DeAndre Jordan has seen the floor in all nine games the Lakers have played this season so far, coming off the bench in two and starting for seven. And Frank Vogel — through both words and actions — seems fairly committed to him as a starter, despite most of the numbers over a small sample size indicating that Jordan has been more effective off the bench.
For his part, Jordan says his mindset doesn’t change, no matter what his role is.
“I don’t think it can,” Jordan said after the team’s fourth practice of the season on Friday. “My job is the same whether I’m coming off the bench or I’m starting. My job for this team is to be able to defend as best I can, run the floor, change and alter shots, be the defensive anchor for us and get our playmakers open. Be a great veteran and a piece for this team to be able to compete.”
That may be true, but it doesn’t meant that the context around him hasn’t made Jordan more effective as a bench player than as a starter. In just 128 minutes total between the two roles, units featuring Jordan have a better offensive, defensive and net rating when he’s come off the bench, with the team overall being nine points better per 100 possessions during the 33 minutes Jordan has played as a reserve (net rating of 7.9) than they have been in the 95 minutes he’s spent as a starter (-1.9), per NBA.com.
These are exceedingly small sample sizes from which to draw definitive conclusions, but lineups featuring Jordan being more effective in the games he’s come off the bench also makes a degree of intuitive sense. For one thing, Jordan is not really a starting-caliber player at this stage of his career, or even really an every-day-rotation-caliber one. But the injuries that have ravaged the Lakers also means that no matter one’s opinion of his level of play, he has to play at this point, and him coming off of the bench might be the best way to make him most effective, because he just does not complement the stars they need to get the most out of.
For one thing, starting Jordan alongside Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook cramps the court for both, and the team is not getting the defensive value it wants out of that configuration, either. The production the Lakers are getting out of the 33-year-old veteran is also certainly not worth gumming up the floor in a lineup that additionally features so-so shooters in Kent Bazemore and Avery Bradley for a team that is going to need to score to survive while LeBron James is out for the foreseeable future.
With Jordan as the only big on the floor, however, he has a bit more utility, or at least hurts the lineups he’s in less. He can stand in the dunker spot without other teams having multiple other places to help from, whereas playing him as a starter leaves a big in the paint to monitor Jordan and Davis at the same time, as well as drivers like Westbrook, all while just sending additional help wherever they want from iffy perimeter shooters.
Off the bench — and, more importantly, without Davis — Jordan can simply clean up the garbage or make himself available for dump-offs when Westbrook or others do get to the rim. He and Westbrook have flashed some decent chemistry on lobs, augmented by shooters like Carmelo Anthony in the team’s reserve units.
It’s not Jordan’s fault that none of that can happen in the starting lineup, but it doesn’t mean the team can continue to hamstring both Davis and what should be their best unit for him either. Especially not while James is out, when they need to get the most out of every single lineup they play alongside their stars. If Jordan’s mindset is really the same no matter his role, then it’s probably time for the Lakers to test that theory, and see if they can help both him and themselves at the same time.
None of this is to say that the two-big lineup can never work. Lineups featuring both Davis and Dwight Howard have been far superior on defense, allowing just 90.9 points per 100 possessions, more than five points better than the best defensive team in the NBA and far better than lineups where Davis plays without him (107.6 defensive rating). The team’s offense has fallen off a cliff in those minutes (scoring nearly nine points less per 100 possessions than in Davis’ minutes without Howard) but those groups still have a better net rating than other units featuring Davis (+5.4 vs. -2.3) due to their stifling defense.
In other words, it’s easy to see what Vogel is going for with wanting extra size and length at the rim. It can work. Jordan just can’t provide it. Lineups featuring him and Davis are getting outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions, and while Davis’ minutes without Jordan aren’t much better by those same splits (net rating of -2.8, suggesting Jordan isn’t solely responsible for his struggles at times this year), there is still just really no argument (at least early on) for the Lakers to continue to justify using them. The two-big lineup can work defensively with Howard because of his superior defensive instincts and abilities, but it just can’t with Jordan at this stage of his career.
It’s probably not an accident, crappy opponents aside, that the Lakers went 2-0 in the two games Jordan was a reserve, and are 3-4 otherwise. So if Davis misses time with his right thumb sprain, there is an argument for Jordan (or Howard) to start. If not, then the latter two should be splitting minutes in bursts off the bench, and probably not much else.