remaining 4 spots? There are a few intriguing players at the training camp.
Metta World Peace. The man demand attention wherever he goes, and when he was offered a contract to go train with the team in Hawaii LA was buzzing. Despite his faults LA loves Metta, he saved us in the finals and cemented himself as a bit of a folk hero to the Lakers fan base. While Lakers fans shouldn’t expect too much in terms of on court production, Metta as a veteran presence would be invaluable to this young team. While he’s not a complete shell of his former self, Metta has lost a step or two in terms of speed, his strength is still there but in today’s fast-paced NBA giving the 35 year-old wing too many minutes may hamper the team. But Metta will bring a toughness to the team, something Byron Scott loves, and another defensive mind to a team that had a bottom 5 defense last season. Metta World Peace has already spent some time playing with the young guys this summer, particularly Julius Randle, and many of the players have walked away a bit bruised but grateful to have such a smart guy helping them out. Mitch Kupchak has already stated that Metta has to earn his spot on the team, he says he isn’t going to cut a promising young talent simply because of Metta’s history in the Purple and Gold. I have no problem with Metta taking a roster spot. I understand the hesitation of signing an aging wing but the Laker’s depth at small forward is pretty thin so Metta adds some depth there. And if he can instill some of that defensive intensity and work ethic, that Kobe himself respected, into these young guys than I say he will be a valuable member of the team. Plus, imagine Swaggy P and Metta World Peace in the same locker room.
The other veteran that I can see making the team is Marcelo Huertas, the 32-year-old point guard from Brazil. Huertas is a pass first style of point guard with experience in the Spanish League and the Brazilian National Team. There is something about an international presence that sounds like it would have a positive experience on the team. He can also help mentor both of the young guards. Kobe obviously has a lot of insight but a true playmaking point guard approaches and views the game in a different manner. D’Angelo Russell has that playmaking gene and having a veteran with a similar playstyle will help him get comfortable faster. Having another playmaker will help balance out this team loaded with scorers like Kobe, Lou Williams and Nick Young. Huertas also has the ability to spread the floor with a dependable three point shot, which can help out a team with some of the worst three point shooting last season. Huertas would be a great complimentary piece to the scoring weapons already on the team and offers a unique perspective to help develop the young guard duo or Russell and Clarkson.
Perhaps the biggest enigma at the Laker’s training camp has been Robert Upshaw, who could end up being the biggest steal of the draft. The true 7 foot center went undrafted after some behavioral/drug issues saw him get ousted out of the University of Washington, despite his nation high 4.5 blocks per game. The league chose to steer clear of Upshaw, seeing him as a potential locker room poison despite once being touted as a first round talent. The Lakers saw him as a clear low/zero risk high reward. If he doesn’t work-out it’s easy to cut him, if he works then the secure themselves a diamond in the rough at a position they severely require depth at. So far it looks like LA has made a wise decision. He had a rough summer league, but given the fact that he was away from basketball activities for the better part of six months it made sense that Upshaw would have some trouble on the court. The Lakers saw something they liked, and Mitch Kupchak ever so intelligently beguiled the rest of the league in the opposite direction. In interviews he stated that Upshaw was very raw and it’s too soon to talk about him. Then bam Upshaw gets offered a contract. In training camp Upshaw has already proven his dedication by dropping 25 pounds and consistently putting in the effort. I see Upshaw as a future Laker. With a guy like Roy Hibbert to help him out and the Lakers Hall of Fame line-up of past big men Upshaw may have landed in the best position possible in order to get his career and head in the right direction. I already think he’s better than Robert Sacre, so there is no harm in giving him the chance to prove why he was a projected lotto pick.
Now there is the question of the franchise player, Kobe Bryant. For twenty years Kobe has been wearing the purple and gold. He’s now the oldest player on the team and it looks he’s going to have to hand over the reins of the franchise to one of these kids. Thankfully, Kobe initial impressions of the young guys have been good. D’Angelo Russell, the heir apparent, requested to have his locker placed right next to the Black Mamba in an effort to have constant access to the 5x Champion. In a recent interview Kobe has stated that Russell has already earned some of his respect with his love for the game and embracing the grind. Kobe is notorious for having the most intense work ethic in the league, and he expects nothing less from his teammates. In other interviews Kobe has stated that he’s willing to let the young guys handle the ball, and during the 5v5 scrimmages you can see Kobe doing just that. He let Russel and Clarkson handle the ball as he moved around the three point line looking for cutting angles and watching the young guards move the rock. All of these are good signs that Kobe doesn’t feel the need to have to do everything himself, which in turn allows the young guys to develop more and reduces the risk of injury to Bryant. After 3 major injuries in the last 2 seasons the biggest concern is seeing one of the best basketball players of all time standing at the end of the season, post-season I mean. People are concerned that Kobe won’t be himself, but I am optimistic that he will play a lot better than people think. His last injury was a shoulder injury, meaning that he had months to rest up his legs. His new willingness to let others handle the ball means that we may potentially see less Kobe slithering his way through the paint, but we will still get Kobe moments. Already, Bryant has been hitting his new teammates with turnaround fade aways and pump fake up and unders. Bryant still has the best footwork in the league and that doesn’t just go away. The Black Mamba is still deadly. I see this Lakers team following their leader and surprising the league.
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