The Lakers have been dominant this season, running out to 10-3 — the best record in the NBA — and setting a new franchise record by starting the season undefeated (7-0) on the road. They’ve also been outscoring their opponents by 10.5 points per game on average, the second-biggest disparity in the NBA behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
During their recent 3-0 road trip, they increased that advantage to 16.5 points per game, allowing LeBron James (30.3) and Anthony Davis (27.8) to both play less than their season average in minutes (31.9 and 31.8, respectively, already Davis’ lowest minutes since his rookie year, and James’ lowest ever). They trailed for just 11 seconds over those three games.
But while all that’s led to some talk about how blowing teams out can let the Lakers load manage their stars even while playing them, head coach Frank Vogel said that isn’t really part of the plan, even if it is a benefit of doing so.
“No, it’s really just about winning the game, you know,” Vogel said. “And when you get a bigger lead, late into the third, into the fourth quarter, then you start thinking about managing minutes and making sure make sure your guys are not overdoing it, giving guys an opportunity to rest.”
Vogel acknowledged that there are other advantages to putting games out of reach as well, like being able to find more minutes for guys like Marc Gasol and Markieff Morris when they haven’t gotten to play as much as the team tries to help everyone round into form.
“It’s just an opportunity for them to get a little extra run, more rhythm, more conditioning,” Vogel said. “It’s an opportunity to get your young guys and put them in certain situations you want to see them in, see what they can do. So there’s definitely benefits to it.”
Davis himself, however, was a little less coy about seeing rest for him and James as the main benefit of putting teams away early.
“The more and more we can come out and play the right way and grow leads and hopefully sit out in the fourth quarter, it all translates later on down the line, especially for playoffs. You’re not putting in much wear and tear, especially with a shorter season and how quickly we started playing again,” Davis said.
It’s not just his and James’ minutes that have gone down, however. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, the Lakers already move at a slower average speed (4.05 miles per hour) than any team in the league, other than the Houston Rockets (3.99). During their last four wins, however, the Lakers’ advantages led to them having to scramble around even less, decelerating their average movement speed to an NBA-low 4.01 miles per hour over that stretch, slower than even the Rockets’ team they just blew out twice (4.02).
For context on just how much they’ve decelerated despite adding one of the speediest players in the NBA in Dennis Schröder and keeping their resident speedster Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, last year the Lakers moved at an average speed of 4.09 mph.
That may not sound like a lot, but every little bit of energy not expended helps as the Lakers try to manage their workload during a season turnaround unlike any other. If they take care of teams early, they won’t have to exert themselves as hard late, saving wear and tear both on and off the floor.
“It’s good when we’re able to sit out in the fourth quarter,” Davis said. “It’s good for us later on down the line, where we might have to play 40 to 42 minutes come playoff time, or later in the season.”
For now, he and James don’t have to do that. They’ll have to ramp up their minutes and speed eventually, but for now, the Lakers are giving them plenty of opportunity to rest. And whether it’s their explicit plan or not, as long as they keep dominating at half speed, that won’t change anytime soon.