Drafting the best player available has long been the strategy I’ve subscribed to, regardless of sport. In basketball, where positions are less rigid, that idea carries even greater weight.
As a Viking fan, I watched the team draft Adrian Peterson months removed from 27-year old Chester Taylor running for 1,200 yards. Two years later, they drafted Percy Harvin despite having a young, seemingly effective receiving core.
Each instance worked out well for the Vikings and helped shape my opinion on draft strategies.
So when the Lakers drafted Larry Nance Jr., in 2015 despite having Julius Randle, the player once seen as the face of the rebuild, I didn’t react with as much trepidation or confusion as I did with admitted ignorance as to who Nance was as a prospect. He wasn’t a player I much considered the Lakers to draft.
The pick came well ahead of ideas of positionless basketball, though Nance and Randle together may not be a straightforward representation of the philosophy. Still, from the onset, the two were more often pitted against one another rather than seen as potential equals. As is often the case with social media, fans were either Team Nance or Team Randle, nuance be damned.
The pair represented the potential for the Lakers to head into the era of small ball basketball with two perfectly-suited big men. Nance and Randle both were energetic, athletic big men who, for the faults they had – and we’ll get to those faults – had different playstyles that made them appealing in their own respects.
In the end, though, the flaws were too big to overcome the small positives. Neither player proved to be the rim protector the other needed. Neither player – until this season – could prove able to be a switchable defender, capable of at least defending on the perimeter against smaller guards. And, maybe most importantly, neither player provided the spacing necessary for a lineup featuring both players to succeed.
Across three seasons, Nance and Randle played together in 86 games for a combined 608 minutes, an average of just seven minutes a game. Only once did they play at least 150 minutes in a season, that being 2016-17.
Maybe uncoincidentally, that season also represents the worst defensive rating and net rating of the two together. The duo finished with a defensive rating of 113.8 and a net rating of -11.4.
In 2015-16, Nance and Randle had a defensive rating of 102.5 and a net rating of 4.3, but did so in just 125 minutes in 20 games. This season, the duo proved to be effective largely due to Randle’s career year, finishing with both their highest offensive ratings and net ratings of their career.
Few needed advanced analytics or defensive ratings to know that the lineups were flawed. Across the three seasons, lineups featuring Nance and Randle shot just 91-for-304 (29 percent) from three-point territory. They managed just 54 blocks in 86 games, far under a block a game. And the combined +/- of the Nance-Randle two-man line-up in three seasons was -76.
While the idea of Nance and Randle was nice, the reality of the duo was never able to live up to those expectations. Despite promises otherwise, Nance attempted just four three-pointers this season after five last season. Randle, while attempting 39 threes this season, has proven to be far too inconsistent from range for any team to respect his shooting or for him to even continually shoot from range.
In the end, the Lakers had a gluttony of forward options and, despite the uniqueness of the two, Nance and Randle were too redundant and too ineffective to play together. Randle’s defensive versatility and offensive playstyle both suited the future of the NBA and the future of the Lakers. A Laker defense contingent heavily on switching played more into Randle’s wheelhouse than Nance’s.
That isn’t to say Nance isn’t a good defender. In fact, his defensive rating of 103.5 is second-best of current rotation players behind only Lonzo Ball. But with Randle on the court and Nance off this season, the Lakers have looked more dangerous offensively, shooting much closer to league average from beyond the arc at 34.3 percent.
It’s easy to chock it up to spacing, A lot of it could be attributed to such. With Randle on and Nance off, the Lakers have five players shooting league average from three (35 percent) or better with Kyle Kuzma shooting 34.8 percent. With Nance on and Randle off, just two players are above-average from three. It’s a simplified way to look at things, sure, but it’s a reoccurring trend each season.
With the opportunity to alleviate the problem, the Lakers essentially opted to trade Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas while swapping Nance for a new first-round draft pick and a new chance to find a player with a better fit that’ll be roughly in the same area he was selected at 27th.
Nance and Randle never worked out together, mostly due to no fault of their own. They developed into players that never complemented one another. But it was a worthwhile risk and one that, in the end, cost the Lakers nothing. They netted a first-round pick and get another chance at it.
While the result wasn’t perfect, the Lakers should not be discouraged. The process of drafting the best player available remains the most viable, even if this time it didn’t work out. And if this situation is any indication, at worst, you get a laundry list of posterizing dunks along the way.