Now that the trade deadline has passed, the Lakers have the peace of mind to play out the rest of the season knowing they won’t be moving anywhere. That goes for Luke Walton, too, who recently has been assured — again — that he will at least finish out the year in Los Angeles.
However, that doesn’t mean that the players — or Walton — have any job security beyond this summer, which means it’s time for Walton to start improving his performance if he wants to remain the Lakers’ head coach into the 2019-20 NBA season.
In the midst of a 3-7 stretch, there has been a lot to dislike about this team’s play. In fairness, LeBron James has only played in half of those games, Lonzo Ball has been out for the whole stretch, and Rajon Rondo, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma have each missed some time. That doesn’t excuse how the Lakers have performed with the roster at their disposal, and part of the problem is the lineups Walton is putting on the floor, one of several things the front office has reportedly taken issue with.
The starting lineup the Lakers are using in the absence of Ball features Reggie Bullock, Brandon Ingram, James, Kuzma, and JaVale McGee. That lineup has a net rating of plus-5.5 in 28 minutes, and reflects good judgment by Walton that the starters needed some more defensive punch with Bullock replacing Rondo. For context, the lineup with Rondo in place of Bullock is minus-13.3 in 21 minutes.
Nevertheless, the strength of the starting group has been negated by the absolute tire fire that is the Lakers’ second units. Throughout the season, Walton has had a maddening insistence on playing 10 deep, despite the Lakers not really possessing enough quality players. Roster construction is on some level to blame for the fact that Los Angeles has to give so many minutes to net negatives such as Lance Stephenson, McGee, Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. However, an entirely avoidable problem is that Walton continues to play them together rather than staggering their minutes.
Staggering stars has been a bugaboo for NBA head coaches for years. Mark Jackson, among his many errors as Golden State’s head coach, routinely subbed out Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry together, forcing the Warriors to rely on the mid-range stylings of Jarrett Jack for extended stretches. Scott Brooks liked to play Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together as much as possible, and he has maintained the same patterns with John Wall and Bradley Beal. In Portland, Terry Stotts has struggled to find the right balance of how often Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum should play without one another.
In each of those instances, the combination of the team’s best players was so dynamic that it made some sense to maximize their time on the court together rather than separate them in lineups with lower efficiency. Better to stomach a few really bad minutes if it meant the team could have longer stretches of excellent play.
That doesn’t really apply to the Lakers. The starters’ production is fine, but it’s not great enough to justify keeping Kuzma, Ingram, and James on the floor together so often. The backup perimeter trio of Rondo, Stephenson, and KCP has a net rating of minus-10.3. Essentially, if that grouping plays even half as many minutes as the starters, they’ve already undone all the good work of the first unit.
Take, for example, the Lakers’ loss against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. The Lakers were off to a decent start, and held a 33-28 lead when Stephenson came in for LeBron with 3:02 remaining in the first quarter.
In the next 5:07 of game action, with KCP and Rondo also both on the floor, the Sixers proceeded to outscore Los Angeles 19-9. In the second half, the same thing happened, as Philadelphia went on a 17-8 run in the four and a half minutes Stephenson, Rondo and Caldwell-Pope shared the court.
If there is a matchup that isn’t working, Walton has the responsibility to make adjustments for later in the game, but he hasn’t shown the ability to do that yet. There are ways to utilize the three backup guards without the Lakers completely falling apart. If one of those players is replaced with Ingram or James, L.A. becomes a dramatically better team.
The trio of James, Stephenson, and KCP has a plus-14 net rating, and the grouping of Rondo, Stephenson, and Ingram is 4.2 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition. Even the three-man lineup of Rondo, KCP, and James is only minus-0.4 for the season.
Ingram, notably, has been able to keep bench units afloat in the absence of Kuzma and James. His point differential, per Cleaning the Glass, is plus-2.4 when the other two forwards are off the court. But he has only played about 20 percent of his non-garbage time possessions in such situations, which seems like a poor allocation of minutes.
Walton may not have been able to build this Lakers roster, but he is able to determine who plays and with whom. For whatever reason, he has continued to lean on lineups that have been shown to not have a chance of success, either because they have too little shooting, shot creation, or defense. Even with the limitations of their personnel, that shouldn’t be happening.
Not too many people around the league envy the task Luke Walton has in front of him as head coach of LeBron James and The Meme Team. But there are ways Walton can make his life easier, and minimizing the minutes of combinations that have been harmful for Los Angeles is a good first step.