Five games ago, the Los Angeles Lakers fully embraced their youth movement in the starting lineup. High-priced and underwhelming free agent additions Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov were out, and Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram were in to replace them.
Despite having their metrics nuked by a loss to the Phoenix Suns in which the Lakers essentially rolled over in their last game before the All-Star break, the new lineup has been fairly solid so far.
The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions with Ingram and Black slotted in alongside Julius Randle, Nick Young, and D’Angelo Russell on the floor over the last five games. It is a small sample size, but that would rank as the 10th-best net rating in the NBA if prorated over the whole season.
Their only other lineup to play more than 13 minutes over that same span is the Lakers’ new primary bench group. Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Lou Williams, and Larry Nance, Jr. have been far less effective as a unit.
The Lakers' new starters have been pretty good over the last five games. Their other high-usage lineups? Not so much pic.twitter.com/WAAiCCEuaJ— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) February 18, 2017
One of the Lakers’ major problems this season has been allowing huge deficits to start games and forcing their bench to battle back. The team has been outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions during first periods this season, the fourth-worst mark in the entire NBA.
"We had an issue with starting games off, and being in the game when it's starting off,” Black told Silver Screen and Roll. “I think since we've changed starting lineups, we've been in games early.”
The changed starting lineup has flipped the Lakers’ trend of digging their own grave to start games. Instead, they’re digging one for their opponents, outscoring teams by 4.7 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter since Walton made the adjustment.
The Lakers fast starts have come in part by ... well .... playing fast.
"For us, as we continue to grow as a team, we're going to try to play an offensive game that's uptempo. We want to hit the first open guy, we want to set hard screens and roll and depending on what the weak side is doing, we want to make plays from those positions,” Walton said. “No matter who we're going against, that's kind of the basics of what we're going to look to do offensively."
The Lakers have played fast the entire season, ranking seventh in the NBA in pace (the number of possessions a team averages per 48 minutes) with 100.61. Since inserting Ingram and Black amongst the starters, the Lakers have kicked that into overdrive.
If prorated over a whole season, the pace the Lakers have played at over their last five games since the change (104.21) would qualify as the fastest a Lakers team has played since the 70’s, according to Basketball Reference.
“It's been good having one-through-four being able to push the ball," Black said. “That's becoming a part of our identity. We have young legs at all five positions to get out and go, so why not use it?"
With their new starters, the Lakers have Ingram, Randle, Russell, and Young all able to snag a rebound and kick-start the break, with Black available as a quicker rim-running option than Mozgov to draw defenses into the paint and free up open shooters.
"Brandon knows any time he gets a rebound we want him pushing, and D'Angelo knows that if that's the case we want him running the wing wide,” Walton said. “D'Angelo is a good shooter, so it gives us more spacing. When Brandon is bringing it up then we got Nick on one wing and D'Angelo on the other.”
The change has improved that group’s playmaking as compared to the rest of the Lakers’ roster. The new starters have assisted on 63.5 percent of each other’s baskets over the last five games. That’s a massive improvement on the Lakers’ season average of 53.4 percent (which ranks 26th in the league), even if it’s only a marginal gain on the previous starters, who assisted on 62 percent of each other’s baskets.
Even players who one wouldn’t necessarily expect to make plays have been keeping the ball moving. Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold expertly outlined Black’s improvement as a playmaker here, and the numbers reflect it.
Black is assisting on 10.8 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while on the floor since being inserted as a starter, which may not sound like much, but is a 4.5 percent increase on his 6.3 percent season average.
"I think he just lets me loose and lets me do what I do, to be honest with you,” Black said of what Walton has asked him to do as a starter.
“[Making short passes when getting the ball out of a pick-and-roll] is something that I worked on when I recognized that teams were trapping our guys,” Black continued. “It's something that we have to do as bigs, it's just something we didn't have to do at first because [opponents] weren't trapping as much. When they started trapping them it's a part of our games that we had to show."
Another area the Lakers were hoping to address with their new starters was the team’s lack of rim protection. The Lakers rank dead-last in the NBA in defending the basket, allowing opponents to shoot 66.3 percent within six feet of the basket this season.
"A huge part of what we try to do defensively is protect that paint and make them make extra passes, and then we recover out and shift the defense from there,” Walton said. “But if we don't get in and take away those initial post-ups in the paint, then nothing else on defense really matters."
Before the Lakers’ loss to the Kings, Walton said he felt like his team had done “a good job” of addressing those issues, but after DeMarcus Cousins battered his way to the rim for 88.9 percent shooting inside the restricted area, followed by the Lakers allowing the Suns to score 60 points in the paint the next night, it’s fair to say the Lakers still have a ways to go.
The Lakers have actually been worse at defending the rim (69.5 percent) and allowed more shots there, with 37.1 percent of opponents’ shots coming within six feet of the basket versus 31.6 percent before the change in starters.
Despite those defensive downsides, the Lakers’ new starters have shown plenty of promise and deserve a chance to continue to jell coming out of the All-Star break. It’s not like the team was defending anyone particularly well with their old lineups, and the new starters at least give the Lakers a chance to start fast (figuratively as well as literally) so they aren’t constantly having to climb back against huge deficits.
With just 24 games left in their season and another lottery appearance guaranteed, all the Lakers have to play for is to evaluate the fit of their young players moving forward. This new, youth-heavy starting lineup is a major part of that, and will give the front office a chance to see what they really have heading into the summer.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.