Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton is a big believer in having a strong second unit of players to come off the bench and make an impact. In his final season as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, the team obviously let their stacked starting lineup do most of the heavy lifting, but their depth and second unit played a major role in their historic 73-win season.
Walton has certainly tried to replicate a similar identity back with the Lakers, doing what he can to keep his bench unit intact whenever a starter is forced to miss some time.
Of course, injuries certainly played a role in this, but Walton’s attempt to keep his second unit together also helped result in all 18 players that played for the Lakers last season – including Marcelo Huertas, Thomas Robinson, and Metta World Peace – starting at some point, even if just for one game.
Lineups were not handled well last year for the Lakers, and this season is showing a similar trend. Despite that, the Lakers do look like a better team so far this year. They might be 10-17, but the team has been mostly competitive and overall pretty fun to watch even in a brutal stretch of their schedule.
But after starting the year 5-5, the Lakers have gone just 5-12, including seven losses in their last nine games. While losses can be attributed to a number of things on any given night, a major common thread to this point of the season has been the slow starts to games.
Simply put, the current starting lineup isn’t getting it done. The Lakers need to avoid digging an early hole that the second unit has to climb out of. Sure, 48 minutes is a ton of basketball and both teams will likely endure their ups and downs over the course of each game. But for the Lakers, starting fast has been crucial to the success they have had so far this season.
In games that the Lakers have won the first quarter, they are 8-3 on the season. When they don’t, the team is 2-15.
Granted, the starting lineup has not been the same for every game. But when the roster is healthy and no one is suspended, the starting five has been Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance, Jr. and Brook Lopez.
Of the 18 different lineup combinations that have played at least 12 minutes of basketball together this season, the current starting lineup ranks 13th in net rating (-8.4), 14th in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating. The lineup also ranks — again, out of 18 lineup combinations that have played at least one full quarter’s worth of basketball — 13th in pace, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage. That lineup has shot just 42.8 percent together this season, including 28.1 percent from three.
Now, remember, Kyle Kuzma has started 11 games this year in place of an injured Nance. With Kuzma starting at the four instead of Nance with the other four usual starters — the Lakers’ most used lineup this season — the lineup has a net rating of -1.8 (100 offensive rating, 101.7 defensive rating).
In the aforementioned categories, out of 18, that lineup ranks 11th in net rating, 13th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. The lineup is also 12th in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage and 9th in pace. So, Kuzma in place of Nance shows some improvement, but nothing overly significant.
Perhaps with more time as a starter, Kuzma could help those numbers trend upward more as the season progresses. After all, he is a rookie that should continue to get better. But while Kuzma has been a great surprise for the Lakers, even against opposing starters, the solution to Walton’s starting lineup issue appears to be right in front of him.
In these 18 most used lineups for the Lakers, there is one common theme that stands out in regards to the most successful units: Julius Randle.
Randle has yet to start a game this season, despite being arguably the Lakers’ most consistently impactful player, especially on the defensive end. Randle and Jordan Clarkson have been a fantastic one-two punch off the bench this season, leading the second unit to some very productive time on the court.
Out of the team’s lineups that have played at least 12 minutes together this season, Randle has been a part of eight of the nine most productive in terms of net rating. Six of the Lakers’ best seven defensive lineups in terms of defensive rating with at least 12 minutes include Randle, while eight of those top nine in offensive rating have featured the power forward.
Randle is one of four Lakers on the roster this season to log a positive net rating (1.6). Josh Hart is the only other player on the roster that fits this criterion and is part of the normal rotation. Tyler Ennis and Vander Blue are the other two and both have played almost exclusively in garbage time.
At this point, you might be wondering how the Lakers have performed when Randle has played in place of Nance or Kuzma with the other four typical starters (Ball, KCP, Ingram, and Lopez). Well, that lineup has only played 13 minutes together all season, but they have a net rating of 24.1 (118 offensive rating, 93.9 defensive rating).
Of the aforementioned 18 lineups, this group of five ranks 3rd in net rating, 4th in offensive rating and 5th defensively. This lineup also ranks 6th in pace out of 18, 4th in true shooting percentage and 5th in effective field goal percentage.
Yes, there are arguments that could be made against these numbers. Randle’s minutes with the other four usual starters can still be categorized as a small sample size. Also, I get Walton’s logic of trying not to burden Randle with a heavy minutes workload so that he plays with more consistent energy.
Then again, Randle being in the best physical shape of his life was well-documented over the summer. The 22-year-old worked his butt off to prepare for an important season, as he is set to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018. And if Randle’s production starts to dip because his minutes increase, then Walton can readjust. That’s part of being a coach.
But at this point, why not get Randle in the starting lineup? The Lakers have clearly been a better team with him on the floor this season. Randle worked hard to improve his game, and it has shown in a big way by the impact he consistently makes. Is he the perfect player? Of course not. He still needs noticeable work offensively, primarily with his jump shot. But there is no denying his improvement on the defensive end.
A change in the starting lineup needs to be made. If the team starts to suffer because the second unit falters without Randle, then adjustments will have to be made. Maybe it’s a result of just an 11-game sample size, but getting off to a good start has obviously been a recipe for success so far for the Lakers this season.
Slow starts have doomed the Lakers often so far this season. At a certain point, you can’t keep trying the same thing and expect different results. The Lakers have passed that point and it’s time to make a change. It’s time to unleash Julius Randle.