Picking a starting lineup is always fraught with risk—especially when you’ve got a new coach, several new players and a training camp that is still months away.
In fact, Byron Scott will probably work through a whole bunch of rotations before he finally finds an ideal combination, and that’s not even considering possible bugaboos like injuries—last season’s constant companion for the Los Angeles Lakers.
But we can’t be bothered with such disclaimers; it’s time to do some choosing!
First, remember that we’re not trying to guess what the starting lineup will look like on opening night, but instead perhaps an illusive semblance of idealism at an undetermined point along the way.
Starting point guard: Jeremy Lin
There’s a good chance Steve Nash will be in the starting lineup on opening night. In talking with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, trainer Gary Vitti said Nash has been playing unrestricted soccer this summer and is 100 percent healthy. But there’s no certainty with chronic injuries, and at age 40, it’s time for Nash to pass the starting baton.
The Lakers' ideal starting point guard this season will be Jeremy Lin.
Lin enjoyed dizzying heights of fame with the New York Knicks and searched for an identity with the Houston Rockets. Now it’s time to find his true home. The 6’3” guard is at his best with the rock in his hands, creating and driving to the basket in an open-floor system. He’ll have to adapt with the Lakers, facilitating more for others and learning to slow the pace down in order to best maximize opportunities for Kobe Bryant—still the team’s cornerstone.
Lin can do it, and he’ll have some help. During his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com, he spoke about learning from one of the best in Nash: “Now I have this opportunity. I can’t wait. I still remember him in Phoenix and he was 20 and 10 every night. I look forward to learning quite a few things from him.”
Starting shooting guard: Kobe Bryant
There’s really no guesswork in this one. After the longest layoff in his basketball career, Bryant will be returning to the game he loves so fiercely. Yes, he’s 35 years old and had a couple of freak injuries. Forget all that—Mamba is now entering a two-year extension that will likely end with his NBA retirement, and he’ll be pulling every trick from a long and legendary career in order to win and help his teammates learn how to win.
Whether anyone else thinks he can win a sixth championship is beside the point—that unrelenting quest still drives the beast.
Starting small forward: Wesley Johnson
To be honest, there isn’t an ideal scenario at the small forward position at the present. Lakers management failed to address a critical need over the summer. Bryant has played at the 3 before and will doubtless get some minutes there this season. Nick Young is also a possibility. But Young adds a lot of value anchoring the bench and a Lin/Bryant/Young combo could pose some defensive gaps.
The Lakers brought Wesley Johnson back on another one-year deal this summer. The hyper-athletic swingman has great length and size for his natural small forward position and while he has consistently underachieved as a starter in the league, he would add a nice defensive presence playing alongside Bryant.
Johnson was often used out of position as a power forward last season—blame Mike D’Antoni for that one. Scott won’t make that mistake. He’ll give Johnson his defensive marching orders and back him up with either Young or Xavier Henry.
Starting power forward: Julius Randle
It’s a fair bet that Carlos Boozer will be the starting power forward at the beginning of the season with Julius Randle coming off the bench. That won’t last however, and it shouldn’t. Randle is the clear choice of the future at the 4—he’s a rebounding fiend with size, speed and strength who likes to step out to mid-range where he can use ball-handling skills to either drive to the basket or pass to the open man.
Randle could also wind up playing some minutes at the small forward position in a tall trees lineup, but that creates some spacing as well as potential defensive liability issues.
The Lakers got a steal when they nabbed Randle as their No. 7 draft pick—he’s got an aggressive bull-in-a-china-shop mentality with a surprisingly varied skillset. With an NBA-ready body, a great motor and a hunger to win, Randle’s ready to play meaningful minutes in his rookie season. Scott will have this guy in the starting lineup before long.
Starting center: Jordan Hill
Here’s a choice that shouldn’t stir up any controversy. The Lakers will be paying Jordan Hill $9 million this year to do one thing—be their starting center. This will be a first for the 6’10” big man who, in five NBA seasons, has primarily come off the bench—channeling raw energy into limited blocks of intense activity.
Hill plays hard, and his crash-and-burn style has caused him to lose large chunks of time to injuries in the past. There’s the question of whether he can handle extended minutes and the wear and tear of being a starter in the league. But he’ll have plenty of backup support from Ed Davis and Robert Sacre, resulting in a solid three-headed rotation at the 5.
Sixth man: Nick Young
If there’s one guy you hate to leave out of this conversation, it’s Nick Young. But “Swaggy P” fills an important role as the team’s sixth man and, in fact, did it so well last season that he led the team in scoring and nabbed a long-term contract this summer.
Young may well start some games this season, but every team needs a good bench, and this guy is the definitive energy-booster—subbing in and destroying defenders, and being especially effective in transition as a spot-up shooter.
Who knows, maybe Scott will even turn the free-spirited scorer into a responsible defender. Anything is possible.
This starting unit has its flaws, but then again, so does the roster on the whole. It’s a fairly balanced lineup, however, with enough offensive firepower and an adequate level of ability at the defensive end. And if Scott can get these guys to truly commit to a help philosophy with shared responsibility, they'll do just fine.
It’s also worth noting that it’s the guys who close out games that matter the most. Perhaps there should be a category for “finishing five.”
The word “ideal” is a subjective one, and coaches aren’t generally so foolish as to predict their lineups before a season even begins. But if nothing else, this is a high-energy group with good size and athleticism. Will it be the Lakers’ starting five?
Only time will tell.