Change is inevitable.
Look at any team's starting five and lineup usage at the start of the season and where it's at by the end of the year and you will see two different teams.
With the Lakers having key rotation players like Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura out for stretches, we haven't gotten a chance to see the Lakers near full strength until these past couple of weeks.
So, let's take a closer look at the lineups head coach Darvin Ham has been using and search for ways to optimize this team's production.
Through 31 games, the Lakers have used eight different starting lineups. The most used lineup features LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish and D'Angelo Russell. The lineup has a +1.2 net rating and the Lakers have an 8-4 record when this unit starts games.
With D'Angelo Russell now moved to the bench and players like Vanderbilt available, it seems we'll see less of this lineup.
In the last two games, we've seen the Lakers go with James, Davis, Prince, Reddish and Vanderbilt as their starters.
Vando's energy and effort was a great addition to the starters last night pic.twitter.com/XZ08lRUdrf— Late Night Lake Show (@LateNightLakers) December 24, 2023
This lineup has had mixed results, with a dominant performance versus the Oklahoma City Thunder and offensive struggles against the Boston Celtics. The positive is clear: when this unit clicks on all cylinders, James and Davis are carrying the offense and including Vanderbilt gives them size and versatility on the defensive side that's been absent.
The negative is if the duo is not hot offensively, relying on the rest of the unit to score is tough. We saw this on full display Monday when the Lakers started the game down by 12 before they scored a point.
Ham has mentioned that the starting lineup is not 'set in stone' but he's also expressed hesitation in changing it for change's sake. If Ham does opt for change, what other options could work?
A lineup of James, Davis, Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves could work well to start games. On paper, this lineup gives you a better offense. Hachimura is playing some of his best basketball of the season as of late and Reaves could handle point guard duties. Yes, you’ll lose some defense with these two on the floor, but what you gain in offense is worth the tradeoff.
An option that worked well last season but we still have yet to see this year features Davis, James, Vanderbilt, Reaves, and Russell. This lineup cuts the offense vs. defense in the middle by giving you two good offensive options in Reaves and Russell and plugging in one of your best defenders in Vanderbilt.
The lineup was given up on with Russell going to the bench in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals last season, but let’s see if it can work in certain matchups during the regular season this year.
Minutes without James have always been an issue on any team that has the King on it.
Winning or at least treading water with these minutes is key and so far this season, when James has missed games, Ham has gone with the same lineup of Davis, Hachimura, Prince, Reddish and Russell. This squad has a net rating of +3.7 and the Lakers were able to win two of the three games James missed.
With Vanderbilt now available, subbing out Russell and placing him in that spot gives you the best unit to use during the non-LeBron minutes.
Another option to consider is Christian Wood.
Pairing him with Prince, Hachimura and Russell would allow Davis to play the four, give the Lakers size and with Russell running the offense, it could highlight Davis while James gets a rest. No lineup without James will be sensational, but this one could be a positive and a change of pace while James is out.
The rebuttal, of course, is Wood hasn’t looked great himself in his recent games. When he’s on the floor, the offense has stalled and the only thing worse than his shot selection has been the results.
Still, he’s a veteran on the bench and given the available options, I think he’s worth another look.
It's not how you start but how you finish games that matter and despite hesitating to use them together, Reaves and Russell play a lot in the final 12 minutes. In the fourth quarter, the lineup that’s logged the most minutes for the Lakers features Davis, James, Reaves, Prince and Russell.
They have a -5.5 net rating and while that’s not the data you want to see, the team has also had to play from behind against some good teams this year, likely causing this unit to struggle.
Even with Russell being benched on Saturday, Ham still went to him in the fourth against the Thunder and again on Monday versus Boston.
The lack of a strong defender in the backcourt when Russell and Reaves are on the floor is likely why we haven't seen it as much, but hopefully, we will see it some more and challenge the players to figure it out defensively.
If a significant trade isn't made, these two will be part of the Lakers' playoff rotation. You should be using the regular season to figure out how both can share the floor and be successful instead of just avoiding the combination altogether.
The starting lineup suggestion of James, Davis, Vanderbilt, Hachimura and Reaves could also work well here. It gives you additional offensive playmakers in Hachimura and Reaves and the defensive reliability Ham yearns for in Vanderbilt.
The trio of James, Davis, and Hachimura have been on the floor for just 93 minutes so far this season and have had some success logging a +2 net rating. This group can get better, but knowing which two to add to offset what Hachimura lacks defensively is key, which is why I like Vanderbilt with this squad.
I think I speak for most Lakers fans in being done with Jaxson Hayes.
Give Christian Wood whatever minutes you have for Hayes and see if he can be a positive. The good moments with Hayes can be electric, but the times he's lost on offense, fails to catch a pass, or turns it over, kills enough momentum that I'd rather see him glued to the bench.
Speaking of glued to the bench, can Max Christie get some run? He hasn't seen much action with Reddish playing well and Vanderbilt back. In his sophomore season, Christie is already too good to get no time at all. Big guards are hard to find and a shift a night seems appropriate even if the team is playing well.
The Lakers have plenty of talent but are flawed, as most teams are.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Add Reaves to the starters and you sacrifice defense in that lineup and lose your best bench producer. Take Russell away from the starters and you put more offensive pressure on Davis and James.
The job of a coach is to maximize results with the talent provided and nailing the rotations and minute distribution is how you get that done. Ham has to get this right in 2024.
Ham has stressed patience, constantly made marathon references and noted the still large amount of remaining games on the schedule at his pressers. With everyone but Gabe Vincent available, this is the healthiest this team has been. Now that most of the tools are in the shed, it’s time for Ham to deliver more wins than lessons for the fans who’ve been patient with the process.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.