The Los Angeles Lakers open training camp on Tuesday. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and the team's re-tooled cadre of veterans, former All-Stars, role players, and coaches will conduct Media Day then formally begin the quest for banner No. 18.
After a blockbuster summer befitting only of Hollywood, we can finally start swapping speculation for substance.
On that note, let's posit five essential questions as the Lakers get to work at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo.
1) Who will be there?
NBA teams can invite up to 20 players to training camp. Teams are allowed 15 spots on the active roster for guaranteed contracts, plus two two-way contracts — which enable players to shuffle between the G League (South Bay Lakers) and the pro squad.
Teams can also hand out up to six Exhibit-10 contracts, which are essentially training camp invites that offer bonuses should a player get cut and sign with that team's G League affiliate. An Exhibit-10 can later be converted into a two-way.
The Lakers have 18 hoopers in camp. After converting undrafted rookie Austin Reaves's contract from a two-way into a two-year deal (the second year is a team option), the Lakers have filled 14 of their 15 active roster spots. The last spot will be left open for a buyout pickup, per Rob Pelinka. A midseason addition carries a friendlier tax hit than signing a free agent now.
Los Angeles will have three other undrafted rookies in camp: Joel Ayayi (two-way), Mac McClung (Exhibit-10), and Chaundee Brown (Exhibit-10). 25-year old forward Cam Oliver will be present via E-10, too.
2) Is there any drama?
Vibes are all good…for now.
The Lakers are aiming to recreate the chemistry that helped them thrive in the bubble on the way to a title. LeBron organized three days of two-a-day workouts and team dinners in Las Vegas — similar to the preseason minicamp he hosted in 2019. (LeBron, Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Talen Horton-Tucker were at the Los Angeles Rams game together on Sunday. Multiple players and coaches recently attended AD's wedding.)
On Thursday, Pelinka specifically mentioned LeBron's faith in the roster — which, according to The Athletic, LeBron played an instrumental role in building from his “war room”/cigar lounge in Brentwood.
“You just get a sense he has a confidence in his teammates,” Pelinka told reporters. “He really does. When he looks around the locker room and sees the nameplates or the guys he's been on the court with, you can just tell he has a high level of confidence in his teammates and what this team can accomplish this season if we all lock in… It just feels like this group realizes that everyone's gonna have to set a little bit of a personal thing, or a selfish desire, aside, to come together and have the mindset of, ‘How do I make the guy next to me in the locker room great?' And it just feels like that's LeBron's mindset right now with his teammates. And he has a belief.”
Following the departure of (rightfully) disgruntled Marc Gasol, the Lakers locker room is (literally) full of happy campers — many of whom passed up money to contend for a championship in sunny California. The Lakers have consistently brought up “sacrifice” since free agency. Soon, we'll see if everybody truly means it.
At the moment. there are no trade rumors, nor gripes about playing time or contracts (unlike last season), as nearly everybody is new in town. Thankfully, there should be no vaccine-related issues (again, unlike last season), as Pelinka revealed that everybody on the team will be fully vaxxed by opening night vs. the Golden State Warriors (Oct. 19).
3) What shape are the guys in?
Based on scuttlebutt, social media footage, and the observations of Pelinka and Frank Vogel, the Lakers' individual players seem to be in tremendous shape.
Pelinka mentioned that LeBron has been working out at the facilities early in the morning, and “slimmed up” to re-gain some explosiveness heading into his 19th season. Davis, by various accounts, is swole-r than ever. He will perhaps be the biggest beneficiary of the extended offseason.
Westbrook is always in tip-top shape and will be as motivated as anybody considering his ecstasy about playing for his hometown team. At intro pressers last month, multiple Lakers spoke on their excitement to witness Westbrook's daily dedication.
Can’t wait to feed of this energy! 😤😤 https://t.co/kbS0Vn8bG5
— Kenny Baze (@24Bazemore) September 7, 2021
The Lakers' fourth highest-paid player, Horton-Tucker, looks to have slimmed up, too, as he makes an effort to improve his defense. (Vogel and Pelinka are publicly challenging him to go up a level on that end, and THT talked about honing his off-ball defensive skills.)
Dwight is always pumping iron and has been taking his workouts live on Instagram. Carmelo's workout videos have been as on-brand as ever. And so forth.
Nobody wants to be the one guy showing up to camp in subpar shape.
4) What is different?
Beyond the return to a normal offseason timeline and, well, the entire roster outside of LeBron, AD, and THT, the Lakers made notable staff changes and plan to alter their medical approach.
In terms of Vogel's assistants: Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins departed. David Fizdale and John Lucas III were hired, Mike Penberthy was promoted to a front-of-bench gig, while Phil Handy, Quinton Crawford, and Miles Simon — who will also helm the South Bay Lakers — are returning.
Vogel was rewarded with an extension, though just through 2022-23, per The Athletic.
The Lakers replaced former Head Trainer Nina Hsieh with Roger Sancho. Ed Streit was promoted to Head Strength and Conditioning Coach. Subsequently, the Lakers are re-thinking their conditioning and training strategy after an injury-riddled 2020-21 season. Pelinka said the team will move towards a more “customized model.”
Pelinka elaborated on the Lakers' new "customized model" re: their training and medical staff. He cited Tom Brady (along with modern TV and food-ordering habits) in discussing the Lakers' revised approach to keeping their players on the floor (Q by @MarkG_Medina) pic.twitter.com/MtK427pN5s
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) September 23, 2021
5) What do we know about the rotation and starting lineup?
The Lakers have 13 rotation-caliber players — counting DeAndre Jordan (arguable) and not counting Austin Reaves (TBD). Besides Reaves, everybody is either an accomplished veteran and/or has a case to be in the opening night rotation. (Reaves, whom LeBron pressured out of attending a friend's wedding to come to Vegas and run fun-loving errands, apparently impressed in the desert. He will likely spend chunks of the season in the G League.)
After Westbrook ($44.2 million in 2021-22), LeBron ($41.2 million), Davis ($35.4 million), Horton-Tucker ($10.2 million), and Kendrick Nunn ($5.9 million), everybody is on minimum deals.
Davis is expected to start at center, allowing the Lakers to start two wings — likely Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, or THT — alongside their three stars.
I asked Wayne Ellington about his elite off-ball movement. He mentioned (not surprisingly) Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen as inspirations, and believes his ability to create space for LeBron, Russ, and AD can be just as important to the Lakers as hitting 3s: pic.twitter.com/2VbDZYIePD
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) August 6, 2021
After that, the Lakers depth chart can manifest in a number of directions. Kent Bazemore — who believes the Lakers want him to play a substantial role and is one of their few versatile two-way options — and Nunn will begin the season in the rotation. Carmelo and Dwight are safe bets to see minutes off-the-bat, too.
The 2021-22 Lakers season will be full of unforeseen obstacles and variables, forcing Vogel to constantly tinker. Anthony and Westbrook talked about embracing the ups and downs of the campaign in their introductory remarks. One thing is certain: the Lakers will be more patient than #LakersTwitter.
Ultimately, training camp soundbites, preseason performance, and the opening night lineup are not what matters. The goal is to a) stay healthy and b) find the most effective lineup combinations and eight-t0-nine-man rotation come playoff time.
Let the journey commence.