The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-93 on Monday night. This in and of itself is not news, the Lakers are not a good basketball team and the Raptors are. What was news was the way Los Angeles lost, with head coach Byron Scott informing the media before the game that he would be bringing the Lakers' two most recent lottery picks, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, off of the bench in an attempt to "energize" the team.
"This change wasn't so much based on them not performing up to their capability," Scott told Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times. "It's based on where we are as a team. We're 3-17, so obviously it's not working. So I wanted to get some new blood in there, some fresh blood, and see how those guys play."
Scott is right, the Lakers have played badly and their starting lineup has been one of the team's worst groupings statistically. The Lakers' normal starting unit of Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert, Jordan Clarkson, Russell, and Randle has played 261 minutes together, which is by far the most of any of the team's lineups (the second highest used lineup is the same with Metta World Peace replacing Bryant, and has played 67 minutes together). In that time, the Lakers' starters have been outscored by an average of 13.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be the lowest net rating of any team in the league, trailing even the Philadelphia 76ers' -12.
Scott made the wrong decision for the right reasons. Both Russell (10.9) and Randle (10.6) are averaging less field goal attempts than Bryant's average misses per game (12.4), and with Clarkson (13.1 FGAs) in the starting lineup as well, it often seemed as if there were not enough shots to go around. However, there were other, much less drastic ways around this issue.
Scott could probably aid the team most if he simply told Bryant to cool it on how much he is shooting, or at the very least play him fewer minutes. Bryant is currently shooting 30.6% from the field on 17.8 shots in 31.3 minutes per game. It is never a good thing if your shooting percentage is below your average minutes played.
To be fair, Bryant was much better against Toronto, scoring 21 points on 8-16 shooting in 32 minutes, his first time shooting 50% from the field in the 2015-16 season. Sadly this is more likely an aberration than a sign of some newfound efficiency due to the benching of Russell and Randle.
Another option on the table for Scott to separate Russell and Rande from Kobe, if he felt that was necessary rather than asking Bryant to lower his team-high usage rate of 30%, would be to start all three but stagger their minutes more during games so they spent less floor time together. This would avoid sending mixed messages to Russell and Randle, who were both playing well prior to their benching and did not take the demotion very well (again per the L.A. Times):
"I have no idea [why]. I'm just going along with it," said Russell, the No. 2 overall selection in this year's draft. "I finally was starting to figure it out and then this happened. . . . I've never been in the [backup] position so I don't know how it's going to affect myself. I didn't expect it to happen like that, so if I was the problem, or if I was the change that needed to happen to better the team, then I guess it was worth it."
Randle answered the first two questions from reporters with "It is what it is." Then he opened up, but only a bit.
"You're never going to be thrilled about it as a competitor but it's not in our control. Our control is to go out there and play hard, like we've been doing, and just keep getting better," said Randle, who was drafted seventh overall in 2014.
Later he said of the reasoning behind the demotion, "I don't know, man. It's not my decision so I don't know."
If Randle was upset about the benching, it did not affect the tear he has been on recently. The second year forward scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in 21 minutes against the Raptors. Russell showed flashes of strong play, but struggled with 9 points on 4-13 shooting, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Scott claimed to like what he saw, but still benched the two again down the stretch of a close game (a four point deficit when Russell was subbed out, five points when Randle was given the hook) that the Lakers would ultimately go on to lose by nine. For the umpteenth time this season, Scott chose winning at the expense of development and did neither.
Benching Russell and Randle because they don't get enough opportunities with Kobe in the lineup is like cutting off your arm because your hand itches; yes it will solve the problem, but there are also numerous better ways to have dealt with it. Scott can say that players learn from the bench as much as he wants, however, it does not change the fact that the Lakers are losing these games he is playing veterans like Lou Williams and World Peace down the stretch of anyway. How much are Russell and Randle really going to gain by having their roles yanked around and watching loss after loss from the pine?
If the Lakers are going to lose anyway, there is no downside to playing the younger guys and riding or dying with their mistakes. At least if they lose, the organization can point to some positives they may gain from those learning experiences down the line. But Byron Scott can be forgiven for not looking that far into the future, because if he keeps coaching like this, he likely won't be around to oversee it.
You can follow this author on Twitter @hmfaigen. All stats per NBA.com