As training camp for the 2023-24 NBA season nears, the Los Angeles Lakers have a very strong roster, and a good portion of their starting lineup seems set.
It is certain that LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves will start for them on opening night, barring some very strange developments. It is also presumed that D’Angelo Russell, acquired in February’s Russell Westbrook trade, will start at point guard, although there have been whispers that free agent acquisition Gabe Vincent could steal that spot from him.
The starting small forward spot is a different situation. It could be something of an open competition, or at least a question mark. There are three players, at least conceivably, who could end up getting that role for the Purple and Gold.
Hachimura mostly came off the bench after he arrived in a late January trade, but some, including The Athletic’s Jovan Buha, feel he is on track to move into L.A.’s starting lineup.
If the Japan native does so, he would give the team an ultra-potent starting five. Hachimura, James, Davis, Russell and Reaves can all score off the dribble and get buckets in bunches, which would put tons of pressure on opponents while giving the Lakers the ability to blitz opponents in the first six minutes of each game.
On the other hand, starting Hachimura may relegate him, at times, to being a spectator on offense, something which happened quite often during the regular season. There would be multiple advantages to making him L.A.’s sixth man, and one of them would be an opportunity for a defensive specialist to start instead.
Vanderbilt, perhaps the Lakers’ best defensive specialist, was their regular starter at small forward last season. In that role, he gave them a versatile defensive ace who could hover around and pick up featured scorers at various positions.
In a late February contest at the Dallas Mavericks, Vanderbilt effectively hounded Luka Doncic while also grabbing 17 rebounds and sparking a comeback from a big deficit that resulted in a win. At times in the first round of the playoffs, he guarded Ja Morant, who is six inches shorter than him.
Of course, the big bugaboo for Vanderbilt is his sporadic 3-point shooting. He shot just 30.3% from that distance in 26 regular season contests with the Lakers and 24.1% in the playoffs. Opposing teams would leave him wide open from the corner, and he would sometimes throw up enough bricks to put a dent in California’s homelessness crisis.
But if Vanderbilt simply shoots around the league average from downtown, he will start to make teams pay for leaving him open while arguably being the Lakers’ best option to start at the 3.
For the last few years, the Lakers lacked a true 3-and-D wing. Now they have at least one in Taurean Prince, a 6-foot-7 forward they signed in free agency earlier this summer.
In addition to being an effective defender, he has a career 3-point accuracy of 37.2%. He shot 38.1% from that distance last season, and he has said his goal is to hit 40% from downtown this coming season.
If he does so, an argument could be made he would be L.A.’s best candidate to start at the 3. Hachimura would then be an instant offense man off the bench, while perhaps Vanderbilt could be used to bring in some energy from the pine.