Frank Vogel Addresses Future Role for Lakers’ Expected New Signing

Lakers LeBron James (middle) and Stanley Johnson

Getty Lakers LeBron James (middle) and Stanley Johnson

For the short time that Stanley Johnson has been in Los Angeles with the Lakers, he has impressed, which might say as much about the Lakers’ desperate need for an athletic, defensive-minded NBA wing as it does for Johnson.

Still, Johnson arrived in L.A. on a 10-day hardship exemption contract signed on December 24, which means his tenure with the Lakers could be over after Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves—though he is expected to be signed for the remainder of the season. Point guard Rajon Rondo has cleared the league health-and-safety protocols, paving the way for completion of the trade that will send him to Cleveland, and forcing the Lakers to make final decisions on their current hardship guys, Johnson and Darren Collison.

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Coming back from the Cavaliers in the Rondo deal is forward Denzel Valentine, whose contract was only guaranteed for $500,000 and can be waived. The Lakers could use that spot to retain Johnson, at least in the short term.

“We’ll see,” coach Frank Vogel said the other day, addressing Johnson’s future. “We’re going to use the whole time to evaluate Stanley. I think he’s done a great job for us so far. His toughness and hustle is something that I think our team really needs. He has provided a valuable role in that regard, and we’ll continue to evaluate him during the duration of his contract.”

Johnson Provides Defensive Versatility

One of the nice things about Johnson, the Lakers have discovered, is that his defensive versatility can help the team as it changes its defense over the course of the season. The Lakers have been trying to go small on both sides of the ball more often, and that includes playing LeBron James at center more often.

In order to play that way, though, the Lakers need defensive wings who can guard multiple positions and provide help for James in the middle. They signed one such player, Trevor Ariza, but he has appeared in only three games thus far, first recovering from ankle surgery, then landing in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Even with Ariza healthy, it’s worth noting that he is 36 years old and the Lakers will badly need depth at the position. That’s where Johnson, who is 25 and has bounced through four teams in seven seasons, can come in. He’s averaged 8.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 26.3 minutes over four games so far.

His usefulness was obvious in the Lakers’ win over  Portland this weekend.

“What we saw in Stanley is just a little bit more foot speed with the Damian Lillard double-teams,” Vogel said. “There wasn’t a Nurkic out there that could really impose his size on us. So it’ll kind of be on a game-to-game basis, but that’s what we saw tonight and Stanley was great in that regard.”

Lakers’ Move to Deal Rondo Was Shrewd

Contractually, it all worked out well for the Lakers, who were not using Rondo this season and needed to be shrewd with their finances. They could have dropped Rondo and signed Johnson, but that would have given the team a significant luxury-tax hit.

Do the math on the Lakers’ luxury-tax payment bill, and trading Rondo for Valentine (who has earned $847,000 thus far this season) makes a lot of sense, as former executive and current ESPN analyst Bobby Marks explained:

From the Lakers’ perspective, they could have just sent out Rondo, but they would have had to taken something back, a draft pick, cash. As we talked about with Cleveland, the goal was to send back salary. Denzel Valentine goes back to the Lakers. … $847,072 is his cap hit, right? That goes to the dead cap-hit pile. That goes to the dead cap-hit pile. That allows the Lakers to do when Stanley Johnson’s hardship expires on January 2, they can sign him to a veteran minimum contract. His number would be right around $930,000. The Lakers play on January 4, I can see them, that is when they would sign that contract. So it is almost a wash.

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