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Josh Hart hasn’t shown enough to keep starting when Brandon Ingram returns

The starting lineup the Lakers are using makes a little more sense with him in it, but Josh Hart needed to play better if he wanted to stay a starter when Brandon Ingram comes back.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Walton and the Los Angeles Lakers are going to have quite the conundrum when Brandon Ingram returns from his his ankle injury. Ingram is getting closer to coming back, and the starting lineup has looked better than it did with him in it, but his replacement, Josh Hart, has been relatively underwhelming. More importantly, the Lakers merely went 3-2 in Ingram’s absence.

If Hart wanted to earn a permanent starting gig, he needed to do more, and given the way he’s played in Ingram’s absence, he’s left the door for Walton to reinstate Ingram to the role he held before spraining his ankle.

Let me clarify from the get-go here that all lineup data in Ingram’s absence is a tiny sample size, so take some of it with a grain of salt. The flip-side to that coin, however, is that on the evening of my writing this, Hart could take the world by storm and render my point moot. This is the kind of thing that happens when writing about stretches of fewer than 10 games or so.

You’ve heard the lineup data to this point, but it bears repeating. This season, the starting group of Lonzo Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James and JaVale McGee have held a 0.2 net rating over the 234 minutes it’s played together — meaning they’ve outscored opponents by 0.2 points per 100 possessions. By comparison, despite going 3-2 over the last five games, that lineup with Hart in Ingram’s place has held a +19.6 rating.

That’s the case for Hart staying with that group, but it’s Hart’s individual performance that was probably going to have to be world-killing in order to unseat Ingram. He has not been.

Over the last five games, Hart has averaged 9.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 0.8 assists per game on 40 percent shooting from the field, and made 37 percent of his 3-pointers. Those are fine-ish numbers, but they’re also basically what Hart has averaged this season even when Ingram was healthy. When you are granted extra responsibilities, the hope is that production would also go up. As it hasn’t, Hart hasn’t really made a particularly strong case to keep his starting gig.

I’ll put it this way; If you’re hoping to unseat someone from a spot they currently hold, you have to make a damn near inarguable case to do so — you have to knock out the defending champ. Hart has left the judges to make their decisions off of a proverbial scorecard of lineup data rather than his own stats, and as such, only has himself to blame if Walton rules in Ingram’s favor.

Walton has to decide what he values more: Hart’s individual production in the new role, or the continued impressive play of the starters when Hart is in Ingram’s spot among them. The Lakers’ record without Ingram probably shouldn’t be factored into the decision, but, as wins and losses were the reason Walton seemed to be reluctant to make a change in the first place, chances are, he’s probably going to factor the Lakers’ recent record into his decision.

Hart should probably remain the starter, but it has little to nothing to do with his play in that role, which means that in all likelihood Ingram will return to a starting spot. How long that remains the case is another question altogether, but this is probably how things will play out.

(Important note: I’m writing this hours before the Lakers take on the Brooklyn Nets in Brooklyn. Here’s hoping Hart proves all my points incorrect, drops 82 points and remains the starter moving forward.)

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