In what was only a few weeks ago, arose a Vincent Price macabre narrated shadow that shrouded the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans after consecutive losses to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The losses, as ugly as they were, were somehow made even worse with the news point guard Lonzo Ball would once again seemingly be sidelined for a mysterious duration (the Lakers were 0-8 without Ball at this point).
To make matters even more unfortunate, the trio of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram all had their own share of ailments that impacted the team. They had once again lost Ball, and seemingly their winning momentum as well.
Since that somber stretch, the Lakers have once again won four out of their last five games, this time without Ball. The impressive stretch, which included wins over the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, and Chicago Bulls, was highlighted with a thrilling win against the best team the Boston Celtics. The winning streak, which was recently snapped against a superior Toronto Raptors’ team playing at home, injected optimism back into the team and its fan base, and unearthed some encouraging, and not so encouraging, results for the team to explore further once Ball returns.
So what exactly has worked during this improbable winning stretch? Two words — well two names, to be exact: Jordan Clarkson and Alex Caruso.
The dynamic duo of Clarkson and Caruso have been great off the bench for the Lakers during this stretch, and arguably, for each other as well. Clarkson’s had his name in and out of trade rumors all season, and was previously coming off a poor individual stretch, but has found himself revitalized in what has been arguably his best stretch of games as a professional. Jordan has averaged: 24 points, 5.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1 steal per game on 55/20/88 shooting splits over the last five games.
There are a number of possible reasons for the the sudden upswing in Clarkson’s performance, but the main component might be playing alongside Caruso. Caruso, the lovable Las Vegas Summer League standout, has found himself in and out of the G-League and parent team this season. He’s now been given a consistent opportunity with Ball missing extended time with injuries over the last month. Caruso is not the perfect NBA player, he is not the best athlete (although his dunks may make you think otherwise) he is not the best shooter (on this team he actually stands out), but what he does do is make plays:
As seen in this play against the Knicks, Caruso observes the combination of Clarkson clearing out and Jarrett Jack fronting the Randle screen, which in turn allows him to fake as if he were to use the apparent Randle screen, causing Randle’s defender (Enes Kanter) to follow his dribble on the switch, leading to the perfectly timed bounce pass to Randle for the flush.
What may seem elementary for a point guard is executed perfectly, thus allowing a teammate to get the easy scoring opportunity. That’s been an area the Lakers have been suffering in without Lonzo. What Caruso ultimately provides the team, and Clarkson, is the ability to simply operate within natural roles. Caruso not only recognizes, but accepts the duty of putting his team in areas in which they simply catch-and-attack as exemplified in the Randle play.
Clarkson, who has struggled finding the right balance of scoring and facilitating early in his career, is finding the perfect mix alongside Caruso. The two have created a sudden and genuine chemistry on the court, with a potent understanding of each other’s strengths.
It is not only the eye test that supports the two are gelling and providing an impact, but the data specifically has been jarring:
What the table details is in the 367 possessions of the Caruso-Clarkson backcourt, the Lakers are outscoring their opponents by a point differential of 8.2 points per 100 possessions, which would be better than 90 percent of the NBA.
The sample size is indeed small, but indicative on how well the two have played alongside one and other thus far. An important question, though, is what happens to the pair once Ball returns. Luke Walton staggered Ball’s substitution pattern before the injury, enabling him to start the second quarter with the bench unit.
This generally meant Caruso, Ennis, or Clarkson would take over at the point guard slot midway through the first, playing alongside KCP. A possible solution in keeping the pairing intact is to go to a more traditional substitution pattern where Ball stays in longer in the first quarter then enters later in the second, allowing more time for Caruso and Clarkson to play together. That is if Walton goes to Caruso before Tyler Ennis.
Ennis has started every game at point guard during Ball’s absence and represents one of the aspects of this streak that has not worked. Now, that may sound contradictory as Ennis starting could suggest he playing a role in the team winning, but in fact he has been a negative on the floor.
The Lakers are being outscored by an average of 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Ennis at point guard on the season, which is in the 8th percentile of the league in terms of point differential. Of course, not all of the Lakers poor play during his stints should fall on his shoulders, especially when he is only averaging 15.6 minutes per game, compared to Caruso’s 23.2 minutes during this five-game stretch, but continuing to play him before Caruso when Ball returns would be an unwise choice by Walton.
The other new component to the Lakers rotation, which dates back prior to the Ball injury, is Larry Nance Jr. playing the center position. Nance, who was starting alongside Brook Lopez earlier in the season at the power forward slot, recently was moved to the bench in favor of Julius Randle, in effect making him the team’s new backup center. This has not been remotely as effective for him or the team.
In 910 possessions of Nance at power forward, the Lakers have an 104.2 offensive rating, a 100.5 defensive rating (+3.6) and are holding opponents to a 50 percent effective field goal percentage That defensive rating is in the 95th percentile of the league.
In nearly 800 possessions of Nance at center, the Lakers have an 105.3 offensive rating, a 110.8 defensive rating (-5.6) and are allowing opponents to sport a 54.4 percent effective field goal percentage. The team is scoring one more point per every 100 possessions with Nance at center, but allowing a little over 10 more points on defense.
Again, the team ratings can not solely lay responsible on one player, as when Nance played power forward he shared the floor with Lopez who provided the rim protection. At center, he must make up for rookie Kyle Kuzma’s defensive shortcomings. Nance has indeed found himself often pushed around easily when at center, and the team’s general rim protection drastically lessens. With no other viable option currently to fill the void (Zubac and Bryant have been in-and-out of the G-League) the team must find ways to get Nance reps with Lopez, and Randle back at center for stretches with the second unit, theoretically upping his minutes and lowering Nance’s as a possible solution.
The adage of winning cures all, has in most part rang true for a Lakers’ team who has had to deal with a noticeable amount of baggage off the court, and on the court. When Lonzo Ball does return, there will be an adjustment period as there always is with a returning starter, but if the Lakers can blend the aspects of what they uncovered without him with the good components that were present before he was out, this team might find some momentum to carry them through the rest of this season.