After a strong start to the season, the Los Angeles Lakers have normalized quite a bit. In part due to injuries and in part due to their deficiencies catching up to them, the Lakers have slowly approached the pace that we expected them to play at entering the season.
The last few weeks have been rough for the Lakers. The team has lost 12 of its last 14 games while battling injuries. Many of those games have been very winnable, either against poor competition or with the Lakers gaining large leads before blowing them in the second half.
But not everything has been bad for the Lakers. Even in the tough stretches, development has been key for the team, and there have been enough flashes to keep the hope alive.
Among the early developments for the purple and gold has been the addition of a true small-ball unit. The catalyst (no, not Marcelo Huertas) behind that development has been the improvements of Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr.
While Lakers fans spent the offseason debating whether Randle or Nance should be the starter moving forward and whether one of them should be traded, both players have worked on their games. That has led to individual growth, but more importantly, it has led to growth on a team level.
The Randle-Nance duo has posted a net rating of -1.1 (meaning the Lakers are outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions when the two share the court together). That’s not a great mark but there are a couple of factors that must be mentioned.
First, advanced metrics with two-man lineups should always be taken with a grain of salt. There is so much dependence on the other three players on the court that it does not fully encapsulate how two players have performed together.
That said, the Randle-Nance lineups have performed incredibly well offensively. They score 108.5 points per 100 possessions, more than five points higher than the Lakers’ average. That’s a legitimately great number that would rank sixth in the entire NBA if it stood for the whole team.
When watching the duo play together, it’s easy to see why they have so much success. Being able to play two athletic big men with above-average ball skills is a huge advantage for the Lakers.
Both Nance and Randle have the ability to grab a rebound and start the break on their own, although Randle certainly is more comfortable in doing so. And more importantly, both have become above average passers in the half-court offense. That passing has become especially evident between the two big men.
Randle has learned to drive with more control, drawing multiple defenders to him before dishing off to a smartly cutting Nance:
Nance, meanwhile, has become a quicker decision maker, catching the ball on the short roll when the ball handler draws two defenders and immediately finding Randle behind the defense in a 4-on-3 situation:
The Lakers (and really every team) are at their best when they have multiple good decision makers and playmakers on the court. Randle and Nance are both that to varying degrees and their comfort in playing off of each other and trading roles makes their on-court relationship all the more fruitful.
Defensively, there is still a lot left to be desired, although the combination’s defensive rating of 109.6 is actually slightly better than the Lakers’ (league-worst) team mark.
The issue there has not even necessarily been on defense. Nance has recently shown a decent ability to protect the rim and both players (like many others) tend to focus and show more effort when they know the team is undersized.
The true culprit in that high defensive rating is the Lakers’ inability to rebound the ball. The Lakers are already a fairly bad team on the defensive glass, ranking 22nd with a defensive rebound rate of 75.2 percent. When Randle and Nance share the court, that number plummets, with the Lakers grabbing only 71.4% of opponents’ misses. That number would rank as the worst in the NBA by more than two percentage points.
Randle and Nance haven’t necessarily done a poor job of rebounding either. They are quite clearly the two best players in the regular rotation at that role. However, the lack of size is evident when they play together and the Lakers’ perimeter players have not done an apt job of helping crash the glass.
Furthermore, Luke Walton has brought the concept of switching on nearly every action when he plays his small-ball lineups from the Warriors. That is an effective defensive strategy as both Randle and Nance have the agility to stick with perimeter players. But it often leaves them far away from the rim, unable to rebound misses.
Part of what has made the Lakers play well with this duo on the court has been the insane pace (103.9 possessions per 48 minutes). Walton is left with an interesting conundrum: keep the pace high by having guards leak out or fix the rebounding issue by having them crash the boards.
What is clear is that the Randle-Nance lineup has led to incredibly efficient offense (the Lakers have a true shooting percentage of 59.2 with them on the court, the highest among their two-man lineups with at least 100 minutes). The defense is a work in progress and should be aided with improvements on the glass whether through strategic changes or more player effort and intensity.
But this isn’t fool’s gold either. Even during last year’s disastrous season, that lineup held a positive net rating of 4.3 points per 100 possessions. They have nearly matched last year’s total in minutes (123 to 125) already and Walton should probably ramp up those minutes even more once Nance is back, although it won’t be easy with other deserving players in the frontcourt.
As it turns out, having two talented and multi-faceted power forwards on a single team is not a bad thing. The NBA is in the age of small-ball and Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. are developing into a formidable, if undersized, duo.