When the Los Angeles Lakers begin the regular season against the LA Clippers this Tuesday, everyone will get their first look at what the purple and gold’s regular season rotation is set to look like for the first time.
Sure, Kyle Kuzma seems likely to miss the game and Alex Caruso could be out as well, but other than that the Lakers are entering the season mostly healthy, and given that neither of those guys really seemed to be in contention for a starting role, we will at least get to see what will probably be the Lakers’ starters for the first chunk of the year.
Who will be in that lineup? It’s not certain, although after the group of LeBron James, Avery Bradley, Anthony Davis, Danny Green and JaVale McGee started two of the Lakers’ six preseason games — the only repeat starters — including Wednesday night’s seeming dress rehearsal, it seemed likely that they’d get the nod.
Well, not so fast, according to the man tasked with making those decisions. Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel told reporters after the team’s final preseason game that “maybe” the LeBron/AD/Green/Bradley/McGee group will get the nod on Tuesday, but he also said other players are still in contention for the final three spots as well (via Spectrum Sportsnet):
”Maybe. We’ll see. I think there are some other guys that still have made a case to be in there. Your Rajon (Rondo). KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) has played well. And Dwight (Howard), honestly those guys they could be in there as well. We’ll huddle up with the coaching staff, we’ll have a couple practices and make a decision at that point.”
Now, in the interest of Lakers fans not freaking out, it should be noted that actions usually speak louder than words on this stuff, and as was mentioned before, the non-Dwight/Rondo/KCP group of starters has started twice now, both games in which the Lakers dominated the Warriors (so they’ve done their job to prove themselves while out there, albeit against a weakened opponent).
Vogel has also proven to be endlessly effusive in praising his players in the media so far as head coach, so this could just be an attempt to stroke the egos of the guys who are going to miss out on the starting nod a bit, to make it seem like a tougher decision than it was.
But let’s forget all that for a second and take Vogel at his word. Have Rondo, Caldwell-Pope and Howard made legitimate cases to start over their counterparts in the LeBron/AD/Green/Bradley/McGee lineup?
No. But let’s look at the numbers anyway, I guess. Rondo averaged 8.7 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 43.5% from the field, and flashed admittedly good chemistry with Davis when they played together. Still, to call his defense a shell of what it once was would be a compliment that implied it still even resembles his former defense, and if Bradley can hit a few threes he would seem to be a much better fit with the starters even if he’s also an imperfect option.
Caldwell-Pope averaged more points (11) and shot a higher percentage (41.7%) than Green did (5 and 34.8%, respectively), but the Lakers didn’t sign Green to a two-year, $30 million deal to bench him behind Caldwell-Pope because of a few bad preseason games that don’t matter anyway and didn’t necessarily highlight Green’s skillset. He is still a theoretically perfect player to put with Davis and James, after all. Maybe KCP could swipe Bradley’s spot, but until we hear otherwise, Green seems like almost as much of a lock as James and Davis.
Howard’s recent resurgence would seem to on its face give him a compelling case to start, and it should be noted that he’s played really well, especially impressing with his newfound skill as a passer. Still, McGee has probably played even better over the totality of the six exhibition games, and looked like a more laterally mobile, lob-friendly fit with the starters, who have utilized the threat McGee presents on the glass and in the air alongside James and Davis to an occasionally hilarious degree.
Add in the fact that McGee has said he expects to start, and it’s hard to look at Howard’s production and imagine he has proven enough on a non-guaranteed deal during the preseason to risk upsetting the locker room dynamic so early, and especially not when McGee has played just as well or better.
This isn’t to say Vogel is lying. He could truly be considering all of these players for reasons we can’t know all of, and that might go outside of what we’ve seen from them publicly. He could also not want to give the Clippers four days to be certain of what starters they’re going to face on opening night. There are a variety of explanations for what he said, it just seems exceedingly unlikely at this point that any of those reasons (beyond an unknown injury or similar act of God) will lead to the starters on opening night being anyone but James, Davis, McGee, Bradley and Green.
We’ll see what happens this Tuesday, and surely everyone will react rationally to both these comments, and anything they lead to.