Much like the start of last season, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a bit of a pickle in regards to the starting lineup. Last year, the LeBron James-Brandon Ingram fit wasn’t all that natural and the team looked better when, say, Josh Hart came in and James was surrounded by players who more closely mirrored his teammates of the past.
This year, it’s been JaVale McGee, who hasn’t quite fit alongside James and now Anthony Davis. Thus far (albeit through only 45 minutes), the starters have scored 99 points per 100 possessions and given up 107.1 — giving them a -8.2 rating.
After the Lakers’ dominating win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, Frank Vogel was asked about the starting lineup and said he wants a larger sample size before he starts making any changes to that group, and that it shouldn’t be fully judged until guys get back from their various maladies.
“It’s waiting for guys to get healthy. I like to do rotations in five-game increments. Let the preseason play out, let’s see what this looks like for five games. There’s a lot of peaks and valleys,” Vogel said. “I try not to yo-yo the starting lineup very much and we’ll see how it continues to progress.”
It makes some sense that Vogel would want to see the rotation at full strength before he starts making such sweeping decisions as changing the starting lineup. Though a couple questions are worth asking:
For one thing, the players currently out are Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo. Unless he’s played way out of position, Kuzma almost certainly doesn’t fit into the starting lineup. And unless Rondo finds a time machine, he almost certainly doesn’t belong on an NBA court.
Secondly, Vogel’s logic here is a little iffy because that it’s really rare that a team will have its rotation fully healthy at any point in the grueling 82-game NBA schedule. This is about as close as the Lakers might get (knock on wood), and thus the sooner the Lakers can get as much clarity on combinations that work, the better.
Back to McGee and the starters, though: Let’s just do side-by-side comparisons of him and Howard with the superstar duo. When McGee has been out there with James and Davis, the Lakers have basically played even (101 ORTG, 100.9 DRTG). Insert Howard for McGee and that jumps to and insane 45.8 NRTG (112.5 ORTG, 66.7 DRTG) — though again, they’ve only shared the court for 11 minutes thus far.
Isolate that to two-man lineups and the information tells the same story.
James-McGee lineups have carried a -4.3 NRTG. Davis-McGee lineups are getting outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions. Swap out McGee for Howard and those numbers jump to 31.5 and 59.4, respectively.
It makes perfect sense that Vogel wants to wait for a larger sample size. We’re talking about minuscule amounts of time and numbers that could swing with only a couple good games in either direction. But when the stats are this loud, it’s worth at least paying attention to these combinations specifically and possibly preparing for a change.
And before you respond with, “Well it doesn’t matter who starts the game; all that matters is who finishes,” well, don’t.
The reason starting lineups actually do matter is because of the amount those groups share the court compared to other lineup combinations. As an example, the starters so far this season have played three times as many minutes as the next closest group, and that will likely remain the case throughout the season.
So it does indeed matter who starts the game, as they will likely spend more time on it together than any other lineup, and by quite a bit.
Another reason why the starters matter here is because of who shares the court in those moments. The Lakers absolutely have to dominate when James and Davis are on the court at the same time. It should go without saying, but I cannot stress that fact enough. If McGee is having that negative an impact on James and Davis, then not only is there a case to be made that he shouldn’t start, but he may as well not be in the rotation altogether — and when Kyle Kuzma returns, McGee’s minutes should be reduced.
Again, all this could be made a moot point if McGee, say, starts caring. No play better summed his season to this point than when he let the hilariously not fleet-footed Jonas Valanciunas drive right by him and took a hugely dangerous flagrant foul out of frustration. In no world should McGee get beat off the dribble like that and, instead of competing to get back into the play, he moped and took the easy way out, looking terribly in the process.
Howard, on the other hand, has worked his tail off, accepted his role and somehow overcome more baggage than anyone else on the roster to become a legitimate fan favorite. Hell, even Kobe Bryant is singing his praises.
Maybe Vogel doesn’t want to make the change from McGee to Howard in the starting lineup now, but he sure as hell has to be thinking about it.