The Los Angeles Lakers have a good problem to have on their hands at the power forward position. The team currently boasts not one, but two promising young four men in Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr.
While it’s a good thing to have depth, the situation also presents a minor dilemma for head coach Luke Walton. The two are unlikely to work as an every-game starting unit, meaning he’ll have to bring one of them off of the bench and how many minutes they can share the floor remains an open question.
Right now it’s Randle, the former seventh overall pick, getting introduced with the starters while Nance, Jr. enters as a reserve. In a wide-ranging and worthwhile feature story, Nance, Jr. told Shahan Ahmed of NBCLA that he’s fine coming off of the bench. He thinks the starting unit is more about finding players who complement each other than ranking who is best individually:
So, does Nance want to start at power forward for the Lakers?
"I want to win," Nance answers diplomatically. "Whoever meshes well with that first unit deserves to start. I don't think whoever is starting is better. I just think it's more about fit because we have two very capable power forwards. It's less about starting and more about fit."
Pardon the pun, but it’s fitting that fit is the reason at least have been led some to ask whether or not Nance, Jr. would be a better option in the starting unit than Randle going forward due to his lower usage offensive game and superior defensive abilities.
A few preseason games in a brand new system is likely not a large enough sample size for Walton to make a final decision on which of his two promising power forwards will be the starter going forward, but Nance, Jr.’s strong play has made it impossible to ignore the possibility he may end up being the team’s answer.
The Lakers are bringing Jordan Clarkson off of the bench for now, but whether he or Lou Williams are starting, Los Angeles will begin games with two guards that are at their best with the ball in their hands.
Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov are relatively low usage offensive players, but if Randle continues to struggle as a playmaker it’s possible he may be best maximized as some type of super energy big off of the bench where he can dominate second units with his relentless activity on the boards and the easier transition opportunities against opposing benches.
As previously mentioned, Nance, Jr. is also a better defender than Randle, and the Lakers need all of the plus defenders they can get on the floor after ranking dead-last in defensive efficiency last year.
The permanent starter may not be decided by the end of the preseason, but also worth investigating is just how much the two can play together. Walton has publicly flirted with the idea of pairing Randle and Nance, Jr. in the frontcourt, and while he didn’t unveil the look in the Lakers’ first preseason game against the Sacramento, the duo showed some promise together in very limited minutes last season.
In a minuscule 125 minutes last season (really cool we got 470 minutes to figure out if Ryan Kelly could play center instead!), lineups featuring Randle and Nance, Jr. outscored teams by 4.3 points per 100 possessions.
As expected, lineups with that pair skewed towards being strong offensively (scoring 106.8 points per 100 possessions) while faring far less well defensively (giving up 102.5 points per 100 possessions, which is hilariously still better than the 109.3 points per 100 possessions the Lakers gave up on average. Give it up for Byron Scott, everyone!).
Young teams aren’t known for their discipline, but if the two could manage it, the best way to deploy this lineup might be by having Nance, Jr. guard centers (leaving him closer to the rim to defend it), while Randle plays more of the center role on offense and Nance, Jr. stretches the floor while attacking more selectively. Such an arrangement could confuse opponents in transition as they struggle to match up if it results in Randle being guarded by centers when the Lakers are on offense.
That pair still might not ever be good enough defensively to serve as more than a change of pace lineup, but it would help ease the minutes distribution problem Walton will have to deal with this year. Helping matters is Nance, Jr. seemingly being okay with either role, although it remains to be seen if Randle feels the same way. No matter what, it’s one of the more intriguing storylines to pay attention to as preseason chugs along.