The Los Angeles Lakers took part in the least watchable game of their season, and probably one of the worst NBA games played all year. Their 86-74 loss to the Utah Jazz was an ugly affair in which the Lakers shot just 32.6% from the field as the team looked lost without Kobe Bryant (strained right Achilles tendon) and D'Angelo Russell (ankle sprain), the team's two leaders in usage rate who use up 30.8% and 23.1% of the Lakers' possessions while on the floor, respectively.
The only meaningful thing to come out of the game was the debut of the Larry Nance, Jr./Julius Randle frontcourt combination, a pairing Lakers head coach Byron Scott teased a week ago but tried for the first time on Sunday night.
"I loved it, personally," Nance, Jr. told Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times of the the chance to play with Randle, who described playing with Nance, Jr. as "fun."
"It was good, we both competed, we both are going to go out there and play as hard as we can," said Randle. "For the first time it wasn't bad. We have to build chemistry and stuff like that but we'll be fine." Their coach sounded satisfied enough with the results that he would at least try his experiment again.
"I thought [the Nance, Jr./Randle combo] was okay," Scott said after the loss. "From what I can remember watching them out there I thought they did a pretty good job of communicating and being active. They probably could have been a little bit more active on both ends of the floor, but for the first time for those guys to be out there together I thought it was okay."
"Okay" was a charitable description of the results, as the advanced statistics for when the two shared the floor were not great at first glance:
Randle and Nance played 16 minutes together, and had a net rating of -13.0. Off. rating: 88.2 Def. rating: 101.3 .— Ryan Kelapire (@RyanKelapire) January 11, 2016
However, there were still a few glimpses of how the two could work well together against the Jazz. While that 88.2 offensive rating looks horrible and would easily rank last in the league over a whole season, it is actually nearly 7 points better than the Lakers' rating for the night (81.7). Randle has struggled in recent games due in part to teams being able to sag into the paint and disrupt his shots around the basket. When playing with Nance and three other perimeter threats, that was less of an issue:
Here, Jazz guard Raul Neto is initially chasing Jordan Clarkson on a misdirect, and then appears to be briefly distracted by an open Nance, Jr., which combined with Rudy Gobert making a business decision (i.e. not wanting to get dunked on) allowed Randle to take one power dribble and then dunk.
"[Randle] was able to get to the basket and make a few shots," Scott said after the game, and on the play above, one can see why that was the case. Trevor Booker does not fully commit to Randle's drive around Jeff Withey and stays in no man's land at least in part due to the mid-range threat of Nance, Jr. This combined with Marcelo Huertas and Lou Williams in the corners gives Randle a far less cluttered paint than he has been seeing over the past few weeks as teams have increasingly began to keep defenders around the rim to affect his shots.
The Lakers were nearly 6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Randle/Nance, Jr. shared the floor against Utah (101.3) than their average for the night (95.6), and will likely continue to be a bit worse on that end during minutes Randle and Nance, Jr. share the floor. At the same time, how much worse can lineups featuring this front-court couple at the 4 and 5 be than the Lakers' 107.7 defensive rating on the season?
Drawing definitive conclusions from a 16 minute sample size is dangerous. Maybe Randle/Nance, Jr. turns out to be an awful idea in practice. At 8-31 and with Nance, Jr. playing well enough to force his way into the Lakers' future plans, it's still worth trying to play him and Randle together. The Lakers don't have anything to lose but a lot of games they are going to lose anyway if they stick with what they have been doing, and when the option of winning games is taken away, experimentation and development is all that is left.
All quotes transcribed via Time Warner Cable Sportsnet unless otherwise cited. All stats per NBA.com You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.