The NBA (just like all professional sports organizations) is a copycat league. If one team does something revolutionary, all other teams then try to replicate it — or wait for someone else to figure out a way to counteract that revolution and copy them. The Golden State Warriors have taken the league by storm with their “Death Lineup” small-ball concept, and given the roster makeup of the Los Angeles Lakers, the thinking has been that maybe they could put together such a lineup of their own.
Kyle Kuzma seems to think so, anyway. (via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN):
“Honestly I think our small-ball unit can be really good. I think we can have a Death Lineup, whether that’s Rondo and Lonzo on the floor at the same time, and me and B.I. and Bron, or substituting guys. I think as we get better defensively and get more continuity, that small-ball lineup is going to be huge for us.
“Especially in the playoffs, when everybody is going to be going small... We go to it when we’re kind of desperate, but I think that can be an advantage to where we can go to it regularly.”
When Kuzma mentions how little the Lakers have gone to such small-ball lineups, he said so in the context of them not having enough practice time to really implement it on a regular basis.
That said, in the 17 minutes Kuzma has shared the court with, say, LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, they’ve scored 97.5 points per 100 possessions while only giving up 90. That’s obviously a minuscule (and maybe meaningless) sample size at this point of the season, but it’s definitely an intriguing starting point once everyone gets healthy.
Since Kuzma mentioned Rondo as a potential fit, it’s worth mentioning that with him in Lonzo’s place, the Lakers have allowed 110 points per 100 possessions to the 103.1 they’ve scored in the 13 minutes they’ve played together. That’s... not great, but again, small sample size theater does strange things to lineup data.
Weirdly enough, the small-ball lineup the Lakers have used most this year has been that group, but with Lance Stephenson in Ingram’s place. In the 31 minutes they’ve shared the court, they’ve held an offensive rating of 104.2 and defensive rating of 113.9.
But which exact combinations of players are less important of a question than the elephant that’s been in the room since July: Will LeBron be willing to play some small-ball center?
When asked about whether he or James would play the five, Kuzma kept it pretty real:
“I would hope he would be the five (laughs) He’s a little bit bigger, more muscle. But offensively it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to have the ball, and we have pretty good pick-and-pop chemistry. It’s all about defensively and how we guard those guys.”
During the preseason and at the start of this year before Tyson Chandler was signed, Kuzma hadn’t fared well at all as a small-ball center. Not only was he getting pushed around regularly defensively (as he alluded to above), but it was taking a toll on his offense, too, which the Lakers cannot afford.
That said, Kuzma thinks the Lakers’ small-ball lineups can work defensively now because of how much both he and the team have improved on that end since the start of the season:
“That definitely starts with me. I think at the beginning of the year from now, I’m a way different defender than I was. I think that was one of the biggest reasons holding us back from it.”
That’s honest, candid stuff from Kuzma, and it’s definitely an interesting idea that will need time to iron out.
In theory, there’s something to that group working, but the one thing to keep in mind is how bought in each Warrior is while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green share the floor. When you play a lineup that small, each and every player has to be immensely focused defensively and, well, James hasn’t been that this year. For that matter, and while he has improved, neither has Kuzma.
As Kuzma points out, this group hasn’t had much time to gel in practice, so it makes sense that Luke Walton has been somewhat reluctant to trot it out during games. With that said, this is one of the few ways to get all the Lakers’ best players on the court at the same time. Even if it’s for short spurts, it befits Walton to find ways to get them reps together so they might at least have an idea of how good their small-ball units can be.
First things first, though, everyone has to get healthy, and quickly. Time is running out for the lineup Kuzma has in mind to put in enough work to build a decent sample size before the playoffs. Once everyone is back, it will certainly be worth watching whether they can borrow from some of what makes Golden State so special.