The Lakers take the court tonight for the first time in the 2020-21 season, and despite the shortened offseason — and limited amount of time we got to celebrate this last title — there is still an overwhelming desire to see what this team looks like.
Most people would agree that the Lakers upgraded their talent level during their offseason, and the ten-man rotation is as stacked as any in the league. That rotation doesn’t even include 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker, who apparently has been taking names during training camp. Frank Vogel has a lot of options at his disposal in terms of constructing lineups for the 2020-21 Lakers, and if last year is any indication, he will try every possible option over the course of the season.
The question now is which of those lineups will prove to be the most fruitful, or simply the most entertaining. I’m here to answer the latter part of that query. Here are the five lineups I can’t wait to see from the Lakers this season.
1. The Incumbents
Who: Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis
The Lakers just finished a season in which they were as lovable as they have been in recent memory, and not just for fans of the team, but outside observers as well. It was impossible to watch that group and not enjoy the camaraderie that was so clearly evident on the court, and the way each of the Lakers played for one another. It was a team in the truest sense of the word.
The new version of the Lakers has the potential to be great, maybe even more so than last year’s iteration, but watching the 2019-20 team was always fulfilling. They played hard every night and seemed to justify the investment that we put into them as fans. That’s why the group I want to see most is those same guys, the holdovers of the defending champions.
Incidentally, this lineup wasn’t a particularly common combination for last year’s team; they only combined for 43 minutes in the regular season and playoffs. Sub out Kuzma for Markieff Morris and that’s a lineup that saw 15 minutes of daylight, so it’s not like these groupings are what won the Lakers the title. Still, there’s some comfort in familiarity, and I’m not quite ready to let go of one of the most consistently excellent teams of my lifetime as a Lakers fan.
2. The Newbies
Who: Dennis Schröder, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol
First of all, I am aware that Horton-Tucker isn’t a newcomer, but he played so little last year that we’re all just foaming at the mouth to see him on the court as much as possible. The more THT, the better.
Secondly, I see little reason why this combination of players would see any meaningful time together unless James or Davis was resting, which will happen during the preseason, so it’s a good time to float this possibility. Schröder, Matthews, and Harrell have all talked about how they just want to add to what was already a winning situation in Los Angeles, but it’s clear that they all also want to prove that they’re capable of being actual contributors to a title-winning team, the two reigning Sixth Men in particular. Just think of that Schröder/Harrell pick-and-roll wrecking second units. If the returning Lakers lack any of the urgency they had in their championship run a year ago, these guys will pick up the slack immediately.
The Harrell/Gasol combo is also one that I’ve been curious about. It remains to be seen if center is Harrell’s best defensive position, or if he can hang next to a true 5, especially one who provides the spacing for him to do what he does best and bulldoze through the paint. Again, the Lakers don’t need this duo to perform well together, but it’s a fascinating idea in theory, and one that I would like to see in practice if possible.
3. The New Starters
Who: Caldwell-Pope, Matthews, James, Davis, and Gasol
Once again, I am giving my choice for the team’s starting lineup, and once again, I fully expect to be overruled once the real games begin. Last year, I had KCP as a starting guard as well alongside the other four eventual starters, a lineup that didn’t come to fruition until the bubble due to Avery Bradley’s extenuating circumstances.
This year, I predict that Schröder will earn a starting not, but I am not convinced that is the best choice for the Lakers. Any team that starts James and Davis at the 3 and 4 should really lean into its size, and the best way for Vogel and the coaching staff do that is by playing the 6’5 Caldwell-Pope at lead guard and Matthews at the 2. Even though the former Buck is only listed at 6’4, he has a 6’9 wingspan and routinely guards players much bigger than he is. Assuming Matthews is the closest analog the Lakers have for Danny Green, this resembles the perimeter rotation that the team started during every playoffs series. Nostalgia isn’t what excites me here; rather, it’s that this has been a blueprint for success.
4. The Pinball Machine
Who: Caruso, Kuzma, James, Gasol, and any fifth
The Lakers had two really good passers on last year’s team, but playing them together never looked quite as pretty as you would hope. That shouldn’t be the case with this year’s group, as James and Gasol are both excellent passers who can theoretically work off one another. James can make any pass from anywhere on the court, but he’s best on the move, collapsing the defense, and then finding the gaps. Gasol, meanwhile, likes to survey and facilitate, which can happen in tandem with James’ more active approach to creation. Combine those two sublime passers with Caruso and Kuzma, who are at their best reacting to the defense off the ball, and we’re in business. Caruso and Kuzma should be in constant motion like pinballs bouncing across the court, daring defenses to keep up with them as the ball flies around like it’s ricocheting off bumpers.
There are several great choices for who fills in the final spot here. Alex Regla made a compelling case for playing Schröder next to Gasol since the combo guard flourished next to a big who could make simple reads from the high post in Steven Adams; Gasol could be a hyper-charged version of what Adams provides. There’s an argument for Matthews as a sniper from distance to provide some space around the rest of operation, and Caldwell-Pope would fill a similar role while also adding some drive-and-dish ability. Davis is also a good fit; he makes any lineup better.
Tethering Caruso to James helped Caruso find the best version of himself as a player who simply reads the game. Hopefully, Gasol can have a similarly beneficial impact for Kuzma if the two get to play together.
5. The Mop-Up Crew
Who: Horton-Tucker, Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jared Dudley, and Devontae Cacok
If this five-man group is playing together for the Lakers, and feel free to sub in Kostas Antetokounmpo for anyone but THT, that means things have gone very well, and they’re likely nursing a healthy lead as the game winds down. It’s hard to find much fault in that outcome.
Horton-Tucker also gets a chance to run the show in this grouping with quality shooting in Cook and Dudley, as well as a dynamic pick-and-roll partner in Cacok. The jury is still out on what McKinnie can actually do, but there is the outline of a competent NBA lineup here, at least relative to the level of competition these players will face whenever they’re on the court.
It has not gone unnoticed that in these five lineups, I have yet to really find a place for Morris. That seems oddly suitable considering I had no idea how he would fit on the Lakers last year, and yet he oftentimes unlocked the best version of that team. I’m confident that Frank Vogel will find the most interesting and effective ways to use Morris once again, and I expect to be surprised by the creativity of those decisions.
The main takeaway I have from this exercise this season is that even though the Lakers made significant upgrades among their role players, it’s all just window dressing around James and Davis. All of these lineups could easily just be those two stars plus the three guys who happen to show up to the gym first that day. They are the foundation of any lineup the Lakers put on the court, and their presence gives this a leg up on their opposition every night, no matter who surrounds them.
That doesn’t make it any less fun to think through those groupings, but it’s important to keep that in mind. So long as James and/or Davis are on the floor, every minute of the Lakers is worth watching.