When the Lakers needed to try and come back from a late deficit against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, head coach Frank Vogel knew what five guys he wanted on the floor when it really mattered. With four minutes left and the Lakers trailing by 10, Vogel put LeBron James in to replace Wesley Matthews, giving the Lakers a lineup of James, Anthony Davis, Alex Caruso, Dennis Schröder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
James and Davis alongside three perimeter threats was a tried and true formula for the Lakers during their run to the title last year, and with Schröder replacing — and in a sort of perfect synchronicity, going up against — the departed Danny Green, the Lakers nearly came all the way back against Philly, going on a a 16-5 run in just under four minutes to give themselves a 106-105 lead with 11.2 seconds remaining. They lost after Tobias Harris hit a game-winner over Caruso, but the furious and quick comeback was a showcase of that lineup’s deadly potential, even if Vogel isn’t willing to show his hand by committing to always use it.
“It’s not a lock that I’ll go to that every game. There’s some strengths with that lineup in terms of defensive speed around AD and Bron defensively as sort of the two bigs,” Vogel said. “But Alex, KCP and Dennis obviously (have) elite perimeter speed and containment ability, and they’ve got great space to drive and kick and play that game with AD at the five.”
In four minutes in Philadelphia, that group showcased all those attributes. They torched the Sixers, scoring at a rate that would equal 214.3 points per 100 possessions, while holding Philly to 100 for a completely unsustainable-but-promising net rating of 114.3. Again, that’s obviously not something they could do every night, but that lineup has been good when the Lakers have gone to it.
On the season Caruso, James, Davis, Schröder and Caldwell-Pope have only played 19 total minutes together — so 15 before the game against the Sixers — but they’ve fared as well as you’d think they would, posting an offensive rating of 138.5 and defensive rating of 87.5 for a net rating of 51. That’s astounding, and (probably) not sustainable, but it does demonstrate that those five players are as good of a closing lineup as they appear to be in theory.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Lakers’ biggest star is a fan of the unit.
“It’s always good to know that you can go down the stretch and go to AD at the five and go to me at that point forward and then surround us with guards and shooters, and defenders if need be,” James said, highlighting that him playing the four on defense and point guard on offense with Davis as a walking mismatch on both ends at the five is an advantage for the Lakers.
“It was a good lineup for us,” James continued. “Having KCP out there with AC and Dennis gives us a lot of dimensions, both offensively and defensively.”
Another benefit of this lineup getting more minutes together would be solving a burgeoning problem with Alex Caruso’s playing time. The guard James praised as a Swiss Army Knife of winning habits has only averaged 17.7 minutes per game this season, the ninth-most on the Lakers. That’s in spite of him having the second-highest net rating of any regular contributor — the Lakers outscore opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions when Caruso plays, second to only his fellow closer KCP (19.2) — and the team is 10.7 points per 100 possessions better overall when Caruso plays than they are when he doesn’t.
His lack of playing time highlights that the Lakers might have almost too much talent, which is why Davis thinks they’ve had a lot of different closing lineups this season.
“I think it’s all about matchups. It’s about the team that we’re playing,” Davis said. “We’ve got 12 guys who can suit up for us and give us their best any given night, and I think it’s really depending on the matchups to be honest.”
As an aside, it would be hilarious to give Davis truth serum and find out who those 12 guys are, and who are the four guys he thinks suck. But he (sadly) didn’t do that, but did highlight why having so many good players can be a challenge.
“When you’ve got a team that’s very deep on the bench, that’s a good problem,” Davis continued. “But it’s a little tough on coach to find guys in the rotation, and sometimes guys get lost. But we all know that we have a lot of guys who can play, so guys stay ready when their number is called.”
Caruso, Schröder and Caldwell-Pope have done so thus far, and they’ll have to keep it up, because as matchups change, Vogel is going to keep experimenting with his closers, even if most of us can see that he may have already discovered which group will be his best one. There is no point in showing that hand too often during the regular season, however.
“There are some positives, but it’s not something where it will be a lock that I go with that (group) every night. AD and Bron will be in there, and we’ll see how the rest of the guys are playing, and what the matchups look like,” Vogel said.
That experimentation might make for a sometimes frustrating viewing experience during the regular season, but if Vogel showed us anything during last season’s title run, it’s that he’s willing to make dramatic adjustments when necessary, whether it’s giving Caruso his first playoff start during the clinching game of the NBA Finals or basically going to Davis at the five full-time when it matters. Keep an eye on this group to get a similar treatment. They won’t be the Lakers’ lineup of death every night, but they’re like a fire extinguisher, ready to be broken out for four minutes in an emergency.
Related: We need a nickname for this group! Give us your best nominee in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.