If you’ve recently put your beachfront property on Luke Walton Island up for sale, you’re not alone. It’s a buyers’ market right now.
The once heralded young coach has fallen out of favor with some Los Angeles Lakers fans. A handful of questionable lineup decisions, particularly in crunch time, have caused dissonance within the fan base just 23 games into his second season. However, perhaps even more disappointing than their recent late-game meltdowns has been the lack of effort by the first unit to start games all season.
The Lakers (8-15) are currently giving up 28.8 points per game in the first quarter, which is the fourth-most by any team this season, only behind the Phoenix Suns, the Orlando Magic and surprisingly, the Golden State Warriors.
This would be less of a concern if the Lakers’ offense was firing on all cylinders coming out of the gate, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case, as they are ranked 24th in first quarter points per game (25.1).
The problem isn’t the bench, who are in the top half of the league in first quarter points per game and are ranked third in the league in bench scoring with 41.4 points per game. It’s become clear the problem is the starting lineup.
The Lakers’ current starting lineup featuring Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Brook Lopez has played 155 minutes together, the second-most used lineup by Luke Walton this season. Had Nance not missed extended time nursing a fractured hand, it would probably be the most-used lineup.
In their time together, the starting five has posted an offensive rating of 94.3, a defensive rating of 104 and a net rating of -9.7, which is the third-worst net rating by any of the Lakers’ lineups that have played at least 15 minutes this season. In other words, they’ve been bad.
So what lineups have worked? Below is a chart of lineups the Lakers have used with a positive net rating. See if you can spot a common theme:
All six of the lineups with positive net rating feature at least one of Julius Randle or Kyle Kuzma, neither of whom are regular starters. Additionally, Jordan Clarkson and Lonzo are in four, while Hart and Ingram are featured in three.
Nance and Lopez, who have started every game they’ve been physically able to play this season, are in one. That is a problem. Nance’s place in the starting lineup has been especially peculiar.
While Nance has been a steady force defensively since returning to the starting lineup, the Lakers as a team have actually been worse on both ends of the floor since his return, posting an offensive rating of 101.2 and a defensive rating of 111.8.
Compare that to the 11 games Kuzma started, when the Lakers had an offensive rating of 100 and a defensive rating of 103.6, and it’s glaring. In fact, in the 155 minutes Kuzma is on the floor in place of Nance, the Lakers have a net rating of -2.8, almost seven whole points better than the current starting lineup (-9.7).
Does that mean Kuzma is the answer to all the Lakers’ problems? Not exactly.
While Kuzma has indeed been a better player than Nance this season, moving Nance to a second unit featuring Clarkson, Hart, Randle and sometimes Corey Brewer, would cause serious spacing issues for one of the league’s best scoring benches.
Instead, the Lakers should seriously consider starting Randle, who has been arguably their most valuable player this season. Julius’ defense has improved leaps and bounds this season, while his offensive numbers have remained steady despite seeing about seven minutes less per game than he was last season.
Randle is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 12 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists while shooting above 50 percent from the floor in less than 22 minutes per contest. He’s been great since settling into his role, but stats show he could be even better given more playing time.
Through 23 games Randle’s averaging 20.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes. The only players that can say the same are Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins. There’s no reason he should be playing less than 20 minutes a night, something he has done three times in the last 10 games.
Walton can shake things up with smaller moves like featuring either one of Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Alex Caruso, three players that have been killing it for the South Bay Lakers this season, but moving Randle to the starting lineup seems like the most logical one.
The Lakers will rest for the next three days before embarking on a six-day road trip where they’ll see the Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets, the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Hopefully during the course of that road trip, we’ll see a few new faces in the starting lineup.
All stats and charts are courtesy of stats.nba.com.
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