With LeBron James and Anthony Davis missing 27 and 36 games respectively, and opening day starters Dennis Schröder and Marc Gasol spending time away from the team in health and safety protocols, the Lakers often found themselves figuratively behind the eight-ball, disadvantaged in comparison to typically worse, but healthier teams. This season, in accordance with Jeanie Buss’ roster construction mandate, the Lakers have assembled a roster of players who can play regular rotation minutes of NBA basketball.
Of their 13 non-rookie rostered players, only Kent Bazemore (19.9) and Rajon Rondo (17.1) played fewer than 20 minutes per game last season. With exactly 240 minutes per game to go around, it would be impossible for everyone on the team to play as much as they did last year, especially with the team’s star trio owning the lion’s share of playing time.
But while injuries and performance will undoubtedly shake up any reasonable projection in unexpected ways, I’ve made an attempt to dole out minutes amongst the current Lakers to get a rough estimate of what Frank Vogel’s rotations might look like come October 19 (loosely based on how he handled things to start last season).
Let’s dive in.
All of the Lakers’ lineups this upcoming season should be built around LeBron James (30 minutes) or Russell Westbrook (32 minutes). In 2019-20 LeBron James led the NBA in assists. Last year, it was Westbrook who dished out more dimes than any other player. Under no circumstances should the fully healthy and available Lakers play a single minute of competitive (non-garbage time) basketball without one of their two All-NBA playmakers on the floor.
Not only does separating the two of them as much as possible raise the floor of the worst Laker lineups, but it also minimizes Russ as an offensive liability next to LeBron. While Westbrook may be able to contribute as a surprisingly decent catch-and-shooter, especially from the corners (40.6% per NBA), his historical unwillingness to set screens and cut off-ball decreases his utility as a secondary playmaker compared to his prowess as the first option.
Given Anthony Davis’ (29 minutes) open willingness to play center, the Lakers will for the first time during his tenure in Los Angeles be able to forego trotting out a two-big lineup to open games. After spending 40% of his time at the 5 in 2019-20, as JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard mopped up the remaining center minutes, AD played center for just 9% of his minutes in 2020-21 as Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond, and Damian Jones competed for run in what ended up being an overcrowded — but often ineffective — group of bigs. While AD will likely spend some time next to a traditional center, most of it will have to come at the 5 given the Lakers’ relative dearth of bigs compared to their guard and wing depth.
With AD at the 5, he’ll have to be the rim-protecting dynamo he was during the team’s 2019-20 championship run. And after exchanging some of their best defenders for superior shooters, more pressure will be put on Davis to maintain the Lakers’ top-tier defensive prowess.
While the Lakers’ most defensively staunch five-man lineup will likely be their rumored starting five, it is also likely one of their worst shooting lineups. For this group to fly on offense, the Lakers will need Davis to prove threatening from the perimeter, providing space for Russ and Bron to drive with only one deadeye shooter on the floor in Wayne Ellington.
All three superstars will exceed their per-game minute totals as projected in this exercise since Frank Vogel likely won’t carve out space for a 12-man rotation. However, they each still may play some of the least minutes per game in their careers due to a desire to stay fresh for the playoffs and some regular blowouts (especially if the Lakers can boat race teams with one or more stars on the bench).
Talen Horton-Tucker (26 minutes) is now the Lakers’ fourth-highest paid player. It’s not much of a stretch to think he might become their fourth-most played one. After playing in just 20 minutes per game last season, Horton-Tucker should see some more court time in his age-21 season.
Inevitably playing next to LeBron or Westbrook, THT’s keys to playing time will be his ability to knock down threes and play defense. He has, at times, proven amply capable of doing both, but has lacked the consistency in either area to yet maximize his effectiveness. If he’s a veritable threat from outside, his presence won’t compromise the team’s playmakers ability to get to the rim and will be able to more easily attack scrambled closeouts.
Defensively, Horton-Tucker is big enough with his 7’1” wingspan to guard three positions but needs to shore up the rotational lapses that have stood out in the past, something both head coach Frank Vogel and general manager Rob Pelinka brought up as an essential area for his development. His ability to fill in at the three may prove essential to finding consistently significant playing time.
The Back-up Backcourt
After THT, Kendrick Nunn (22 minutes) is the Lakers’ highest-paid player, having come to L.A. on the taxpayer mid-level exception, signing for two years and $10 million. As an outstanding catch-and-shoot player from long range, especially in transition, Nunn can help keep the Lakers effective on the break next to LeBron or Russ. He may not start games but will be one of the team’s most heavily featured reserves.
Similarly, Malik Monk (six minutes) has proven to be a microwave scorer in bursts off the bench during his last season in Charlotte but has lacked the consistency to make good on his lottery selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. His inferior perimeter defense and size, in comparison to Nunn, should make it harder for him to secure consistent playing time, but he will undoubtedly have chances to impress with his shooting, scoring, and playmaking at times during the season.
Between Wayne Ellington (18 minutes) Kent Bazemore (20 minutes) and Trevor Ariza (12 minutes), the Lakers have armed themselves with three wings of varying aptitude in terms of shooting and defense. Ellington is by far the best shooter and weakest defender, whereas Ariza can take on the largest forwards, but hasn’t shot as well as the other two. Our own Nicole Ganglani argued that Bazemore’s ability to blend some of Ellington’s shooting ability with Ariza’s defensive physicality may actually make him the Laker’s most useful role player.
Within a few weeks of play, it will quickly become clear as to whether Ariza’s cut out to start at age 36, if Ellington can avoid being hunted on defense, and if Bazemore can be more of a jack-of-all-trades than a master of none.
Beyond this trifecta, the Lakers have rostered Carmelo Anthony to do basically one thing—shoot unrepentantly. Rob Pelinka implied a certain fear amongst former Lakers when praising Melo for his lack of hesitation when shooting off of passes from LeBron. Most players reasonably fear disappointing the greatest passer of his generation, but Melo won’t. Like LeBron’s former Cavaliers cohort, JR Smith, Carmelo’s never seemed to find a shot he didn’t like. This season, he ought to like his looks even more, catching passes from Russ and LeBron. He was never a great defender, and his lateral quickness has degraded to the point of borderline non-existence. At this point, he’s only got enough in the tank to deter heavier-footed wings and smaller perimeter bigs, but who cares as long as Olympic/Hoodie Melo’s shooting the lights out.
His efficient outside shooting and defensive deficiencies pair nicely next to a true rim protector in Anthony Davis or even Dwight Howard. The quality of the Lakers’ defense surrounding the 4-spot may determine whether Vogel tends to opt for lineups featuring Melo over Ariza in an offense-for-defense exchange.
The Back-up Frontcourt
When Anthony Davis exits the game, one of Dwight Howard (21 minutes) and DeAndre Jordan (four minutes) will almost certainly come in to play center. While each player’s athleticism has declined with age, limiting their mobility as a lob catcher and rim protector, Dwight’s explosiveness started at a higher point and has fallen off less precipitously, making him the superior option around the rim at this point in their respective careers. Still, Vogel may opt to go with one or the other on any given night, maximizing their utility when active without overtaxing either aging player’s body.
The Jared Dudley Honorary Player-Coach
As Frank Vogel himself has stated, barring a resurgence of Playoff Rondo, Rajon Rondo may not have a significant on-court role this season. While he will find ways to impact the game with his near-unparalleled basketball IQ, it will mostly be from the sidelines this season.
Rondo of if he knows how many minutes he'll play this season— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) September 30, 2021
"Coach told me anywhere from 0 to 48."
Most important to the Lakers’ ability to thrive beyond the conclusion of the regular season will be this team’s ability to overcome individual egos in service of the entire group. Despite their impressive collection of accolades, most of the elder Lakers have claimed to transcend the interest of individual achievement in favor of a championship. Even some of the youths, like Monk and Bazemore, have explicitly stated their team-oriented ambitions entering the ‘21-22 season.
To be clear, the Lakers will likely not play a single game with this exact substitution pattern, or even one that proves particularly close to this. This version of the rotation is almost certainly more evenly dispersed than the Lakers’ real one can be. Depending on the matchup, the Lakers may opt for a bigger rotation featuring both backup bigs and AD spending more time at the four, or supercharge the offense with bench lineups featuring Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, or even LeBron James at center. While the former might be most effective against a team with a dominant offensive center like the Nuggets, the latter could help the Lakers keep up with the Warriors’ recently reloaded Death Lineup.
It’s easy to claim a team-first mentality before the season has started, and quite a bit tougher to summon that attitude after a dozen straight CD-DNPs. Each on a one-year deal, Malik Monk or Kendrick Nunn — both still in their early 20s — might be the most likely to get antsy about their employment prospects next season if they are to find themselves on the outside of the rotation looking in. Still, the preponderance of veterans gives this team of ring-chasers an unusually aged perspective through which to address the 82-game season in harmony.
The star trio’s minutes will creep up towards the mid-thirties as they soak up the minutes of those who underperform or succumb to injury. As a thought experiment, however, this democratic distribution of minutes shows just how many different pieces Frank Vogel will have at his disposal this season, and the broad strokes of how they may start to fit in together without having seen them play a single minute of NBA basketball just yet.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.