Lakers games this season have been a tale of runs. More often than not, it feels like the team will start hot, give up a lead, push back, let things get close again, and then clamp down to close out the game and make the final score not even look particularly in doubt.
To some degree, the numbers bear out that said pattern is at least (sort of) a real thing. The Lakers’ five most-used lineups are an up-and-down journey through net ratings with more peaks and drops than a ride at Six Flags:
As that image shows, the starters of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schröder and Marc Gasol have been great, an offensive powerhouse that blows teams off the floor at a rate more than two times better than their already league-best net rating, and has become the Lakers’ most-used grouping as a result.
Before the team took on the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, head coach Frank Vogel offered up his analysis of why those five have worked so well together.
“We play with great space. Marc at the five position spacing the floor out there, but also giving us a seven-foot center behind our defense. There’s a lot of value in both of those elements that he brings,” Vogel said. “KCP and Dennis bring great speed, defensively in particular. They both have the ability to get into the paint and to punish a defense when double teams are brought to AD and LeBron.
“And obviously any lineup with LeBron and AD in there at the same time has been good for us.”
That last part is key, and might be at least part of explaining why the team’s second most-used lineup, with James, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris, has fared so poorly, even if it’s obviously not the whole reason. That group has become so derided that Lakers Twitter essentially devolves into a spinning series of textual groans when they get brought in, and the numbers bear out why: While the sample is small, the Lakers are getting absolutely destroyed in those minutes.
Vogel generally will never criticize the Lakers publicly, but he’s clearly a smart coach, and my hunch was that he had to be aware that said grouping was getting outscored at a rate nearly three times worse than the worst team in the NBA. But even though they’ve only played 49 minutes together so far, that still puts them as the unit the team has thrown out there the second most this early in the season, and I was curious if there was some theoretical quality he liked about that lineup that just wasn’t working so far, so I asked him before the Bucks game about that group’s poor metrics, and if there was something he was looking to get from them.
Given his aforementioned tendency to rarely, if ever, offer public critiques, I will admit I was fairly shocked at how candid his response was.
“Yeah, that’s not an ideal lineup, but a lot of times the game plays out where I’m trying to get guys the minutes they deserve to impact our team,” Vogel said. “Sometimes it results in imperfect lineups.
“But that sample size is extremely small, we had trouble with that lineup in the Golden State game because of how small they went, and you always want to give a group of guys an opportunity to impose their size vs. a smaller team. It didn’t work out in that quarter, we made adjustments in the second half, but we’ll continue to evaluate that. I’m aware of what that lineup looks like.”
As promised, Vogel went back to that lineup and continued to evaluate it. Thanks to an explosion from LeBron in the second quarter, they managed to tread water in their first stint (+0), but by the end of the night had a one-game net rating of -8.3 again. In a microcosm of the season, the starters were good in Milwaukee, and that group — once again getting the second-most minutes of any unit — was not.
The good news? Vogel showed in the playoffs that he’s not afraid to go away from groups or bench players if he sees that something is not working, and this lineup — as he basically admitted — is very obviously a youth basketball league-like effort to get guys their minimum amounts of playing time.
Now, Vogel didn’t specify which guys, but it’s pretty obvious from looking at the lineup data. Of the Lakers’ five most-used groupings, this is one of two that includes Morris and Matthews. James and Kuzma are in four, and Harrell is in three. Vogel is trying this unit as an attempt to get Morris and Matthews in there, as even he admitted it’s not a perfect grouping, even from a theoretical standpoint. It seems like this lineup is essentially this year’s version of starting JaVale McGee to keep him happy and eat minutes before benching him for basically the entire last two rounds of the playoffs when the Lakers needed to play their best groups.
So how much is this worth worrying about moving forward? As the previous graf probably makes clear, I’d argue not very much. As mentioned before, Vogel used the regular season as an opportunity to experiment last year, and it’s almost hilarious that the Lakers are still blowing teams out of the water while playing at half speed and treating their rotation like a Boys and Girl’s club team where everyone gets to play a bit.
If anything, this is actually a reason for confidence. The Lakers (12-4) are tied for the best record in the NBA despite playing what essentially amounts to half a quarter of every game with one of their hands willingly tied behind their back. If they’re already this good now, imagine how good they can be when they only play their best lineups and are locked in every night.