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Lakers vs. Spurs Preview: The never-ending starting lineup discussion continues

We’re three games into the season, and the issues surrounding the starting lineup and Anthony Davis’ time at center are more visible than ever. Would Frank Vogel make a change Tuesday against the Spurs?

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Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers got the monkey off their back on Sunday night, beating the Grizzlies 121-118 for the team’s first win of the season. They’ll now enter a stretch of games against some of the worst teams in the league, starting with a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night. The game will be on the road, as part of a quick back-to-back road trip with the Lakers visiting the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.

But the next six games as a whole will feature the Spurs, Thunder (x2), Cavaliers, and Rockets (x2), presenting an opportunity for the team to get over .500, with room to do even more than that. Let’s take a look at some of things to watch out for in this one.

Starting lineup solutions

Frank Vogel has definitely experimented with different rotations through the Lakers’ first three games. But whether it’s due to poor performances he saw in the first couple of matchups, or if it’s just the nature of early-season evaluations that were planned regardless of outcomes, the ever-changing rotations have seen players like Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Austin Reaves have varying minutes from night-to-night.

Rondo played 0 minutes on Sunday while Bradley only played 2 after the duo had 14 and 20 minutes, respectively, in Friday’s loss against the Suns. Reaves played nearly 18 minutes Sunday after getting just 12 minutes on Friday, following his no-show in Tuesday’s season opener against the Warriors.

But still, even with all of that experimentation with the players off the bench, Vogel has not extended the same level of adventurousness to his starting lineup. He has yet to stray from his original starters of DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Kent Bazemore, and Russell Westbrook. But while three games is an exceedingly small sample size, it might be time for him to make a change, like bringing Westbrook or Davis off the bench.

Just checking to see if you’re still reading. That last part was a joke, of course, because everyone’s fingers are decisively (and sometimes aggressively) pointed towards DeAndre Jordan as the weak link of the group, as his lack of speed and shooting severely impacts the team’s spacing on offense. The team should be trying to maximize shooting as much as they can with Russell Westbrook out there (1/11 on 3-pointers so far this season), and Jordan at the five only hurts the spacing with Russ even more, and he’s not helping much on the other end, either.

Unsurprisingly, the starting lineup has amassed the most minutes of any lineup used, with 34 total. In those minutes, that group has been outscored by 13 points. It may not be the worst lineup that Vogel has used, but is still sub-optimal for a starting group, which should almost always be a team’s best lineup, as it will usually play the most minutes together. That goes double for a team with James, Davis and Westbrook. No lineup featuring those three should be this aggressively bad. That’s not all Jordan’s fault, of course, but he’s not helping make them better, which is what’s really important.

The extremely small sample size is a caveat for all this, as is the 2019-20 championship team. That team used a starting lineup of JaVale McGee, Davis, LeBron, Danny Green, and Bradley for most of its games (with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in for Bradley during his injuries), with that lineup rarely being used while closing games. That starting group was also never used in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, as McGee was used sparingly in the Rockets series, came off the bench towards the end of the Nuggets series, and did not play at all in the Finals against the Heat. Bradley opted out of the bubble out of concern for his family.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Even with those caveats, this starting lineup still feels different. Although McGee couldn’t shoot (just like Jordan), McGee was still much faster than Jordan (and still is), and presented a better option on defense. The difference has shown in the statistics so far, as the 2019-20 starting lineup (with Bradley) had a 12.6 Net Rating while the starting lineup this year has a -15.3 Net Rating. Again, small sample and all that, but the early returns are not great.

Frank Vogel mentioned DeAndre Ayton as one of the reasons for Jordan starting on Friday against the Suns, with Steven Adams seemingly being another catalyst for Jordan starting on Sunday. The Spurs do start the 7’0 Jakob Poeltl at center, however, their tallest player off the bench is the 6’7 Drew Eubanks. This is a stark difference in bigs from the Suns and Grizzlies, who also play JaVale McGee (hello again) and Jaren Jackson Jr., respectively.

We’ll see if Vogel sees an opportunity against the smaller Spurs to move AD to the starting center spot. Sadly, it’s doubtful, given the small sample size of failures thus far, with even more doubt being cast by the fact that the team is not practicing in between Sunday and Tuesday. It seems unlike Vogel to inject someone new into the starting lineup without first having the practice to make the necessary adjustments.

But if the problems still exist in a couple of weeks and the lineup continues to flounder, it’d be surprising to see Vogel stick to it much longer.

Notes and Updates

  • LeBron James was originally listed as probable due to right ankle soreness sustained on a really scary play Sunday night when a Grizzlies player fell awkwardly on his leg, but was downgraded to questionable after this story originally published.
  • Trevor Ariza (recovery from right ankle procedure), Talen Horton-Tucker (recovery from right thumb surgery), and Kendrick Nunn (bone bruise to be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks) remain out. Wayne Ellington will also be out according to the injury report, although he’s closer to making his season debut than the latter three as Vogel said on Saturday that he is “day-to-day” with the hope that he plays this week.
  • The Spurs will for sure be without Zach Collins as he recovers from a stress fracture in his foot. Former Laker Devontae Cacok did not play in their most recent game, however, that was only due to not being with the team.
  • Elsewhere around the league, the 76ers and Ben Simmons drama continues with Marc Stein and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reporting that the team has stopped fining Simmons now that he is out for “personal reasons”. The Lakers also aren’t the only preseason title favorite struggling, as the Brooklyn Nets are 1-2 following a 111-95 loss to the 3-0 Charlotte Hornets.

This will be an early tip-off, as the Lakers and Spurs will start at 5:30 p.m. PT. The game will only be televised locally on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.