The Los Angeles Lakers have a singular goal for the first season of the LeBron James era: wins. Just get enough wins to make the playoffs, and preferably in a decent seed, given how mediocre the Western Conference has been this season.
As that is the case, don’t look for many changes while the team is playing as well as it has in recent weeks. So even if Lakers head coach Luke Walton would like to get Michael Beasley more minutes, it’s hard to change things up while things are going well, as Walton told reporters before Sunday’s win over the Miami Heat (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“Obviously we trust Beasley and we know what kind of player he is but we’ve been winning, and it’s tough to mess with the rotation when you’re winning games. But yeah I’m looking for opportunities to get him some more opportunities.”
Look, finding Beasley minutes is probably somewhere in the hundreds in terms of Walton’s actual priorities at the moment. He simply hasn’t been good. Lip service to how much they might trust him notwithstanding, Beasley looks to be a very disappointing signing at this point.
But moving on, where Walton’s quote becomes interesting is if you apply it to other tweaks in the rotation the Lakers could be making, but might not because they happen to be winning games against inferior opponents.
For example, the starting lineup has played 139 minutes together and has a net rating of -2.6, meaning they have been 2.6 points worse than the opponents per 100 possessions. A starting lineup featuring LeBron James simply can’t be a net-negative. But, as Walton says, it’s hard to see him making any kind of change while the team is winning.
Now, to be fair, that net rating is on its way up recently. Over the last two weeks, the starters have actually had a plus rating, so maybe things are trending up. But whichever group starts the game together tends to play the most minutes together, and for the Lakers, that lineup has to be a demonstrative plus in terms of how the game goes while it’s on the court.
That context noted, these last couple weeks have also featured two dominant performances by James, and the schedule has lightened significantly. The starting lineup’s numbers data should probably be even more impressive, if we’re being honest.
This gets back to the point of results over process. Yes, that lineup has literally been a net-positive, but how much more lopsided would some of these games be if the lineup that spent the most time on the court together was actually the Lakers’ best lineup?
Think of it this way: Fans of the Denver Broncos have had to watch Case Keenum regress to being Case Keenum this season because their president and general manager John Elway bought into the wins Keenum got while getting to throw to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, without taking into account the drop-off Keenum would have when he doesn’t have two of the NFL’s most dynamic targets to benefit from. This is the kind of thing that happens when you only look at results and not what led to them.
Another example was Scott Brooks famously playing Kendrick Perkins at center instead of Serge Ibaka on those Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden Oklahoma City Thunder teams, and pointing to the team’s wins as a reason why he wasn’t tweaking the lineup. Of course a team with Durant, Westbrook and Harden was going to win. But it could have been so much better if Brooks had just considered a process-derived change.
History will never forgive you for that, Scott.
Now, there are ways to lean less heavily on this starting lineup even if Walton doesn’t want to make a change to the guys who actually start games. This quickly becomes convoluted, but if Walton really doesn’t want to make a change to the starters, merely bringing up subs earlier is really his only move. It’ll be interesting to see if that kind of thing happens, or if the starting lineup continues to be disappointing.
It’s still pretty early in the season and Walton still has time to figure out which rotation is best for the Lakers. It would be legitimately shocking if he and his coaching staff was only factoring wins and losses into their decision-making, but he would by no means be the first coach or decision-maker to fall victim to that line of thinking.