For the first time in what seems like a long time, the Lakers have options when it comes to trotting out a competitive lineup. After a busy trade deadline that saw the team add five new players to the roster, Darvin Ham will have his hands full in determining the right combinations on a nightly basis.
There are locks of course, namely in the starting lineup with the likes of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and D’Angelo Russell cementing their spots. Besides the trio, there’s a viable case to be had for nearly half the bench to fill out those remaining two positions and beyond.
This is what coaches have long helmed as a good problem, but the problem aspect of the equation does still need to be taken into account.
Combining the wrong mix of players or attempting to distribute minutes evenly across the entire depth chart has the potential for combustion. And with just 25 games left in the season, the Lakers need to now more than ever, shore up their rotation and rely only on those who can propel them into the playoffs.
What follows are just a few lineup configurations Ham and his staff could be considering, and why situation will likely be paramount in deciding which five-man to utilize.
The conventional oven
D’Angelo Russell/Austin Reaves/Rui Hachimura/LeBron James/Anthony Davis
There may be no better example of the inconsistency to the Lakers’ rotation this year than looking at their most used lineup.
The five-man group, which has logged just 250 possessions this season (for context: the Nuggets’ most used lineup has played 876) doesn't just exclude include Anthony Davis, but also contains two players no longer on the roster.
Despite the team having to play catchup now against the running clock, it would greatly behoove everyone involved to lock down a stable starting five from here on out.
The aforementioned trio of Russell, James and Davis aside, the coaching staff must take multiple things into account when deciding who the surrounding pieces will be.
Hachimura checks enough boxes that make him a logical fit, namely through his ability to space the floor, take advantage of mismatches and help check sturdier wings and forwards. He has also already had success next to the team’s stars since arriving, as the group of Hachimura, James and Davis have a +4.1 net rating together this season.
When it comes to Russell’s backcourt partner, this will arguably be Ham’s most difficult decision going forward.
As seen in Saturday’s win over the Golden State Warriors, Ham may ultimately give the nod to Dennis Schröder. Behind his steady defense at the point of attack, the guard has started in 40 of his 43 games played this season and has also recently caught fire from the field.
However, by opting to go to this route, the reserves may lack a consistent ball-handler even if James occupies minutes with the bench as he typically does. There is also the concern that Schröder’s shooting gravity may congest driving lanes compared to a more dependable perimeter threat.
A player like Malik Beasley may fit that bill, and can potentially thrive in his open chances next to James and Davis. However he may ultimately give up too much on the other end of the floor to provide a positive impact overall.
The safest bet then may be Austin Reaves, who may not specialize in one individual area, but does enough everywhere else to fill in the gaps and offer the lineup a level of conventionality they desperately need after a turbulent year.
The big show
D’Angelo Russell/Malik Beasley/LeBron James/Anthony Davis/Mo Bamba
Prior to the trade deadline, the Lakers were small, redundant, and did I mention small? It wouldn't take longer than a quick glance around the team’s fanbase on twitter before coming across complaints about Ham’s usage of a three, and sometimes four-guard lineup.
While the potential of these groups is still present, after the moves the front office made the frequency of their visibility should expectedly diminish. Not only is the roster younger and more skilled, but they are also notably bigger across the board.
A matching 6’5” backcourt of Russell/Beasley is dicey defensively, but do offer enough spacing to unclog the paint for the team’s frontcourt especially if now is the time we finally see Davis back at power forward.
There have only been a minuscule 29 possessions where Davis has played the four-spot this this year as 99% of his minutes have come at center according to Cleaning the Glass. That could change with the addition of Mo Bamba.
The center has proved to be enough of a legitimate shooting threat (a combined 37% from behind the arc over his last three seasons) to allow Davis to not only occupy the paint, but on the other end, help Davis stay out of foul trouble by shouldering the load of checking opposing star bigs.
There is also simply a curiosity factor in seeing how the towering tandem can coexist on the floor. Between Davis’ fluidity and Bamba’s otherworldly 7’10” wingspan, lies a possibility where the pair could block out the paint — and sun — completely.
D’Angelo Russell/Austin Reaves/Troy Brown Jr./Jarred Vanderbilt/Anthony Davis
It is not revelatory that LeBron James’ led teams often perform better when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off. And his tenure in Los Angeles has been no exception. This season, the Lakers are 8.7 points worse (2369 possessions) with James on the bench according to Cleaning the Glass.
While there is context necessary to understand why this has been the case like injuries and the limitations of former players, with now a nearly completely different team, the Lakers may simply be in a better spot to stay afloat while James sits thanks to their new depth.
When attempting to construct a group that can survive those non-LeBron minutes, there are certain skills necessary to make up for his absence. Specifically, adequate ball-handling, playmaking, spacing and defensive versatility.
The potential five-man lineup of Russell, Reaves, Brown, Vanderbilt and Davis offer enough of these things to be a viable group. How well they ultimately fare however, may come down to how Russell performs as their lead creator.
As seen in his debut, Ham allowed Russell to run a lot of ball screen-action next to and alongside Davis in particular. It’s an area where the guard has had success in and could prove to be a big component to a non-James offense. As the pick and roll ball-handler, Russell scored 1.04 points per possession (including passes) with Minnesota this year according to Synergy.
Russell also provides value off the ball, as thanks to his perimeter shooting could play off Reaves’ playmaking or Davis’ interior gravity. He has scored a blistering 1.21 points per shot-up attempt (89th percentile) this season, signaling his ability to space the floor for this groups’ downhill attacks.
Beyond Russell’s scoring and playmaking ability, there is enough energy, size and switch-ability with this group to also cause havoc on the defensive end of the floor. A combination of skills and ingredients that should help not only survive on the scoreboard, but actually allow James to rest longer.
The fresh off two cans of Red Bull:
Dennis Schröder/Austin Reaves/Troy Brown Jr./Jarred Vanderbilt/Wenyen Gabriel
The space and pace:
D’Angelo Russell/Malik Beasley/Austin Reaves/LeBron James/Mo Bamba
D’Angelo Russell/Malik Beasley/LeBron James/Jarred Vanderbilt/Anthony Davis
Regardless of which iterations Ham decides to deploy, there is no question their options are much more suited for success than the previous incarnation.
That said, with only 25 games left in the season there is not much time left for experimentation. Finding the right combinations and compatible skillsets will be of the upmost importance. And they also need to come in lockstep with more wins.
How quickly and efficiently the coaching staff can pass this latest chemistry test may ultimately decide the Lakers’ postseason fate.