Halfway through the preseason, the one major takeaway from this Los Angeles Lakers roster is that the players on it mostly have a very specific set of strengths and weaknesses. There is a good deal of talent, even outside the two stars, but it’s spread across a lot of different players. That means Frank Vogel will have to be very strategic in how he manages his rotations.
In service of that effort to maximize the Lakers’ productivity, here is my second annual list of the five lineups I am most interested in seeing on the floor this year. As opposed to last year, when there were lineup curiosities on the Lakers that proved especially intriguing, this year is all about what combinations put the best product on the court. It’s time to win some games.
1. The Starters
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and JaVale McGee
The Lakers have experimented with their starting lineup, primarily in the backcourt, frequently to start the preseason. Within that construct, it has become fairly clear that there are three locks to start for the team: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green. The positional synergy between the three of them is too good to not play them together; James provides the playmaking, Green the spot-up shooting, and Davis everything else. They’re also the best three defenders on the roster. Tweaking the starting lineup throughout the regular season will be fine so long as these three players remain unchanged.
At the center spot, McGee has looked fresh and full of bounce in the first three games. He deserves to start over Dwight Howard, and it certainly seems to mean a great deal to McGee to be valued as a starter. Nevertheless, if Howard earns the matchup on occasional nights, I don’t think anyone would be particularly offended.
Now, we get to the interesting part. Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley have both started at point guard thus far this preseason, and neither was particularly impressive. As a result, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing over the Lakers’ point guard position (it’s the most frequent topic of discussion on our end as well), and the solution might be to simply eliminate the point guard altogether.
The beauty of the Lakers right now is their size. Opposing teams feel their presence in the paint, on the glass, and in the passing lanes. Rather than start a small point guard, the Lakers should lean into that and put KCP at the one. He is 6’5”, can bring the ball up and actually dribble the ball in the half court, and while that may not sound like much, it is something that Green doesn’t really provide.
Caldwell-Pope is also a good shooter, preventing opposing teams from mucking up the spacing like they do when Rondo is playing point. He has shot 41.4% on wide-open threes as a Laker, and they’ll probably account for a lot more than 27% of his attempts if he’s playing next to Davis and James.
2. The Davis-led second unit:
Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Davis, McGee
Assuming Davis and James stagger their minutes, Davis will be the focal point of a bench lineup while LeBron sits. These are the Rajon Rondo minutes. The chemistry Rondo and Davis developed during their year in New Orleans is palpable (they sported a plus-3.9 net rating together in 2017-18), and it clearly behooves Davis to have a real playmaker at guard to get him the ball in his spots. Rondo is absolutely that guy on this roster.
Caruso is next to Rondo for a little defensive heft. We know what Rondo does well, and it’s not defense. Kyle Kuzma is the perfect secondary scorer to Davis because he can occupy literally any part of the floor that Davis doesn’t want to. As Rob Mahoney put particularly well in the SI Top 100 rankings, “there is an improvisational bent to Kuzma that lends itself to the rapidly evolving nature of an NBA game. When he sets out with a live dribble, Kuzma might have an idea of where he wants to go or what move he wants to use, but there’s no fixed course.”
Again, McGee vs. Howard is a judgement call, but it’s already been a bit sad during the preseason to see Rondo throw lobs that Howard doesn’t have the lift to reach. Considering Rondo’s delight in the highlight pass — and Caruso’s, too — McGee gets the nod here.
3. The LeBron James spacing unit:
Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, Green, James, Jared Dudley
It’s possible there isn’t enough defense here, but I don’t know that I ever had as much fun watching the Cavaliers as when LeBron James and a parade of shooters would blitz opposing benches at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The Lakers didn’t really attempt to do this last year, at least not until after the trade deadline with the acquisition of Reggie Bullock. But even then, it required Kuzma playing center, which was always a sketchy proposition.
This lineup feels like it could have some legs, even though subbing Kuzma for Daniels might be necessary in order to avoid having the worst defensive backcourt in the league. Daniels is a straight chucker — he knows that’s why he’s on the team. And if there’s one thing Cook learned in Golden State, it’s to keep shooting, especially when you’re feeling it, and Green commands a ton of respect at the 3-point line as well. Jared Dudley in a high pick-and-pop may not inspire as much dread as Channing Frye did, but he’s passable. He’s hit some big shots against the Lakers before, and now is his time to even the scales.
4. The small-ball closing lineup:
Caruso, Green, Kuzma, LeBron, Davis
Lakers Twitter will probably overheat the minute this unit takes the floor together for the first time. Davis at the five is a destroyer of worlds. LeBron is the same at any position. Caruso and Green make for a pretty fine defensive duo, and Kuzma just fills in the gaps. If the three perimeter players could average 38% shooting from distance this year, it’s hard to see how opposing teams would be able to guard this group.
5. The pipe dream:
Andre Iguodala plus any other four Lakers
Subbing Iguodala into that closing lineup for Caruso gives the Lakers the scariest five-man unit in the league. That might be a homer view, but the way Iguodala rises to the occasion during the playoffs is objective fact. He functions as a backup point guard who can push the pace on offense while also being an elite wing defender, and it’s hard to imagine a better individual player to make all the Lakers’ pieces fit together. If he somehow became available via buyout and wanted to play for this team, that would legitimately be manna from heaven (sorry KCP).
Even if Vogel doesn’t adhere strictly to this list, there are a few guiding principles to follow. Stagger LeBron and Davis, unless it’s garbage time. Tether Rondo’s minutes to those of Davis, and avoid playing Rondo and LeBron together. Generally ignore Avery Bradley, who has not lived up to the preseason hype at all so far. And sometimes the simplest option, like letting LeBron play point guard, makes the most sense. With two superstars, there aren’t a lot of wrong decisions.