Over the last several days, we’ve heard the Lakers talk plenty about the challenges that come with their enviable depth, from having to work the kinks out with various lineups during games to not getting to play returners like Alex Caruso as much as they’d like to while others adjust to their new situations. Before the team took on the Celtics in Boston on Saturday, head coach Frank Vogel was the latest to admit that it’s all been difficult.
“It is definitely challenging to have this many guys that are used to playing bigger minutes. It’s been a challenge from day one,” Vogel said, although he admitted that “it’s a good problem” and that he wouldn’t trade it for the alternative of having less talent.
“We’ll manage it throughout the course of the season. There are times when I think trying to get everybody the appropriate minutes can sometimes take other guys out of rhythm. That’s the balance you have to strike as a coach: You want to keep everybody in rhythm but you want to utilize all your tools and resources,” Vogel continued. “It’s one of those things that’s a good problem, and I think will bode well for us over the course of the season, but there are going to be nights like the other night (the loss to the Detroit Pistons).”
Against Boston, and coming off of a two-game losing streak, Vogel wanted to avoid another letdown. His solution? Just like he did so many times during the Lakers’ run to the title, he made an adjustment, but this one had nothing to do with the starting lineup. Vogel has used a 10 or 11-man rotation for most of the season, but before the game against the Celtics, Vogel went to Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews with a message: He was going to sit them against the Celtics and roll with nine guys.
“These are not easy things, we just felt like we were trying to get a ton of guys in there. To play a 10-man rotation with two guys playing 37-38 minutes can (make it) difficult for guys to get rhythm. So we just wanted to look at what a shorter rotation would look like,” Vogel said.
The fact that it looked like a 96-95 win over the Lakers’ hated rivals likely made that decision go over a little easier afterwards, as did Caruso playing a key role down the stretch and finishing as a +14 in plus-minus, and Talen Horton-Tucker rewarding the team’s confidence in him with 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 23 solid — if at times overeager — minutes off the bench.
And according to team captain LeBron James, the final results were all that mattered, no matter what the rotation looked like.
“As professionals, we always just have to stay ready when our number is called. We’re here for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s to try to win a championship,” James said. “That’s what it is.”
As a star who is guaranteed a certain level of playing time, that’s easy for James to say. What is less easy is Vogel going to two prideful veterans, guys who likely took discounts on their market rate to join the Lakers, and telling them that the team wanted to sit them to chase a victory. No matter how he couched it, that was the reality. Vogel excelled at getting those decisions to go over well in the bubble last season, and it remains to be seen if that trend will continue. He credited Matthews and Morris for handling the talks well, but that still didn’t make them easy to have.
“It’s the toughest part of the job to be honest. You’ve got guys that are really good players and deserve minutes that you don’t have minutes for. It’s difficult. They’re tough conversations,” Vogel said. “But those two guys are consummate pros, and this is not something permanent. This was ‘we lost two in a row, let’s get a win tonight and go game-to-game from there.’ And we’ll continue to evaluate what we’ve got to do with our rotation to get W’s.”
So for those concerned about Vogel’s grand plan to play a longer rotation and keep everyone ready for the postseason, this victory — and the strategy used to achieve it — was just the latest hint that as much as there are locker room politics factoring in to Caruso’s lack of playing time or to Horton-Tucker being in and out of the rotation, when the Lakers truly care about the result, Vogel knows what he has, and which buttons to press.
From keeping Caruso as a consistent presence in his closing lineups to bumping Horton-Tucker up above vets like Morris and Matthews when the team really wanted to win a game, it’s clear that Vogel knows who can play in which matchups, and he is well aware of which guys have looked good and bad so far. As the team continues to play their way into shape, veterans are going to get minutes to try and find their niche as the team experiments with lineups, but every signal so far has indicated that when the games really count in the postseason, Vogel is going to play the guys that help the team win, no matter their stature.
When he sees something, like what he said before the game about worrying about guys not having enough time to find their stride, he’s going to address it.
“The guys that did play got a little extra run to get a better rhythm. I don’t know how much of a difference it made, but we were able to get the W, so I’m real happy about that,” Vogel said.
All signs point to plenty more W’s being on the way when the Lakers fully optimize their rotations to fit an opponent instead of treating their regular season games like glorified intrasquad scrimmages. Because for all the problems depth can create, when managed well, it sure can offer some solutions, too.