Stop me if this sounds familiar. Darvin Ham has been given a broken roster, but he isn’t making the most of what it can be, either. If that sounds like what we said about Frank Vogel all year last season, it’s because that’s exactly what he kept saying about Frank Vogel all year last season.
Vogel’s reliance on veterans who clearly didn’t have it anymore like Avery Bradley or not putting promising young players in positions to succeed and thus crushing their value (remember when Talen Horton-Tucker had promise?) made it difficult to put all the blame last year on the front office. This year, Ham’s Bradley is Dennis Schröder and the player who once showed a ton of promise but fell by the wayside is Lonnie Walker IV. More on that in a sec.
Though to be clear, just like this season, the front office still deserved more blame last year. Can’t stress that enough.
Night in, night out, Lakers starters are announced and night in, night out, they begin games with painfully small groups. Patrick Beverley, Schröder and Walker puts a ton of stress on an also small front court of Thomas Bryant and LeBron James. That unit is scoring a paltry 101.9 points per 100 possessions and giving up 110.4 points per possession — a net rating of -8.5. What’s even crazier is even if you swap Bryant for Anthony Davis, they’re still a net negative, with an offensive rating of 104.1 and defensive rating of 105.6.
You realize how bad you have to be at basketball to turn James and Davis into a net negative pairing? It’s unfathomable, honestly.
This isn’t just a starting issue, either. The data on all the lineups featuring three point guards so far is hideous:
Here's data on the Lakers' 3-pg lineups:— Anthony F. Irwin (@AnthonyIrwinLA) December 29, 2022
russ/pat/dennis: 97.9o, 144.6d, -46.7n
russ/dennis/lonnie: 97.6o, 133.1d, -35.6n
pat/dennis/lonnie: 106.6o, 120.1d, -13.5n
russ/pat/lonnie: 105.5o, 111d, -5.6n
russ/lonnie/nunn: 94.7o, 118.9d, -24.3n
They aren't working. Make it stop.
So essentially, the Lakers have five point guards between Westbrook, Beverley, Schröder, Walker and Nunn. I could include Reaves here given his size as a rail thin 6’4” guard, but his creative responsibilities are almost always as a secondary ball handler so I left him out of that group. Ham has taken Nunn out of the rotation, to his credit, but all of Beverley, Westbrook, Schröder and Walker are playing at least 27 minutes per game. One more guard probably needs to see his role shrink quite a bit.
From there, it becomes a process of elimination. Which guards bring something they can’t find elsewhere? Westbrook has been an engine off the bench and Jeanie Buss is apparently such a fan she reportedly scuttled a trade before the season, so that’s not happening. Beverley, even after a slow start, is the best combination of shooting and defense in that group. Walker is the most talented player in there. This leaves Schröder as the odd man out.
If the Lakers were prepping for a trade, I would understand relying as heavily on Schröder as they have but as that reportedly isn’t the case, then they need to start maximizing the roster they have. Schröder’s skillset is the most fungible by the other guards they have, so he probably needs to play fewer minutes.
The other part of this is what Schröder’s presence in the rotation has done to Walker, who has gone from a bright spot earlier this year, to an ill-fitting spot up shooter since Scrhöder got healthy. Walker’s points, free throws, rebounds, assists and steals are all down. All this points to a player less engaged in the game all around. And sure, you can poo poo counting stats all you want, but watch him play. Walker has gone from one of the most exciting Lakers to quite easily the least fun version of himself.
If they’re going to suck, at least be entertaining.
And again, this is all brought about by an imbalanced roster that no one seems all that inclined to improve. So in a way, Ham’s hand is forced here by both roster concerns and locker room or executive politics. When the team is performing well, those politics can be abided and some margin for error can be used up. But these Lakers don’t have that luxury. It’s a bad team that plays nightly at a severe talent disadvantage.
The other pervasive retort to this will be, “ok fine, then play who?” Which, fair. The other options aren’t great either. But Reaves, Troy Brown Jr. and newly healthy Juan Toscano Anderson offer either three point shooting or defense at a more meaningful size. Wenyen Gabriel appears to have a cap on his minutes and unless that exists because of injury concern, he should also get more run. Even Max Christie makes more sense than trotting these tiny lineups that have to fear trampling while they’re out there.
Or put more simply, anyone who isn’t 6’3” and under. Ham should honestly have a measuring stick with a line on it that has you must be at least this tall to enter the game.
These decisions are not as simple as I’ve outlined, especially for a rookie head coach, but the Lakers have struggled with the same issues for long enough. Just like how last year improved once the ancient corpses were swapped out for actual NBA athleticism in Stanley Johnson and Gabriel and the team was more fun to watch, chances are these tweaks would greatly enhance the product Pelinka And Co. continue to force on us.
This week in an explosive “Lakers Lounge,” I bring this up to Aaron Larsuel and Harrison Faigen — among other things, obviously.
And for a short-form recap pod, check out Lakers Lowdown, in which Anthony Irwin recaps the previous day’s news and gets you ready for the day ahead in LakerLand, every weekday morning on the Silver Screen & Roll Podcast feed.