By virtually every metric available, the Lakers’ current starting lineup is ineffective. Advanced analytics can tell the story, but even the eye test has shown that the Lakers are struggling to remain competitive with their starting group on the court.
Regardless of what fans might think, head coach Frank Vogel is fully aware of those struggles. The team briefly flirted with Davis in the starting lineup last week in back-to-back games against Houston, but Vogel almost immediately walked back the notion that the move was a long-term one, reiterating that the big lineup would, and did, return.
But before Monday’s game against the Hornets with the Lakers coming off back-to-back losses to the Thunder and Blazers, Vogel talked about potential lineup changes, and explained why going small again wasn’t happening yet.
“We got to play better, you know what I mean, and sometimes that means shifting the lineup, and sometimes that means just playing better,” Vogel said. “We didn’t play a great game (against Portland). There was a temptation to start tonight with AD at the 5, for offensive spacing reasons, but we’re really thin with LeBron and Trevor being out, and having Carmelo have such great energy off the bench at home, I don’t want to break that rhythm.
“We would have to be super small to start AD at the 5, and so we’re going to start the same way,” Vogel continued. “Melo will be in there a bunch with AD at the 5, but we’re not going to start that way.”
In short, the Lakers are on the wrong side of a numbers game currently. A team already short on big forwards lost two of its four in LeBron James and Trevor Ariza. With Davis being one of the two players left that can play power forward, moving him to center and starting the other in Carmelo Anthony makes rotations near impossible to complete, and severely limits the amount of time Davis and Anthony can actually spend on the floor together.
So, even if Vogel wanted Davis to start at the center spot, it’s not really possible with the current roster, at least until James returns. But even though the Lakers are clearly playing with forced limitations due to the injuries, Vogel says he still is assessing the team during this time period.
“Yeah I don’t really honestly pay a lot of attention to who is in and who is out, my focus is on the guys that are playing, and playing at a high level,” Vogel said. “And what those habits look like, and learning what our guys can and can’t do. Every game we learn a little bit more. That’s why it’s a long season and you have to have a big-picture mindset to give guys opportunities to show what they can do.
“But the focus is not on who is not in the lineup. (It’s) just the guys that we have, what’s the best rotation we can use with them, the best ways to use them, best position to put them in, and are they executing the habits we need them to execute at a high enough level to win games.”
It’s a suboptimal situation, but one the Lakers are trying to make the best of. But even though the team is more or less forced into a bigger lineup, it doesn’t mean they’re forced into playing DeAndre Jordan as the starter, which could be a logical middle ground between the struggling starting lineup and not being able to go small from the start.
Following Monday’s game, the starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Kent Bazemore, Davis and Jordan has played 30 minutes together, and has a net rating of -24.9. The lineup of simply swapping Howard into Jordan’s spot has only played two minutes all season, but Howard and Davis have a strong net rating together as a pair. Through 29 minutes, the pair have a rating of +4.2, much higher than the rating of -9.4 that Davis and Jordan have managed this season.
While Vogel has expressed hesitancy in starting Howard, this could be a short-term solution to the Lakers problems until James gets back and rotations can start to return back to normal. For now, though, the Lakers are going to have to make do with the pieces they have, even if it does require some shuffling around, and potentially playing bigger than they might like to.
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