Heading into the 2018-19 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers retained only five players from last year’s roster, and the oldest of the five is only 23. As a result, the front office was on a mission this summer to sign veterans who could make an important contribution on the court while also mentoring the younger players.
Attempting to fill a similar niche the past few years, the team brought in veterans like Carlos Boozer, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Corey Brewer, Nick Young, Ronnie Price, Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. In their time with the Lakers, none was very successful on the court.
The veterans signed this year to be productive players and mentors are 32-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo, 30-year-old center JaVale McGee, 28-year-old swingman Lance Stephenson, 29-year-old forward Michael Beasley and 25-year-old guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Of course, there is also 33-year-old Lebron James, the best player on the planet. Aside from James, this is an eclectic and potentially combustible group of veterans.
James and Rondo are elite, and Caldwell-Pope is a solid player who will try again this year to earn a multi-year contract come free agency. The other three veterans are players who have never been able to stick with any one team for very long, but they have talent best utilized in short bursts.
Working to hold it all together, and hoping to bring out the best in each player, is Lakers head coach Luke Walton.
Excluding James, it is difficult to predict what the Lakers will get from the other veterans over the course of the season. One player who is in a good position to contribute is McGee.
A career reserve, it could be argued that McGee won the starting job at center by default as the team has no other viable options at that position. That would do him a disservice, however, for McGee is a good player who had a successful preseason.
Appearing in all six games, McGee played an average of 20 minutes while scoring 10.3 points on 63 percent shooting from the field and 76.5 percent from the free throw line, to go along with 6.3 rebounds.
The 20 minutes per game was double what he has played the last few seasons, and it is unrealistic to expect that he will play much more during the regular season. Still, while McGee is in the game, fans can expect a solid performance on both ends of the court including on defense where he can block and alter shots.
The key for McGee is staying healthy, which has frequently been a problem for him during his career. The Lakers front office is taking a huge gamble by starting the season with no viable big men behind him on the roster.
The Lakers can also count on a good contribution from Rondo, but how good may depend on the way the point guard minutes are divided between he and Lonzo Ball. Rondo has drawn raves from the front office, coaching staff and his fellow players, for his intelligence, his skill and willingness to be a mentor.
He had a very productive season last year in New Orleans and was particularly good in the playoffs, averaging 11 assists per contest and shooting over 40 percent from three-point range.
Rondo seems genuinely happy to be with the Lakers. A fierce competitor, one can assume he is pleased to be the starting point guard to begin the season playing alongside James, with Ball coming off the bench.
Caldwell-Pope was locked in a tight battle with Josh Hart for the starting shooting guard position until the latter injured his hamstring. Hart did not light up the preseason like he did at the end of last season and in the Summer League, so the starting nod went to Caldwell-Pope, at least to begin the year.
He also struggled the past two weeks, but in his final preseason game he scored 20 points in the first of back-to-back wins over the Golden State Warriors. Caldwell-Pope then was not immune to the Lakers’ shooting struggles in the season opener.
He’s a streaky shooter and someone who has reputation as a good defender but did not quite meet expectations in that category last season. On a team that showed almost no outside shooting in the preseason, the Lakers desperately need Caldwell-Pope to make his three-point shots.
His percentage improved significantly last season, but whether he can duplicate that feat remains to be seen.
Stephenson earned a spot in the rotation and will be playing a big role with the second unit which right now consists of Ball, Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Stephenson and a fifth player who may (or may not) turn out to be Michael Beasley.
Stephenson was a ball of energy in the preseason, playing 22.4 minutes per game and scoring 9.2 points on 45 percent from the field, 3.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds. He tended to dribble the ball too much, but that improved in the final two games.
Stephenson can be a pretty good rotation player if he keeps his emotions in check and becomes the tough-minded defensive stopper the Lakers need.
As for Beasley, he struggled more than anyone else the past two weeks and did nothing to warrant playing time when the regular season began. That said, the team is very weak at center and the rookies do not look ready to contribute in the short term.
If Walton goes with a 10-man rotation, it means that Beasley will be in the second unit and either he or Kuzma will try to play the 5 position.
That may prove to be a big challenge on some nights, but it looks like the Lakers is fully committed to playing small ball most of the time. There are few options: It is hard to envision McGee playing more than 20 minutes a game, Ivica Zubac does not seem to have earned regular playing time, and Moritz Wagner has been hurt since July and thus will be far behind when he is finally ready to play.
McGee, Stephenson and Beasley all have talent but haven’t consistently come close to living up to their perceived potential. Caldwell-Pope has had a solid career but is not expected to become elite.
Given the make-up of the roster, they will all get minutes, and the Lakers need some or all of them to have career years if the team is to meet or exceed expectations.
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