Despite entering the season with much of the same roster for the first time in three seasons, Darvin Ham has struggled to find a starting lineup he feels comfortable rolling out night after night.
Entering the game against the Thunder on December 23, the Lakers had re-established themselves as one of the league’s best defenses — ranked eighth in the league — but had failed to live up to their talent on the other end with one of the game’s worst offenses, ranked 22nd. Instead of aiming for a more balanced approach, Ham inserted the staunch defending Jarred Vanderbilt into the starting group for D’Angelo Russell, who was coming off of a string of poor-shooting nights.
Explaining the move, Ham said, “The one thing we’ve been able to do consistently is play defense, starting from the trade deadline last year all the way up to this year being a top-10 defense.” Ham continued, stressing the essentiality of the team’s defense to its identity, saying, “We wanted to lean into what we’re doing well and allow that to be the foundation that spreads out to the rest of the segment of our game and how we can be productive.”
While the notion of leaning into the team’s greatest strength as a pillar of their identity may have some merit, unfortunately, ideology and vibes don’t contribute to the tally on the scoreboard. Ham’s altering has not only hamstrung their offense, but actually undermined what was working for them on defense. After 40 possessions across the two games with the Lakers’ new starters of LeBron, AD, Vando, Cam, and Prince, that group has a -17.0 net rating, scoring and defending at rates that each rank in the league’s bottom sixth.
While it’s not hard to see why this downgrade in shooting has stunted the already meager offense, this personnel grouping should, on paper, be the Lakers’ best defensive group. However, it’s actually a scheme change that has made the defense more porous than it was. Instead of playing a high-trapping or drop scheme where Anthony Davis can be involved in nearly every ball screen, the Lakers have started switching everything.
Although some of the slippage with this scheme can be chalked up to miscommunications and newness, as AD discussed after the Christmas Day loss to the Celtics, there are structural issues with its deployment as well.
Anthony Davis says the key to the Lakers looking as good as they can be will come from “buckling down defensively.” He said he is in favor of the new-look starting lineup but admitted there was some communication breakdowns with the new mix when it came to their switching schemes pic.twitter.com/jpjLyC9fB6— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) December 26, 2023
First, unlike trapping, hedging, or dropping to defend pick-and-rolls, switching takes Davis out of the play whenever the opponent uses a pick to switch a different defender onto the ball, and AD away from the action. Second, it allows the offense to dictate the terms of engagement, enabling the opponent to put the ball in their best player’s hands every time down the floor.
In fact, despite winning the game against the Thunder, it was the Lakers’ LeBron-led offense that drove the 129-120 victory, not their defense. They allowed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to score or assist on 26 of the Thunder’s 39 first-quarter points.
Broadly speaking, instead of turning to the players that can best fit Darvin Ham’s new switch-heavy defensive scheme, he should be tailoring his scheme and rotations to the most talented players on the roster.
Schematically, the Lakers’ drop-heavy defense was good enough to give them a top-10 group, a mark that should continue to improve assuming they get, and stay, healthier than they started the season. Further, their offense was the side of the ball in need of the most work, so starting a group with some of the worst possible spacing they can muster is probably not going to give them their best two-way outcome.
In terms of personnel, Ham needs to make sure he’s playing his best players for the most minutes. Despite finding a groove after a slow start and proving that he is still the guy who became the Lakers’ second-best postseason playmaker last spring, Austin Reaves has played fewer than 30 minutes in three of the Lakers’ last four games. Bringing Austin off the bench doesn’t preclude the possibility of a larger minutes load, but that’s how Ham has handled the rotation recently.
Starting Austin on the bench limits his opportunity to play with both LeBron and AD, a trio that had a +16.4 net rating last season. Since the bulk of that grouping’s minutes this year came before Austin found his sea legs, it makes sense that its rating of +1.3 this season has paled in comparison. In order to find the best possible version of this team, Ham should absolutely find a way to get his three best players on the floor together as much as possible, so that by the postseason, they will have — as LeBron likes to put it — “logged enough minutes” to achieve peak basketball chemistry.
Another talent downgrade Ham should consider undoing is the total removal of Christian Wood from the rotation for Jaxson Hayes. Unlike Hayes, who has the worst on-off of any regular rotation player on the Lakers (-10.1), the Lakers have been about as good with Wood on as they have been with him off (-0.1).
As a guy who was once looked at as a potential all-star-caliber talent, Wood is too talented of a player to be completely relegated to the bench. Further, although Hayes is the superior fit in Ham’s new switching scheme, Wood is the far superior rim protector and defensive rebounder, two skills that can provide the backbone of a drop coverage and work beside or in lieu of AD — a concept I explored at length before the season here.
Although the Lakers have a lot to figure out as they are far from the best version of themselves, it’s nothing like the hole they created over the majority of the past two seasons and needed to dig themselves out of to make a playoff run. At 16-15, the work-in-progress Lakers can continue to tinker while expecting to win a solid percentage of their games, even if they aren’t in championship form just yet.
They are solidly in the Western Conference playoff mix and have an easier schedule coming up. After just one home game since the end of the In-Season Tournament, the Lakers will spend the bulk of January at home, including 12 of their next 15 games coming in Los Angeles.
With a long way to go — 51 of 82 regular season games remain — Darvin Ham has plenty of time and all the pieces to put his Lakers rotation puzzle together. Still, the success of this next month could be informative as to whether he has the juice to get the job done.