LOS ANGELES — One of the first challenges most assume a coach has to consider is whether or not to stagger their rotations, and how much to do so. Not so for the Lakers, whose first year head coach is figuring things out as he goes.
"Everything has been trial and error since we've been here," said Lakers head coach Luke Walton. "We didn't know who was going to play well together, who wasn't."
One of the trials that has been working so far is the Lakers' weirdo bench lineup of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Tarik Black, and Larry Nance, Jr. The team has gone to an almost hockey line change-esque system to start games, subbing five bench players in for the starters, and so far it's gone surprisingly well.
"It's amazing what happens when five guys come together, talk to each other, and play basketball with one another,” Black said. “It's just amazing what ends up happening."
That bench lineup’s amazing metrics took a hit in the Lakers’ win over the Nets following Darius Soriano rounding up what they’ve done so well on Forum Blue and Gold, but they’ve still outscored opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions so far. The way they've done so has subverted expectations.
Neither Williams or Clarkson are traditional point guards, so the 6'9 and elastic armed Brandon Ingram brings the ball down the floor and initiates the offense. Williams is second on the Lakers in scoring at 15.6 points per game, while Clarkson has slashed-and-drove his way to 14.8 points per game of his own. Neither Black nor Nance are traditional rim protecting centers.
So far it's worked anyway, and for the team, the beauty of the group lies in it's uniqueness.
"They play together. They take pride in their defense, they share the ball. It's an active group. [Clarkson] probably could start on a lot of teams in this league and is more of a starter who is playing the second unit," said Walton. "You've got Lou who was the Sixth Man of the Year, and obviously has been a starter himself. Brandon can guard multiple positions, and then Larry and T-Black can guard perimeter players and switch. There's just a lot of versatility in that second unit right now, and the fact that they play unselfish gives them an advantage."
The team has had an advantage on nearly every opposing bench unit they’ve feasted on. They’ve assisted on 52.2 percent of their baskets on offense while only turning the ball over 13.9 percent of the time. It’s resulted in them scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank eighth in the league so far.
"We come in and try to push the pace and push the tempo like the first group does,” Ingram said. “We know each other's strengths and we know each other's weaknesses, so we put each other in the right positions so we can succeed."
The team has pushed the pace up to a level that would have them using 104.33 possessions per 48 minutes, which would rank as the third-fastest team in the league, just ahead of the Golden State Warriors. Playing that fast while limiting turnovers has let the bench blitz fatigued starters and overmatched reserves alike.
"We just have a really good balance of playmakers and play finishers,” Nance told Silver Screen and Roll. “We've got different guys that can do it all."
Nance noted that an important aspect of doing it all for that unit has included the defensive end. The Lakers having the highest scoring bench in the league has been the stat to get the most TV time, but the unit has crucially also limited teams to scoring just 88.9 points per 100 possessions.
That scoring rate would not only be a worse offensive rating than the league-worst Philadelphia 76ers (93.2), but would give the Lakers a better defense than the league-leading Los Angeles Clippers (93).
"We're a pressure unit. We come in and try to deny passes, try to just make something happen,” Nance said. “You've got B.I., he’s got long arms, I've got long arms, you've got Jordan who's an aggressive defender, Lou who can defend, and Black down there to protect the rim.”
Among those names, Clarkson’s emergence as a capable defender to sick upon opposing wings should draw the most surprise. Walton said that the metrics the Lakers new coaching staff used to evaluate Clarkson coming into the season painted the picture of a borderline-unplayable defender.
"One of the questions (going into camp) was how much can we play him if he's that bad of a defender, but he's been great,” Walton said.
Clarkson has also willingly gone to the bench after starting 79 of the Lakers’ 82 games last season, and doing so without complaint has given the Lakers’ killer bench multiple players who can actively defend while pushing the pace offensively.
"I've sacrificed,” Clarkson said. “But everybody is willing to sacrifice for this team, so it feels good because we're winning."
It wasn’t the case against the Nets, but the Lakers have won more nights than not this season in large part due to the play of that five-man bench unit. They’ve all sacrificed to do so, as that unit includes three of the Lakers’ six highest-paid players (Clarkson, Williams, and Black) as well as two young first-round picks (Nance and Ingram) who could be grousing about minutes.
Walton said that hasn’t happened yet, and further, the Lakers’ super-subs seem to be relishing their role as reinforcements.
“I've been enjoying it,” Nance said. “I like being the Energizer Bunny off the bench."
If the Nets game was an aberration, and Los Angeles’ Energizer Bunnies can continue to boost the team as they have so far, then it just might give the Lakers enough juice to continue to play far above preseason expectations.