The Los Angeles Lakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, they want to win, not only for the sake of Kobe Bryant (and his two-year, $48.5 million extension), but also because they're the Lakers and that's what they do. On the other hand, L.A. would be hard-pressed to compete for anything more than the seventh or eighth seed in the crowded Western Conference—if even that—given the mish-mash of a roster it now has on hand.
At least one member of the organization, though, seems to like what Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss have done with the place. "I like the roster Mitch and Jim have put together, a mix of youth and experienced guys, and I'm looking forward to working with them," new head coach Byron Scott said at his introductory press conference, via Mike Trudell of NBA.com.
It'll be up to Scott to decide whether youth or experience wins out, particularly as it pertains to the Lakers' frontcourt. The Lakers loaded up at power forward this summer—first by adding Julius Randle with the No. 7 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, then by signing Ed Davis and snatching Carlos Boozer off the amnesty waiver wire.
Davis figures to get the short end of the stick here, just as he did during his season-and-a-half with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The real intrigue here lies between Randle and Boozer. One of these two will start at power forward for the Lakers on opening night. Who gets the nod and how Scott sorts out that situation over the long haul of the 2014-15 campaign may prove a microcosm of the delicate crossroads at which the Lakers currently find themselves.
Randle is, for all intents and purposes, the future of the franchise. The 19-year-old Dallas native was a productive prodigy during his lone season at Kentucky. He averaged 15 points on 50.1 percent shooting from the field and 7.2 free-throw attempts to go along with 10.4 rebounds per game as a freshman.
At 6'9" and 250 pounds, Randle was a man among boys in college. He had little trouble bullying his way to the basket and outhustling opponents on the boards while in Lexington.
Skills like Randle's tend to translate well to the NBA. Still, there will be a learning curve to overcome, just as there was for Randle with the Lakers at Summer League in Las Vegas. He struggled somewhat in Sin City—predictably so, since he didn't sign his rookie contract until a half-hour before his first game and, hence, didn't practice with the Lakers until after that—but still managed to contribute 12.5 points and 4.3 rebounds to the cause.
"It really was just getting back on the court for me," Randle told WTVQ-DT in Lexington. "You know, basketball is basketball. I'll say, I thought the game was a lot easier, just because of the spacing and stuff. But it was definitely a learning experience as well as, you know, getting my feet wet."
Randle will need more than a splash of water on his toes to become L.A.'s next franchise cornerstone. Rather, he'll have to dive in head-first, to get a feel for the NBA game and adapt to it accordingly.
There's something to be said, though, for bringing Randle along gradually. He's young, with a burgeoning repertoire of inside-out skills that were scarcely seen during his days with the Wildcats. Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding caught a glimpse of them at Summer League:
What Randle did show on the court was how people who peg him as strictly a traditional, back-to-the-basket power forward are in for a surprise. More than Zach Randolph, the guys he resembled were Chris Bosh and Lamar Odom with an eagerness to face up and drive to his left.
Chances are, Randle's not going to look anything like Z-Bo, Bosh or Odom on Day 1. Heck, those guys all needed time to figure out the lay of the NBA landscape before they became All-Stars and championship-caliber cogs.
This is where Boozer can be a boon to Randle. Rather than block Randle's path to stardom, Boozer can show him the way.
Boozer's been down that road himself. He debuted in the NBA just three weeks shy of his 21st birthday. As the 34th pick in the 2002 NBA draft, Boozer didn't have to deal with the sort of pressure and expectations that Randle will face, though he's as familiar as any with many of the challenges that lie ahead for both of them.
Boozer was a rookie on a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that went 17-65 before landing the No. 1 pick that turned into LeBron James. Needless to say, he was witness to some historically bad basketball under then-head coach John Lucas, including Ricky Davis' embarrassing attempt at a triple-double.
The Lakers might not be that bad in 2014-15, but there are enough cracks in the foundation to suggest that another collapse, like the one they endured during last season's 27-55 debacle, may be in store. It'll be tough enough for this team to get things up and running smoothly under its fourth coach since 2011—fifth if you count Bernie Bickerstaff's short stint as the interim head coach in 2012.
Scott's attempt to right the ship won't be made any easier by the Lakers' lack of depth in the middle, their reliance on a banged-up backcourt that doubles as the oldest in NBA history and the perilous depth of the Western Conference.
The Lakers, by and large, aren't familiar with the sort of long-term losing that may await them, and neither is Randle. He won three state titles in his four years at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, and led Kentucky to within one win of an NCAA Tournament title as a freshman.
As with anything in the NBA, Randle will have to learn not only how to win at the highest level of the sport, but how to cope with the losing that's often part-and-parcel of the growing pains that highly drafted rookies endure.
Boozer endured plenty of bumps on the road to winning basketball, even after his calamitous introductory campaign. The Cavs went 35-47 during James' rookie year in 2003-04. Boozer joined the Utah Jazz the summer after that, only to endure two non-playoff seasons immediately upon arrival in Salt Lake City.
Boozer, though, was a key catalyst in Utah's rebuilding project following the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Come 2007, Boozer was an All-Star and the Jazz were playing in the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers might need that kind of time before they can so much as sniff another deep playoff run. Should that be the case, Randle could use some tutelage in the value of patience and persistence, with Boozer as the teacher.
Likewise, Randle will have to learn the same lessons about battling other top-notch bigs in the NBA that Boozer has taken in over the years. Randle's preferred position (i.e. power forward) looks to be as stacked as it's been in a long time this season, with the likes of Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins (to name a handful) fighting for supremacy. That won't leave Randle with many, if any, nights off—even fewer when considering that Randle might have to fill in at center from time to time in light of L.A.'s dearth therein.
Boozer, too, knows a thing or two about the trials and tribulations that Randle is soon to encounter. Boozer came up during the heydays of Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Jermaine O'Neal, Amar'e Stoudemire, Pau Gasol and Yao Ming. His move West to Utah in 2004 meant that he'd have to face many of these guys three or four times a year, if not more in the playoffs.
And yet, Boozer still managed to distinguish himself as a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA performer in 2007-08.
These and other bits of wisdom that Boozer has picked up over the course of his 12-year NBA career could be of considerable value to Randle, but he won't be able to take them all in overnight. Randle will need time to siphon off that knowledge from Boozer, along with the numerous other tasks on his to-do list. He'll have to adjust to a new life in a new city with new teammates, acclimate himself to the rhythms and rigors of in-season travel, deal with the attention that's a natural part of playing for the most popular basketball team in the world.
In essence, Randle has to learn what it takes to play in the NBA.
With Boozer around as a potential starter, Randle won't have to worry quite so much about doing all of that at once. He can ease his way into the NBA, rather than feeling the need to deliver on his considerable promise from the get-go.
And, for what it's worth, Boozer's no slouch himself—certainly not at the price point at which the Lakers landed him. It shouldn't take much for Boozer to justify the $3.25 million waiver claim the Lakers put in for him. Anything resembling the 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists he posted in 28.2 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls last season should suffice.
"Unexpectedly for us, our bid was the highest," Kupchak said in introducing Boozer as a Laker (via Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding).
The Lakers can't expect Boozer to pick up the slack he's tended to display on defense, or to reverse the ravages that time and wear-and-tear have wrought on his 32-year-old body. What they can do, though, is hope that Boozer will be a credit to the organization, as both an on-court contributor and off-court mentor for Randle, while he's in L.A.
Which may not be long. He'll be a free agent next summer, at which point he figures to pursue more money over more years elsewhere, perhaps with a team in better position to win right away. If Boozer performs well enough in the early going, he might even draw some interest as a trade chip ahead of the annual February deadline.
Whether Boozer stays or goes during the season, Randle will get his fair share of playing time. If the situation in L.A. sours, like it did in 2013-14, Randle figures to be thrown into the fire even further, especially if the front office takes the opportunity to sell off the team's assets for draft picks and prospects.
At that point, the Lakers can not only afford to endure tough times as Randle gets a handle on life in the NBA, but might be encouraged to do so. Their 2015 first-rounder will belong to the Phoenix Suns unless it falls within the top five.
But the Lakers aren't trying to lose, like, say, the Philadelphia 76ers. They want to win, and Boozer, for all his recent regression and long-standing faults, gives them a better chance to do that right now than does Randle.
If all goes according to plan, Randle will have no shortage of time to shine as a starter in purple and gold. He could be a cornerstone of the franchise for years to come, leading teams to far better outcomes than the ones in store for these Lakers. Getting there will take a while, whether Randle starts right away or waits his turn.
For the time being, it would make more sense for Scott to give Boozer the starting nod and let Randle watch and learn behind a seasoned veteran who's better equipped to give the Lakers a boost from Day 1.
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