Predicting Los Angeles Lakers' Opening Night Lineup Under Byron Scott
True, said honeymoon lasted all of about 3.4 seconds, but that's a lifetime in Laker Land. Hired as Mike D'Antoni's replacement only days ago, as first reported by ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne, Scott has some preseason planning to do.
He has an opening-night starting lineup to configure.
In years past, fielding a starting five was easy. The Lakers' rotation was set in stone as they continued chasing championships. Even when they made trades and free-agency acquisitions, their agenda remained clear.
Life isn't so cut and dry nowadays. The Lakers are entering another transition year. Expectations are lower than normal, yet they're still expected to pursue relevancy as they bide time and cap space in anticipation of summer 2015.
One aspect of their starting lineup is etched in marble. Four of the five slots, though, are—theoretically—up for grabs.
Who will they go to?
Scott has a couple months before he must render a definitive decision, but in the Land of Impatience, it never hurts to deliver answers now.
As in right now.
Point Guard: Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin wasn't brought in to be the Lakers' sixth man.
If Steve Nash was even half of the ageless player he was with the Phoenix Suns, Scott would have a difficult decision to make. But Nash has appeared in just 65 games over the last two years and his once-spotless health bill is officially depressing.
Nash doesn't figure into the Lakers' long-term plans, and though Lin may not either, he most certainly could. He'll be only 26 when the regular season begins, almost 15 years Nash's junior.
Starting point guards who aren't coached by Gregg Popovich typically log heavy minutes. Nash can't come in and be good for 30-plus ticks; Lin can be. And not unlike Nash, he fits into Scott's point guard-centric offensive theme. The Lakers' new head coach prefers to structure offenses around floor generals who can initiate pick-and-rolls and run drive-and-kicks in volume.
During Scott's three-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, nearly 40 percent of offensive possessions ending in field-goal attempts came within pick-and-rolls and spot-up opportunities, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Fielding a healthy point guard capable of bearing playmaking responsibilities is of the utmost importance to his admittedly ineffective offense.
"If you asked me, or I think if you asked any player, I think they'll believe that they're capable of starting," Lin said, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "But I think if there's anything I've learned from this past year, it's really not that much about who starts. I think it's more about who finishes and how you play with the time that you're given."
For Lin, it's about how he starts and finishes games.
Because he's going to do both.
Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant
Xavier Henry is going to be angrier than Justin Bieber at a hookah bar that doesn't serve shirtless miscreants.
In what most definitely comes as an all-time shock, Kobe Bryant will be Scott's starting shooting guard. Mind-blowing, right?
Seriously, though, this is the biggest formality ever. If Bryant is healthy, he's going to play; and if he's going to play, he's going to start.
Next year isn't about the Lakers moving away from their Bryant-or-die dynamic. It's one last season—before they embark on a spending binge in 2015—during which the Black Mamba will be asked to carry the Lakers as far as he can, like Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explains:
The Lakers already have been very clear about their desire to empower Bryant and help him finish his career with a flourish. Not only did Bryant get that rich contract extension, but Scott will acquiesce to Bryant on offense far more than D'Antoni did. And the new roster assembled around Bryant might not challenge for a championship, but it will definitely defer to him, too.
There is no decision here.
Bryant has been the Lakers' everyday starting shooting guard when healthy since 1998-99. At some point that will change.
Just not before he retires.
Small Forward: Wesley Johnson
Here are a few pressing things we know about Scott:
- He values defense.
- His offenses can be frighteningly pedestrian.
- He's old school.
- His arms are crossed 23 hours a day.
Defense is what Scott emphasizes above all else. And, wouldn't you know it, the Lakers aren't built to defend.
Allow us to list Lakers players who are capable of locking down opposing wing scorers:
- Wesley Johnson
- The 2003-04 version of Kobe Bryant
That's not much to work with, hence Johnson's inclusion here. He didn't do enough last season to earn a multiyear contract, but he's Los Angeles' best wing defender at the moment.
Opponents converted only 40.9 percent of their field-goal attempts against him last season, which is saying something since offenses drilled 46.7 percent of their shots overall against the Lakers, per Synergy.
Johnson also connected on a career-high 36.9 percent of his three-pointers, so he has value as an off-ball scorer on a Lakers team that will use its offense to remain in games.
Starting him alongside defensive unknowns such as Lin and Bryant is the smart play. Really, it's the only play for Scott, who is already preaching defensive responsibility.
"He [Bryant] told me he was working out with Wesley [Johnson] and Nick [Young]," Scott said, via Shelburne. "I told them that sounded great, but 'they better be ready to play some defense.'"
At least one of them, Johnson, will be, so it's best to start him and hope he can help the Lakers defense become something more than a punching bag for opposing offenses.
Power Forward: Carlos Boozer
Meet Carlos Boozer, the Lakers' starting power forward.
People are going to lobby for rookie Julius Randle to start at the 4, and rightly so. The No. 7 overall pick is a future building block who, unlike Boozer, isn't considered a makeshift placeholder.
But the Lakers didn't claim Boozer off amnesty waivers just to bench him. Picking him up was a win-now move—or a try-to-win-now move—that goes against those thinking the Lakers are tanking.
If they were going to tank, the Lakers would start Randle alongside the inexperienced Ed Davis, let mayhem ensue and call it a season. That's not the plan.
"He’ll help the Lakers win more now as opposed to bringing in a big man to develop for the future," NBC Sports' Kurt Helin wrote of Boozer. "That said he’s not going to help them win much."
Making the most of Bryant's twilight—as dark as it looks sometimes—demands Boozer start. That's where he can help the Lakers win most as an inside-out scorer and double-double threat. Randle will need time to develop, and so long as Bryant is playing and thinking that he can carry the Lakers back to the postseason, they will start sidekicks who complement his motives.
Randle isn't one of those players; Boozer is.
"Absolutely," Boozer said upon being introduced as a Laker, per the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus.
Spoken like a veteran power forward who knows and understands the plan.
Center: Jordan Hill
Part of me believes Davis should be the Lakers' opening-night starting center. Fine, all of me believes he should be placed within the starting five.
He won't be.
Jordan Hill, while not ideally sized at 6'10", will be the starting center. All signs point to it. They were pointing to it before Scott was even hired, per Ding:
Besides what Bryant referred to as a "tremendously close relationship throughout the years" with Scott, the Lakers' re-signing Hill was the one new element that could match up especially well if Scott is the coach.
Scott puts a premium on defense and rebounding, and he believes Hill was underutilized as a Laker because of D'Antoni. Bear in mind how fantastic a newly acquired Hill was for Mike Brown in the Lakers' two-round 2012 playoff run.
"Underutilized" is one way to put it. Magic Mike's system marginalizes the talents of big men who cannot shoot threes or mid-range jumpers. That left Hill to average under 21 minutes a night, which was and remains inexcusable.
Only five other qualified players held a higher offensive rebounding percentage than Hill last season (13.8); he ranked in the top 10 of overall rebounding percentage (19) as well. His gritty, scrappy work ethic will be invaluable to the atypically assembled Lakers.
They aren't built to run the floor or play especially physical, nor do they possess players exalted for endless supplies of energy and boundless motors. There's Bryant (if he's healthy), Randle (he seriously never stops running) and Hill (all the rebounds).
Plus, let's be honest: The Lakers aren't paying Hill $9 million to come off the bench. His contract is the byproduct of Los Angeles' active refusal to dell out long-term deals, but it's worth still means something.
Players earning nearly eight figures annually are going to start more often than not. Don't expect the Lakers to buck said trend with their glass-crashing fiend.
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