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It’s time for the Lakers to trim the fat from their rotation

By steadily dropping poor performers from the rotation, the Lakers look like they might finally be inching towards actualizing their potential.

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Frustrations with Frank Vogel’s lineups, and particularly his starters, have been burbling all season.

The year began with Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan hearing their names called with the first five, but both of them have since been banished to the bench. Or, in Bazemore’s case, cheering in front of it. Rajon Rondo and Isaiah Thomas also had short-lived stints as regular rotation players. Neither are still with the team. In recent games, Trevor Ariza had become Laker fans’ latest target for their frustrations.

Take a look at the team’s four most-used starting lineups by total possessions, and you’ll see the angst has often been warranted. For a team as talented as the Lakers are at the top of their roster, there is a pretty stark split between the good lineups and the not-so-good ones:

  • Lineup A: 167 possessions, +13.1 points/100
  • Lineup B: 114 possessions, +12.3 points/100
  • Lineup C: 104 possessions, -11.3 points/100
  • Lineup D: 85 possessions, -12.5 points/100

Before getting into the efficacy of these groups, it’s worth pointing out just how much the Lakers have fiddled with their lineups due to underperformance and absences. As has been repeatedly stressed by so many covering the Lakers, around 100 possessions is a mere fraction of the lineup continuity the West’s top teams have collected.

For context, the Suns’ most-used lineup has logged exactly 900 possessions together. The Warriors, alternatively, have run up a total of 739 possessions with their pre-Klay healthy starting group. The Jazz have six lineups that have all spent more time together than the Lakers’ most-used group, and their top unit has played a whopping 990 possessions together.

From a purely results-oriented perspective, basketball is just addition and subtraction. If you consistently lose a player’s stint by “N” points, the only way to win the game would be to win the remaining time by at least “N+1.” With the Lakers’ winning and losing lineups mirroring each other so closely on either side of net-neutral, the experience of watching this team makes a bit more sense.

At times they have looked awesome. But they’ve struggled to keep leads, so often letting the game slip away in an instant, or going down by such a deficit that an explosive late-game rally ends up being too little, too late.

All of this unevenness has led to the feeling that the team has underperformed, fueling that widespread sense of lineup frustration. But, potentially notably, the quality of unique groupings players has remained relatively consistent. The good lineups continue to play well, while the opposite is equally true.

Group A (+13.1), the most-used and best of the bunch listed above, is the starting lineup Frank Vogel deployed with LeBron at the 5, featuring Russ, Monk, Bradley, and Stanley Johnson. That group was able to withstand a mediocre defensive rating by putting up almost 130 points per 100 possessions on offense, the 18th best of any lineup in the NBA with more than 100 possessions of court time this season.

Group B (+12.3), a lineup that has barely seen the floor since LeBron’s return from his rectus abdominis strain — and not at all in the team’s last 17 games — consisted of Russ, Bradley, THT, Melo, and AD. While it didn’t have the offensive firepower of the LeBron-plus-shooters template, they got it done on the defensive end while maintaining league-average offense, making them almost as good as that first grouping.

Group C (-11.3) was the one that opened the season on the court — Bazemore and DJ flanking the star trio. With especially poor spacing and mobility, they struggled to score or stop anyone, posting a below-average defensive mark and an especially poor offensive one. Although its deployment may have gone on too long, it’s fair to say its usage is a thing of the past. This group hasn’t started a game since early November.

Group D (-12.5) may be the most perplexing, and is the one which tallied minutes most recently. Featuring a bigger, slower lineup of Dwight and Ariza with the typical trio of Russ, Bron, and Bradley, they cobbled together semi-viable defense, but again couldn’t find a way to put the ball in the hoop.

I am of the belief that Vogel has continued to use regular season games like an extended preseason, experimenting with lineups in search of things that work, and attempting to give veterans the benefit of the doubt before casting them aside for good. In Ariza’s case, he seems to have at least in part hoped that some extended run could help him play himself into shape, but early returns suggest that his preseason ankle surgery may have been the last straw for his 36-year-old body.

Zooming out, these four groups tell us a ton about what does and doesn’t work with this team.

  • Lineup A: LeBron plus shooters is still a surefire formula for scoring points.
  • Lineup B: AD by himself makes the team’s defense passable, if not great.
  • Lineup C: Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan are now where they belong.
  • Lineup D: Trevor Ariza isn’t long for this league.

It’s hard to say if Vogel will revert to treating games like glorified practices, conducting experiments between the lines like basketball Bill Nye, or if injuries will again force his hand in another direction.

However, AD’s recent return, leading to a surprise reversion to the Lakers’ best starting lineup — sans Monk, plus Davis — gives me reason to believe that Frank Vogel believes that group, or the one he closed the game with, swapping Reaves for Bradley, is the foundation of the best version of this Laker team.

With just 15 possessions between the configurations with either 2-guard, the Lakers have a ways to go to prove it works. However, the theory laid down by what has and hasn’t been effective in similar variations suggests the Lakers have something here on both sides of the ball, especially for a defensive-minded coach in charge of what’s been the league’s 18th-ranked defense over the course of the season to date.

Now with a healthy roster (minus Kendrick Nunn), Frank Vogel has the opportunity to fill out almost every meaningful minute of every game with one of three lineup configurations:

  1. LeBron at the 5 without Ariza: 999 possessions, +6.7 points/100
  2. Russ and AD without a traditional center: 993 possessions, +1.6 points/100
  3. The Big 3 without a traditional center: 429 possessions, +10.1 points/100

Broadly, when surrounding the stars with competent NBA players, and not saddling them with guys who no longer belong in the league, the Lakers have generally played like the contender they were supposed to be. Because even though the fact that the team’s complementary players who remain in regular circulation (other than Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker) are...

  • a waiver add
  • a journeyman G Leaguer initially signed to a 10-day hardship contract
  • an undrafted rookie

...could be an indictment of their hit rate on offseason acquisitions, the Lakers are showing that they have bodies good enough to make it work, regardless of where they came from.

Of course, it’s easy to cherrypick the team’s most successful moments, and there will likely be certain opponent-dependent contexts where veering from this structure becomes necessary. But these three builds have enough of a track record to suggest that they each fundamentally work, even if there are better and worse constructions within these general structures (i.e. Reaves and Monk versus Bradley, Melo versus Stanley, etc).

Ideally, health willing, Vogel’s job for the rest of the season can be less about finding what works, but which strings to pull in order to get the best out of what we all already know does. If they can optimize the offense with LeBron and AD on the floor, can continue to win minutes without LeBron by pairing Russ and AD together, and lean into LeBron-ball when Russ and AD sit, I have a hard time seeing how this team isn’t one of the league’s most feared come playoff time.

Simply keeping what’s worked and purging what hasn’t will make the up-and-down Lakers a juggernaut again. Unlike much of what we’ve seen for 48 games, that means winning without having to play your very best game, and holding leads when you get them.

If the Lakers are able to lean into these lessons — and stay healthy, something it’s easy to doubt given how bleak things have been in recent months — they could very well be headed towards a much more consistent basketball product for the remainder of the season, and fulfilling the potential so many believed in last offseason.

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.