The Los Angeles Lakers have hit their first bout of adversity before the regular season even begins. Several of the team’s presumed rotation pieces have gone down with injuries during the preseason, including long-term situations for Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker.
Both Ariza and THT were expected to play big roles on this Lakers roster as rotational pieces that could impact the game on both ends of the floor. Both were viewed as valuable perimeter defenders for a team that does not have a ton of depth in that particular sense. Now with THT sidelined for at least four weeks and Ariza out of commission for even longer, head coach Frank Vogel will have to adjust on the fly without having had the chance to experiment with lineups and player combinations for his roster that features 11 new players from last season.
When asked about the impact of those losses, Vogel expectedly focused on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’ve challenged Talen to be one of our perimeter stoppers this year and he had some really good sequences in camp and in preseason games, in particular on the ball,” Vogel told the media on Tuesday, “And Trevor is obviously one of the other guys who was one of our better defenders, so losing those two guys really hurts us on that side of the ball.”
So how will the Lakers adjust to the loss of two of their major rotation pieces? Vogel will have to get creative.
We can break the Lakers’ roster into positional tiers to get a better idea of where Ariza and Horton-Tucker will eventually play.
Lead guards: Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Rajon Rondo, Horton-Tucker
Guards/Wings: Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves
Wings/Small-ball power forwards: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Ariza
Bigs: Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan
Horton-Tucker and Ariza were likely not going to be starters nor should their absences have much effect on who Vogel puts in the starting lineup. By my estimation, the best choice there at the start of the season is the big three surrounded by the combined shooting and defensive abilities of Monk and Bazemore.
Down the line, however, Ariza and Horton-Tucker will have bigger impacts. THT in particular is a key player in the viability of three-guard lineups that Vogel likes to run to add pace and shooting on the court. While his ball-handling is not as crucial to this roster as it was by the end of last year due to the added depth at the point guard position, THT’s pace in transition, his secondary ball-handling in the half-court, and his ability to adequately guard one through three are all major components of such lineups.
Ariza, meanwhile, is a more one-dimensional player at this stage of his career but he carries a heavy burden as the “big wing” defender on this roster, arguably the only player capable of that role besides the team’s two top players – LeBron and AD. The Lakers, fortunately, have a fairly soft schedule to start the year but bigger wings will be able to take advantage of them unless LeBron or AD slide down for those matchups.
These two absences could force the Lakers’ hands into playing bigger, whether that means AD starting at the four or just playing more at that position. Anthony would be the primary backup four in Ariza’s absence. James could then be the primary small forward, capable of checking those big wings with Bazemore serving as his only true alternative there, even if the former Warrior starts.
The Lakers can still play guard-heavy lineups and almost certainly will since that is where most of their depth lies. In fact, Vogel has featured plenty of combinations with Westbrook and another lead guard — be it Rondo or Nunn — in the preseason so it’s almost guaranteed we will get more of that once the real games start.
But the versatility of those small lineups is diminished in THT’s absence; each of the remaining guards has a much more defined skillset and role than the third-year pro who is effectively used as a Swiss army knife in the backcourt. Finding the right combinations that can complement each other alongside two or all three of Westbrook, James, and Davis will be a challenge and take plenty of time to accomplish.
The key to that versatility could be Bazemore who, similar to THT, can defend multiple positions but his offensive production is more limited to spreading the floor. If the Lakers can get the most out of Bazemore, they can diminish the impact of losing two important pieces for the first stretch of the season.
No one should expect the THT and Ariza injuries to be a death knell for the Lakers, of course. But it is a larger than expected setback not only because of their production and roles on the floor but because this is a team that will take quite a bit of time to find their way. Losing players and having to incorporate them later only increases the learning curve as players adjust to each other and coaches optimize the team.
Moreover, the adjustments that might become necessary to make up for those injuries could force the Lakers’ hands into a change of philosophy that sees them go bigger rather than the more modern approach that they were rumored to use this year. Obviously, playing AD alongside a center is something that Vogel and Co. are used to and are comfortable with; will they be willing to optimize the team by moving him up a position to mostly play center once their full assortment of players are back?
For now, the challenge is about surviving the loss of two defensive difference makers whose roles cannot be replicated by any other role players on the team all while continuing to gel as a unit. How that affects the rest of the season is something we will have to wait and see.