The Los Angeles Lakers are trying to find their way out of their worst stretch of play of the season, and head coach Luke Walton has officially flipped the switch on experimenting with different lineups and combinations now that the injury bug has bit his squad.
That’s led to Julius Randle getting his first crack at getting back into the starting lineup after playing a respectable 33 games off the bench, initially losing his spot with the front five when Walton decided pairing Larry Nance Jr. with Brook Lopez made the most sense for the team stategically.
Lopez is expected to miss several weeks with an ankle injury, leaving Walton to reconsider his options. Finally, a day after an “air it out” meeting and 34 games into the season, Randle had his number called.
“We've been losing games and Julius has been great for us this whole season, so wanted to give him a chance in there. If we had won five out of six, we probably would've kept it how it is.
“I think he's done a phenomenal job in his role coming off the bench for us, but due to injuries and due to the fact that we've been losing, you might as well try some new things out and see how they work,” Walton said of his decision to start Julius.
Randle has been a bit of a Swiss Army Knife for the Lakers this season, settling into a frontcourt sixth man role who’s doing a little bit of everything for the team. Whether he’s filling in as a small-ball center, switching onto various positions defensively, or getting a chance to rumble as a bulldozer of a power forward, Randle’s finding ways to impact the game.
The fourth-year big man is averaging a career-high 20.7 points per 36 minutes on a career-best .590 true shooting percentage. A tidy way to summarize his productivity through the 2017-18 season is his also-career-best 18 player efficiency rating. Julius may have spent his previous two seasons as a christened starter, but having to find his groove off the bench has seemingly left him humbled and hungry.
“It's an honor. I'll say it all year, playing time in the league is very precious, so it's an honor,” Randle said of getting his first call with the starting lineup of the season.
Unfortunately for Randle and the Lakers, things did not go smoothly with the new-look starters. The Clippers did the majority of their damage early, dropping 35 points on the Lakers in the first quarter. The starting lineup allowed the Clippers build up a massive 19-3 lead that would never go away.
That kind of unspeakably-ugly start won’t mean the end of Walton giving Randle a chance with the starters, with Luke acknowledging the difficulty of taking away productive observations from such a poor opening.
“I think it's going to be hard to judge the first half, because I just don't think we were ready for whatever reason to engage in the fight. The second half I think will be much more telling, because at least we were playing with the effort that we need to play with as a group,” Walton said of how the starters performed against the Clippers.
Randle agreed with Coach Luke that the team was out of sync to start the game as a group, but felt he had his own head in the right place after finding out he’d have a chance to start earlier that day.
“Collectively yeah. We didn't play well from the start so you can't really argue it.... Mentally I felt like I was prepared and ready, so I don't know why it happened,” Julius said.
The Lakers and entire NBA are approaching a new year, and despite the franchise wanting to create a new culture, it’s starting to look more and more like years passed. The defense is letting them down, the distractions — the “business of basketball” things — are diminishing morale, and the roles of players seem inconsistent at best.
Randle, in a contract year, has a chance to partition more minutes for himself in a crowded, young frontcourt. Battling for minutes with Nance Jr. and Kyle Kuzma has been bringing out the best of Julius through most of the season, and until Walton’s seen enough, he’s finally being rewarded for his versatile play off the bench.