It’s no secret the Lakers have used more than their fair share of lineups this season, as Luke Walton has spent much of the early part of the year mixing and matching players to learn an overwhelmingly new roster.
One unit that has had a surprising amount of success is the four-guard grouping of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Josh Hart, which has played 70 minutes together and currently sports a net rating of 4.9, meaning they’re outscoring their opponents at a rate that would equal 4.9 points per 100 possessions.
For context, the Lakers’ overall net rating is 1.5.
On the surface, playing those four guards together seems like it could be an offensive and defensive nightmare. Rondo and Stephenson both have ball-stopping tendencies and have been poor long-range shooters throughout their careers.
The lack of spacing in that backcourt — combined with Lance’s affinity for hijacking plays to showcase his own brand of one-on-one creation — suggests that this group would be doomed on offense. Whatever they brought defensively would seemingly be cancelled out by the “forward” pairing of Caldwell-Pope and Hart, who are nominally shooting guards and were now tasked with playing unfamiliar roles and guarding much bigger players.
Nevertheless, inexplicably, this four-man lineup has been a winner for Los Angeles. Like a group of piranhas, this Lakers lineup might look undersized, kind of goofy and not particularly dangerous on their own, but can strip unsuspecting and overmatched reserves to the bone when swarming together.
With Rondo out for the next month, it’s worth considering why this grouping works, and if there’s a way to maintain the efficiency of Walton’s favored reserves by sliding another player into Rondo’s role.
First, there’s the matter of who plays the five next to the four guards. Lineups with Johnathan Williams were an abject disaster, which is probably why seeing this set of players take the floor still causes so much consternation for Lakers fans. Tyson Chandler also hasn’t been the right answer at center, but when JaVale McGee is the missing piece, good things start to happen. McGee has only played in this configuration for 21 minutes, but L.A.’s net rating is 28.6 when those five are on the floor together.
The Rondo/Stephenson/KCP/Hart lineup has been getting the job done defensively, allowing 88.9 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark among Laker four-man units that have played at least 30 minutes. They haven’t rebounded the ball particularly well, which is to be expected for such a small lineup, but they force their opponents to shoot poorly (48 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass) and pressure like hell, making opposing lineups turn the ball over on 23 percent of their possessions. Hart has assumed the responsibility of defending in the post and done it with aplomb, holding his own against the strongest opponents.
There’s also just enough offense to keep Los Angeles afloat. KCP has responded from a terrible start to the season that saw him lose his starting job, and is now shooting 40 percent from three in November. His volume is up as well, at about 9.5 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. Hart has been an even more effective long-range threat, connecting on 43 percent of his threes. Rondo and Stephenson are both around 40 percent as well from distance, but their frequency is much lower than the KCP/Hart duo.
The vertical threat of McGee, and Rondo’s ability to hit him on lobs, opens up the floor for the other Lakers to launch. That efficiency from distance makes this group’s offense better than their opposition’s, which is all Los Angeles needs.
Rondo has been the primary creator in these settings, which makes sense since the other Laker ball handlers (LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball) play in the starting lineup. KCP and Hart are naturally low-usage, and though Stephenson likes to generate offense, it’s mostly for himself. Whoever replaces Rondo will have to be the primary initiator, play competent defense at the point of attack, and ideally be able to throw a competent lob pass.
Ingram, therefore, is the most natural replacement to play backup point guard. His usage rate is similar to Rondo, and he prefers to run a conventional offense, as opposed to the motion that Ball thrives in. Ingram’s assist percentage is much lower than Rondo at this point (8.5 percent vs. 33.6 percent), but Ingram doubled that number last season when he had greater control of the offense. Ball is clearly a more capable passer than Ingram at this point in their careers, but the chemistry he already has with LeBron and Kyle Kuzma indicates he should play more of his minutes with the starters.
The Lilliputian quality of this weirdo, almost-all-guards lineup would be ruined if Ingram took Rondo’s place, but Ingram would certainly have a positive impact on defense. The lanky third-year Laker has begun to utilize his length to great effect, particularly against smaller guards, which would allow everyone else to stay in their already successful defensive roles.
Walton suggested he may use Stephenson as a backup point guard, which he did during Rondo’s suspension, though Ingram was also suspended during that stretch. Lance moving to the one would presumably open up minutes for summer league favorite Svi Mykhailiuk. The Lakers might even try more staggering to juice the offense in the second unit.
However, I’d love to keep KCP, Hart, and Lance together, ideally with Ingram, and see if the results continue to hold. Unleashing Ingram as a reserve point guard could even allow him to regain the burst we saw when he ran the offense a year ago. With Rondo out for the next 4-5 weeks, the little Laker lineup may have seen its final days, but hopefully Los Angeles can keep some of the magic alive.