The Future of the Los Angeles Lakers' Frontcourt

Towards the end of the 2016-2017 regular season, Lakers’ Head Coach Luke Walton deployed a variety of lineup combinations as he searched for the best way to use his young big men. Neither Julius Randle nor Larry Nance Jr. posses the size to effectively guard the center position, yet there were several games in which they both started alongside each other in the frontcourt. As it became clear the Lakers were tanking, playing time for young players evolved into much more of a priority than winning defensive battles or individual matchups. Walton is a coach that is known for favoring veteran players over younger ones, but he became increasingly open to giving Nance, Randle, and Ivica Zubac extended run over the second half of the season. 

The increased minutes had to come at the expense of someone. Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng were phased out of the rotation by mid-year, despite signing fairly large contracts in the prior offseason. Other than Randle and Nance, Zubac entered the frontcourt picture as well. Although the 7’1” Croatian played sparingly, he had moments where he flashed potential. Zubac’s best game of the season came on March 13th against the Nuggets, as the teenager showed off an impressive skill set around the basket. Zubac would celebrate his 20th birthday five days later, but not before he left Denver with a double-double and a career-high 25 points. Zubac looked extremely impressive, stuffing the stat sheet and filling the highlight reel:

Lakers' Boast Significant Size at Center 

With an array of post moves and outstanding height, it is easy to see why much of Los Angeles is intrigued by the mysterious prospect from overseas. Despite his skill and potential, Zubac still has a long way to go on the defensive end as he was ranked in the bottom twelve percent or worse in both post-up and isolation defense last season. Zubac’s limited playing time during his rookie year presents us with small sample sizes, but one can reasonably expect his defensive numbers to improve in year two. Once Zubac bulks up a bit and gets more experience under his belt, there is no reason he can’t become a quality NBA center. Fortunately for Los Angeles, he won’t be rushed, as the Lakers have the luxury of leaning on newly acquired All-Star Brook Lopez. After coming over in the D’Angelo Russell trade, Lopez instantly becomes the Lakers’ best threat at the center position since Dwight Howard Pau Gasol.

Lopez, unlike past Laker centers such as Gasol, Howard, and Andrew Bynum, can play both close to and away from the basket, giving the Lakers offense much-needed versatility that floor general Lonzo Ball can surely use to his advantage. Last season in Brooklyn, Lopez was able to operate successfully as the featured offensive player in a variety of ways. He was equally effective posting up as he was in transition, indicating above average athleticism for a big man. Operating as Brooklyn's key offensive cog, Lopez was asked to come off of screens every now and then, something he struggled with. Fortunately, this is likely not something he will be asked to do as he returns to his home state of California. The Nets were desperate enough for offense last season that they ran several plays featuring the 7-footer coming off of screens, rather than setting them, which seems a bit puzzling, given Lopez's size and lack of elite quickness. The Stanford product should be able to have success setting screens and working in the pick and roll with Lonzo Ball, as Lopez offers an upgrade over the likes of Julius Randle in that aspect. Lopez can stretch the floor far better than Randle, and his size allows him to shoot over just about anybody. Not known for the three-point shot prior to last year, Lopez connected on nearly two per game for the Nets in the 2016-2017 season. This is certainly a very interesting addition that Lopez was able to make to his offensive repertoire. While the Lakers don’t necessarily have weak shooters, they don’t have any starters that profile as dead eye long range shooters. New starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a streaky player capable of making threes, but not to the point of making a defense gameplan around him. Having a center who is above average in this area certainly bodes well for floor spacing and offensive flow, as well as the development of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.

In addition to being a California native, Lopez practically grew up in the Lakers' backyard as he was born in nearby North Hollywood. He later attended Stanford University, where he played alongside his twin brother Robin Lopez before both brothers ultimately entered the league. Just like his brother, Robin---currently with the Chicago Bulls---came into the league with a fair amount of hype surrounding him. Brook is the more athletic one of the two and has a much better offensive skill set. Robin is an effective player in his own right but tends to stay closer to the basket and operate as more of a traditional center. When he isn’t getting in fights with Serge Ibaka and different mascots across the league, Robin Lopez is a pretty decent center. Brook is entering not only his homecoming season but his contract year as well, so he should be highly motivated to have his best season yet. That should be music to the ears of Lakers fans, who will gladly embrace Ball and Ingram being able to play alongside an All-Star caliber center. While not expected, the added potential of Zubac expanding his game by learning from Brook Lopez certainly doesn’t hurt either. It remains to be seen if Lopez is in the Lakers’ long-term plans or if this is just a one-year rental, but Lopez’s play likely has a big say in the matter. In the eyes of the front office, developing great chemistry with Ball and Ingram could be equally important as stuffing the stat sheet. Lopez is certainly capable of doing the latter, as we take a look at part of his diverse offensive skill set that was on display last season:

Play Types % Time Poss Points PPP Rank Rating FGm FGM FGA FG% aFG% %TO %FT %SF %Score
Post-Up 27% 406 393 0.968 76% Very Good 132 145 277 52.30% 52.30% 18.20% 17.50% 15.80% 48.50%
Spot Up 20.90% 315 321 1.019 64% Good 171 112 283 39.60% 52.30% 6% 7.30% 7.30% 39%
P&R Roll Man 16.70% 251 270 1.076 61% Good 116 97 213 45.50% 52.30% 5.20% 12.40% 12.40% 48.20%
Transition 6.30% 95 119 1.253 77% Very Good 37 44 81 54.30% 66.70% 8.40% 10.50% 10.50% 51.60%
Cut 6% 91 120 1.319 63% Good 24 46 70 65.70% 65.70% 6.60% 20.90% 20.90% 67%
Isolation 6% 90 80 0.889 62% Good 41 30 71 42.30% 43% 10% 17.80% 16.70% 44.40%
Offensive Rebounds (putbacks) 6% 90 105 1.167 69% Very Good 34 39 73 53.40% 53.40% 4.40% 18.90% 18.90% 57.80%
Off Screen 4.30% 65 50 0.769 26% Below Average 38 19 57 33.30% 36.80% 4.60% 9.20% 9.20% 36.90%
Hand Off 1.60% 24 28 1.167 90% Excellent 10 10 20 50% 65% 12.50% 4.20% 4.20% 45.80%
Miscellaneous 4.80% 72 37 0.514 53% Good 10 10 20 50% 55% 61.10% 11.10% 2.80% 25%

In a move that hardly anybody saw coming, Los Angeles also signed Aussie big man Andrew Bogut. The former NBA Champion has been plagued by injury issues over the last couple of seasons, but when healthy, he is an excellent contributor on the glass as well as on the defensive end. The move was somewhat questionable as Bogut's signing poses a significant threat to the potential playing time of Ivica Zubac as well as rookie center Thomas Bryant. However, when Bogut does take the court he generally plays in short bursts in order to maximize his effectiveness and prevent fatigue. We can reasonably project Bogut to see no more than 15 minutes per game, meaning Zubac and Bryant will still have chances to contribute. At the end of the day, a plethora of size up front is a good problem to have. Over the course of an 82 game NBA season, it is inevitable that most 7 footers will end up missing at least some time due to injuries or rest. With such a deep front line, the Lakers' appear ready to withstand the injury bug should it come. Lonzo Ball will certainly be thankful to have a full complement of help on deck as the new face of the franchise looks to lead the Lakers' back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

Julius Randle’s Future

The front office indeed will have their eyes fixated on Brook Lopez's play throughout the season as they try to determine his future with the team. Lakers' Team President Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka have each publicly stated their desire to acquire two max-salary free agents next offseason, putting Julius Randle’s future in purple and gold firmly in doubt. Randle is certainly a talented player, but he hasn’t played on a level that would warrant a max extension. Randle is entering his third full season in the league after breaking his leg just fourteen minutes into his rookie year. When the former Kentucky Wildcat hits free agency in the summer of 2018, he is expected to command upwards of 15 million dollars per year. The Lakers will almost assuredly let another team step up and pay that price, as they would much rather spend that money on a free agent superstar such as Paul George, LeBron James, or dark house candidates Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins. While many will be quick to suggest the Lakers hold on to Randle, advanced statistics lead to the conclusion that the 6'9" forward is actually a very inefficient player. In a Lakers offense led by Lonzo Ball, we can expect to see the rookie point guard continue to be a pass-first player who defers to his teammates quite frequently. While Randle is quite capable of filling up the stat sheet, he often needs to be a ball dominant player in order to do so, similar to Marcus Morris of the Celtics. The prospect of Randle being in a ball dominant role certainly doesn't bode well for Ball's ability to run the offense and get his teammates in a rhythm. It certainly doesn't help Randle's case that he checks in with below average grades in several key offensive areas, such as driving to the basket, mid-range shooting, long-range shooting, and passing ability. For a slightly undersized player with this many question marks and inefficiencies, it isn’t hard to see why Randle may not fit into Johnson and Pelinka’s long-term plans.  Whether he was looking to score or pass, Randle didn't exactly prove himself to be the type of player that will mesh well with Lonzo Ball. Long term, the Lakers' would be better served to move on without Randle, as he poses a significant risk of bogging down the offense due to his inefficient style of play. The table below highlights Randle's offensive weaknesses, which give us an indication of the precise areas in which he could hurt, rather than help the Lakers' offense. 

Play Types

% of Time

Poss

Points

PPP

Rank

Rating

FGm

FGM

FGA

FG%

aFG%

%TO

%FT

%SF

%Score

 Transition
18.60% 199 207 1.04 0.39 Average 58 80 138 58% 58.30% 0.176 0.186 0.191 0.518
 Isolation
15.60% 167 136 0.814 0.48 Average 73 53 126 42.10% 42.10% 0.132 0.156 0.138 0.425
 Spot Up
12% 129 105 0.814 0.21 Below Average 66 42 108 38.90% 43.10% 0.109 0.07 0.07 0.372
 Post-Up
10.90% 117 81 0.692 0.15 Below Average 57 31 88 35.20% 35.20% 0.145 0.12 0.12 0.359
 P&R Roll Man
10.90% 117 117 1 0.46 Average 44 50 94 53.20% 55.30% 0.128 0.077 0.077 0.496
 Cut
10.20% 109 121 1.11 0.26 Below Average 38 48 86 55.80% 55.80% 0.083 0.174 0.174 0.55
 Hand Off
1.40% 15 11 0.733 0.25 Below Average 8 5 13 38.50% 38.50% 0.133 0.067 0.067 0.333
Off Screen
1.20% 13 9 0.692 0.18 Below Average 8 3 11 27.30% 31.80% 0.077 0.154 0.154 0.308
Pick and Rolls Including Passes
2.30% 27 21 0.778 0.2 Below Average 13 8 21 38.10% 45.20% 0.148 0.074 0.074 0.37
Post-Ups Including Passes 14.20% 165 126 0.764 0.15 Below Average 84 49 133 36.80% 39.50% 0.115 0.091 0.091 0.37
Mid-Range Shots 30.80% 57 36 0.632 0.18 Below Average 39 18 57 31.60% 31.60% 0% 0% 0% 0.316
3 Point Shots 31.40% 58 48 0.828 0.17 Below Average 42 16 58 27.60% 41.40% 0% 0% 0% 0.276
Isolation Player's Offense 82.30% 167 136 0.814 0.48 Average 73 53 126 42.10% 42.10% 0.132 0.156 0.138 0.425
Isolation Passes Offense 17.70% 36 28 0.778 0.13 Poor 22 11 33 33.30% 40.90% 0.028 0.056 0.028 0.333
Drives Middle 78% 32 24 0.75 0.28 Below Average 18 11 29 37.90% 37.90% 0.031 0.063 0.031 0.406
Dribble Jumper 50% 16 9 0.562 0.25 Below Average 11 4 15 26.70% 26.70% 0% 0.063 0.063 0.313
To Basket 37.50% 12 10 0.833 0.25 Below Average 7 5 12 41.70% 41.70% 0% 0% 0% 0.417
 Draw and Kick Results 75% 36 28 0.778 0.13 Poor 22 11 33 33.30% 40.90% 0.028 0.056 0.028 0.333
Pass To Spot Up 88.90% 32 22 0.688 0.13 Poor 21 8 29 27.60% 36.20% 0.031 0.063 0.031 0.281

Kyle Kuzma Adds Excitement To The Lakers’ Frontcourt

Possibly making the decision even easier to let Randle walk in free agency is the arrival of Kyle Kuzma, yet another forward with immense potential. The Lakers drafted Kuzma out of Utah with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft. Johnson was able to work his Magic, acquiring the pick from Houston at the trade deadline in exchange for sixth man Lou Williams, in what was a mutually beneficial trade. While Williams presented a much-needed depth and scoring addition for the Rockets, the Lakers knew they weren’t making the playoffs and preferred to add a draft pick rather than keep Williams. Sending Sweet Lou to the Lone Star State meant the veteran combo guard would be able to help out a contender down the stretch, and subsequently the Lakers would be able to add young talent for the coming season. The Lakers' did just that with the selection of the 6’9” forward Kuzma. The NBA Summer League was very kind to Kyle, as he averaged 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists while in Las Vegas. In addition, Kuzma was named MVP of the championship game as he dropped 30 points in the win as fellow rookies Ball and Josh Hart played little to no minutes respectively, due to minor injuries. Before exiting the championship game, Summer League MVP Lonzo Ball harmonized with fellow rookies Kuzma and Alex Caruso, as the trio co-authored several exciting performances.

On the surface, Kuzma doesn’t project to receive as much playing time as Randle or Nance this year at the power forward position. The most likely scenario seems to be one in which Kuzma plays about 10-15 minutes on most nights while receiving extended run in blowouts. However, there may be other ways that Kuzma can get on the floor other than just at the reserve power forward spot. In comments made to silverscreenandroll.com, Kuzma said “I wouldn’t call myself a four. I would call myself a basketball player who can play multiple positions and can guard multiple positions too.” With this type of versatility, as well as his noted chemistry with Ball, Luke Walton’s hand may be forced sooner than later, as he may find it impossible to keep Kuzma confined to a limited role.

The Lakers have reportedly always been high on Larry Nance, who is a very athletic and promising power forward in his own right. The front office’s affection for Nance makes the selection of Kuzma in the draft that much more meaningful. With the Lakers’ brass seemingly being so keen on Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance, Julius Randle seems all but guaranteed to be wearing a different jersey by the start of the 2018-2019 season.

Brandon Ingram, The Back End Of The Roster, And More

Brandon Ingram should spend nearly all of his time at the small forward spot, but is a candidate to steal some minutes here and there at the four in small ball lineups. The Lakers are said to be on board with the NBA trend of “position-less basketball” which could present us with the opportunity to watch the hyper-athletic triad of Ingram, Nance, and Kuzma on the floor together in limited bursts, most likely at the end of quarters. Luol Deng may crack the rotation sparingly at the three or four, although he is far removed from his days as an effective and versatile forward in Chicago and Miami. The Lakers’ roster is rounded out by a trio who should play very parsimoniously. Rookie center Thomas Bryant of Indiana and Stephen Zimmerman provide size in place of the departed Thomas Robinson and Tarik Black. Corey Brewer, a “3 and D wing” who came over in the Lou Williams trade, likely won’t see much game action this season.

What To Watch For

At the end of the day, this will be another building year for the Lakers, but this time with higher expectations. It will be extremely entertaining to see this revamped, athletic roster try to sneak in the playoffs, but the real intrigue will come from watching how the playing time in the frontcourt shakes out. We know Brandon Ingram’s role as starting small forward is secure, as he projects to lead the team in minutes. The roles that Randle, Nance, Kuzma, and Zubac take on this season could very well be an indication on how the organization values them moving forward. Ultimately, how the Lakers mold their roster will directly correlate with their ability to attract high-profile superstars. 


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