Early in the year, a major key in the Los Angeles Lakers’ unexpected success was their killer bench. Injuries and scouting sapped some of the effectiveness of that unit, but the Lakers’ bench was once again a key to their near-comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.
After the game, Lakers head coach Luke Walton was asked if he’s considered moving some of his super-subs into the starting lineup.
"We've talked about it,” Walton told the media on Spectrum Sportsnet, before acknowledging that the situation was tough because the starters had been playing well for a few games. However, he didn’t rule out a possible change either.
“Maybe we'll get there soon but we'll have more discussion about it as we go,” Walton said.
The box score may not have looked like the historic disparity the Lakers were on the wrong end of in their franchise-worst 49-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, but their starters were outscored 86-27 against Portland and have been a real problem for the team in games in which D’Angelo Russell doesn’t play.
Games where Russell is out with an injury are really the only ones in which Walton should be considering changing up his starting group (unless he went with the highly unlikely choice of benching Timofey Mozgov and/or Luol Deng).
The normal starting unit of Nick Young, Julius Randle, Mozgov, Deng, Randle and Russell has outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions over 402 total minutes, according to NBA.com. That would be the third-best net rating in the NBA if the Lakers could play at that level for an entire season.
They can’t, but that group with Calderon in Russell’s place should probably never play at all. In 54 minutes (fourth-most of any five-man combination for the Lakers) that unit has put up a net rating of -28.2, an almost hilariously bad mark.
So what is Walton to do? The answer is unclear, and with Russell out there aren’t a lot of stellar options. He could run Clarkson out to see if he can rediscover some of the playmaking ability he showed during his rookie season. He could start Lou Williams, although messing with his role as a super-sub would seem inadvisable. Walton has started Brandon Ingram, but the results of that little experiment against the Mavericks have likely dissuaded him from trying it again.
Shuffling the Lakers’ lineups right now is akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, although if they’re going to sink anyway they should at least check for valuables before accepting the results of the iceberg that’s hit them. Basically, any starting lineup change should lead to more minutes for young players so the team can see what they have in guys like Russell (when he’s healthy), Larry Nance, Jr., Ivica Zubac (both of whom were quite good against the Blazers), Randle and Clarkson.
Walton has a few experiments left to try as the Lakers shift into the second half of his debut season at the helm, and it will be interesting to watch what types of changes (if any) he and his staff end up deciding on.
All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.