It was not ideal for the Lakers to lose two starters to suspension less than one week into the season, having already lost their first two games to Western Conference playoff teams.
But the silver lining to that setback has been watching how wonderfully the team’s bench has stepped up in the past three games. Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma have been such natural fits next to LeBron James and JaVale McGee that it begs considering if these changes should last even when Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram are able to return.
For context, the starting lineup of Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, James, and McGee has a plus-1.6 differential in two games, per Cleaning the Glass. The new starting lineup of Ball, Hart, James, Kuzma, and McGee has a plus-12.8 differential. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the positional breakdowns.
Lonzo may literally be the perfect point guard to pair with LeBron. Although he claims to have no qualms about returning to the bench if it helps the team, Ball needs to be playing as much as possible. He is arguably the most impactful defender on the roster and provides a level of pressure at the point of attack that Rondo can not, or will not, at this point in his career. He also is more cognizant of back cuts.
On the offensive end, the Lakers need shooting surrounding James, and Ball is a better shooter than Rondo. Perhaps more importantly, Ball is also more willing to launch from three, taking more than twice as many threes as Rondo, which dramatically improves the Lakers’ spacing. That confidence is slowly starting to extend into Ball attacking the rim as well, something Rondo is loathe to do, at least with the intention of scoring. Other than LeBron, Lonzo was the player who popped the most in the team’s win against Denver Thursday, stuffing the stat sheet with 12 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, and 5 steals.
The Ingram/Kuzma swap is much less clear cut. Kuzma has a natural chemistry with James that Ingram hasn’t yet discovered, owing to Kuzma’s skill as a play finisher, rather than a shot creator. Kuzma also has no inhibitions as a shooter, maybe even to his detriment at times. In the three games post-suspension, Kuzma is shooting 30-of-58 from the field, a sizable volume of looks for a secondary scorer.
Ingram is a better defender than Kuzma though, and versatile enough to guard some perimeter players. Kuzma has been tasked with a different defensive role, as he plays the four and pushes James to small forward, but his limitations compared to Ingram are noticeable. Nevertheless, Kuzma’s offensive fit is tantalizing. Rather than subbing in for McGee as he had been, it might make more sense to replace Ingram as the first substitution and let the third-year forward play more without LeBron.
The bench rotation has also found a balance without Rondo and Ingram. Lance Stephenson has taken full advantage as the de-facto backup point guard, surprising even the most ardent Laker fans with his comfort level in a fast-paced offense, while Svi Mykhailiuk has shown some of his playmaking and gravity as a bench wing. Both players have been granted extra minutes by default, but they have earned even more opportunities with their play.
If Ingram and Rondo return to the starting lineup, the Lakers will be sacrificing a five-man grouping that has thrived in their absence. If they come back on the bench, Stephenson will be moved into an off-ball role and Ingram will subsume Svi’s minutes, cramping the floor for the reserve units. Either way, the equilibrium achieved in the last three games will be disturbed. Luke Walton will have to find some harmony between the number of ball-handlers and the number of shooters on the floor at any given time.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that the suspensions didn’t have anything to do with the Lakers’ increased efficiency. The most significant lineup change might have been starting Hart instead of Caldwell-Pope, which doesn’t have to stop. Hart has been better than KCP at just about everything in the first five games, including scoring, distributing, rebounding, and even defending. Caldwell-Pope’s calling card was his perimeter defense last season, but that hasn’t yet appeared this year. Neither has his shooting, and he has never been as aggressive as Hart in driving to the hoop.
The Lakers have looked quite good with Kuzma and Ball starting, and they’ve shown enough to earn more playing time, but the redistribution of minutes towards Hart is possibly the most important outcome of this past week. If Walton came to that conclusion within three games without any external stimulus, it stands to reason that the rest of the rotation will fall into place soon enough.