When Brandon Ingram returns from his four-game suspension as the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, he will (likely) be bumping Kyle Kuzma out of the starting lineup. Or so he seems to think.
Brandon Ingram after serving four-game suspension: "I'm not coming off the bench. I don't know the lineup, but I know I'll be in it."— Bill Oram (@billoram) October 29, 2018
The move would be an unsurprising one for a few reasons, but mainly because Ingram is one of the most important long-term building blocks the Lakers have on their roster and was playing fairly well individually prior to his suspension, averaging 14 points and 4 rebounds on 52.2 percent shooting.
The only reason this move was unexpected on any level was how good Kuzma and the Lakers looked with the sophomore forward starting again. I suppose it’s possible Ingram Kuzma and Ingram both start, but that would be incredibly unorthodox so until it happens, we’ll assume he’s taking Kuzma’s spot.
Starting at power forward once again while Ingram was out, Kuzma slipped back into the glass sneakers he wore during his Cinderella rookie season with the Lakers, averaging 22 points per game over the team’s four contests without Ingram, which ranks second on the team (behind James) over that span.
Kuzma’s scoring came with efficiency as well, as he shot 50 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from 3-point range after moving back to his more natural power forward position, good averages that look world-beating when compared to the 13 points on 35.7 percent shooting that he averaged while playing primarily backup center over the Lakers’ first two games, contests that also saw Kuzma shoot just 16.7 percent from behind the arc.
Basically, even with Kuzma going back to the bench, Lakers head coach Luke Walton needs to get him more time a) alongside LeBron and b) at power forward and not center.
Walton will also have to figure out how to make the James and Ingram pairing with the starters work a little more seamlessly. Over the last four games with Kuzma at the four and James slotted back down to the three, James had more space to work with both on and off the ball, while JaVale McGee’s lanes rolling to the basket were cleaner.
With Ingram coming back, spacing may be disrupted due to either his hesitance to shoot and being seen as less of a threat from distance than Kuzma by the NBA at large.
At the very least Ingram is shooting more efficiently overall with James on the floor so far (52.9 percent vs. 50 percent), but per-36 minutes Ingram has been able to shoot and score more —and also grab more rebounds — with James on the bench than he does while sharing the court with him, according to NBA.com.
Does that mean the two can never play together? No, those numbers come from a two-game sample size and actually aren’t that bad, but they do mean that the Lakers might be better served staggering Ingram’s playing time with James as the two get acclimated to how to best bring out the best in each other.
Still, with how much the Lakers have bet on Ingram over the last few years, bumping him down to the bench would have been an interesting and risky move from a locker room and perception standpoint. Now he and James just have to defend the decision from a basketball perspective as well, and now they’ll have some time to make their argument together on the basketball court.