Whether it’s due to injuries or the overall fit of its five parts, Frank Vogel has had to use 12 different starting lineups in the Lakers’ first 24 games this season. It’s an irregularity that Vogel definitely didn’t desire, as he said during the preseason that he didn’t want to be in a situation during the season where they’re “changing lineups on a regular basis.”
Most of the inconsistencies in the starting lineup have been due to injuries, especially the abdominal strain that LeBron James faced. However, there have also been changes due to the fit of the lineup, most recently with a seismic change at the five, as Vogel is now going to Dwight Howard at that position in lieu of DeAndre Jordan who has been a headache for the lineup’s offensive successes all season.
That may not be the end of changes needed to be made in regards to overall fit, as Vogel is now starting Talen Horton-Tucker in the backcourt alongside Russell Westbrook while Avery Bradley recovers from a thumb injury. Although it’s not as severe as Jordan or Howard, THT presents a spacing problem to this Lakers’ lineup that already has a big one in the form of Westbrook as the starting point guard. Because of that, Vogel may need to muster enough courage to put out his 13th starting lineup of the year, one that features Wayne Ellington as opposed to THT.
Coming into the season, Wayne Ellington was easily set to be the team’s best 3-point shooter after the spectacular numbers he put up for the Detroit Pistons during last season. In that 2020-21 season, Ellington shot a scorching 42.8% on 3-pointers (on 4.2 attempts per game) when the defender was 4+ feet away from him. He’s nearly duplicating those numbers in his 16 games played this season, shooting 41.3% (4.6 attempts per game) on those same types of looks. Those numbers have put him in the 96th percentile of all NBA players in terms of points-per-possession on spot-up shooting.
In the first half of the 24 games the Lakers have played so far, it became a near certainty that they’d come out of halftime with an abysmal 3rd quarter performance. In the past 10 games, however, that previously disatrous quarter has tipped towards their favor as they have an 11.0 third quarter net rating (eighth in the NBA) in that time period. It’s now the first quarter that they need to figure out as their 1.8 net rating on the season used to be much higher, plummetting over the past 10 games with a -9.4 (23rd in the NBA) net rating over that span.
The most glaring problem with the Lakers’ starting lineup — whether it features Jordan or Howard at the five — is its lack of spacing. Below you’ll see the most recent starting lineup’s offensive metric percentiles in regards to the league (via B-Ball Index), with the team’s spacing the worst out of the entire bunch. It’s resulted in the Lakers having the 15th ranked 3-point percentage in the NBA during 1st quarters, but even worse, it’s caused them to not even want to shoot 3-pointers as they have the least amount of those attempts per first quarters in the entire league.
Although I’m arguing for Ellington to start over THT, I wouldn’t say that this lineup’s poor spacing is THT’s fault. The real crux of the problem is Vogel still not moving to a starting lineup with AD at the five all the time. But still, if Vogel is going to keep Howard or Jordan at the starting five position for the whole season (or at least until Trevor Ariza is available), they have to maximize the spacing brought to the team at the shooting guard position if the Lakers’ Big Three are going to be able to do what they do best — get to the rim.
Although the spacing percentile doesn’t rise too much, I’m sure LeBron, Westbrook, and Davis would be smitten with even the slightest uptick in room to work with.
Without being able to read his mind, I’m assuming Vogel is keeping Wayne Ellington out of the starting lineup due to his extremely poor on-ball defense. It does behoove the Lakers to have a player capable of guarding the opposing team’s best player and/or ball-handler so that Westbrook and James don’t have to do it themselves. This is especially important in the first quarter so that the two stars can save their energy for the end of games where they could then step up on the defensive end.
The current problem is there’s never been a time this season where THT’s (or Bradley’s) on-ball defense has seemed to be a difference-maker for the team on that end. What could help is more defensive possessions after the opponent has to take the ball out of the net following a Lakers’ made three. We’ve come to realize that this team feeds off energy and can be streaky. Maybe they should inject their starting lineup with some offensive juice so that they can end the first quarter with a lead — maybe sometimes even a large one — allowing themselves to play with the lead as opposed to always fighting an uphill battle night-to-night, city-to-city.
I say all of that like Vogel hasn’t thought of it, but I know he has. I’m not the head basketball coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m not even a young and up-and-coming intern for the Sacramento Kings. He probably has an idea that Ellington would help the offense, but Vogel is a defensive-minded type of guy. And even though THT himself is up-and-coming in this game, he is probably already a better defender than the 34-year-old Ellington. There’s also Vogel’s comments on Monday that he considers there to be a “grooming element” for THT this season, as well as the fact that THT is represented by Klutch Sports Group, the agency that LeBron belongs to that seemingly acts as a free agency pool for the Lakers from time-to-time. I hate to throw in the “Klutch” reason, but let’s be real here. It exists.
Vogel could even wait until Ariza returns. Vogel recently called the veteran the “key” to a lot of things the Lakers want to do, more than once slightly alluding to one of those “things” being a starting lineup with AD at the five. That type of lineup — featuring LeBron, Westbrook, Ariza, and Ellington — was reported to be the Lakers’ opening night starting lineup before both Ariza and Ellington went down with injuries that have the former still out and the latter missing the first eight games of the season. However, even though Ariza participated in live action on Monday, Vogel also stated he “still has a ways to go”.
The Lakers don’t have a ways to go before they HAVE to start tallying wins. They can point to all the excuses they want, even if they’re valid, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re 12-12 and that they have to start stymying this downhill path they’re on. It’s about time Vogel took a risk and made an offensive-minded move, with Wayne Ellington at the starting two being the most obvious one to make.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.