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On Darvin Ham’s rotations and the pursuit of balance

It was only one game, but Darvin Ham handled the first night with his full rotation about as well as hoped.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers

If you follow the team closely, it’s no secret that Lakers head coach Darvin Ham has taken a healthy share of criticism this seasos for how he’s handled his team’s rotation. How fair or not any individual views that criticism very likely comes down to a couple of factors:

  1. How much grace you feel he is owed due to the limitations of the roster he was given, not only from the skills of the players and the positions in which its most talented players played, but the injuries to it’s top two stars and...
  2. How he had to navigate a roster with some very strong personalities and his need to manage the locker room in ways that would promote the best output from those individual players, in the hopes it would help the team more than it detracted from it.

Maybe those things matter to you bunch and feel like they’re major contributing factors to many of his rotation decisions through the first 50-some odd games. LeBron and Anthony Davis were unavailable too often, and other guys needed to play based on reputation or how their specific skills helped the shape identity of the team.

Or, maybe you see those things as only a portion of what goes into game-to-game rotation decisions and feel like the propensity to play three-guard groups and, overall, much smaller lineups than needed considering the available players, as much more of a choice Ham was making than one that was being foisted upon him.

Whatever side you fall on, good for you. No sarcasm. Reasonable minds can disagree, and while I fall somewhere in the middle of those opinions, I’m not here to argue either side right now.

What I will say, however, is now that the trade deadline has passed and the front office has provided Ham a reshaped roster that is much more balanced than the ones he had before February 9th, there is less of this type of context that could muddy the discussion around what types of lineups to play. Russell Westbrook is gone. Patrick Beverley is gone. Front court reinforcements are here.

Further, there’s much less room for error now as the team heads into the All-Star break still five games under .500, putting into place an even greater need for success as much as a reliable process that produces those results. In saying that, If Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans is a hint at what’s to come, Ham is off to a pretty good start.

With LeBron returning to the lineup for the first time since becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and Mo Bamba finally available after serving his suspension giving Austin Rivers those hands, Ham has his full roster available to him. And with his complete crew of players ready, came an entirely new rotation — beginning with his starting lineup.

Out was Dennis Schröder and Rui Hachimura, and in was Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt as the two players flanking LeBron, AD, and D’Angelo Russell. This new group is a much more conventional lineup, with each player offering good size for their position and some much-needed balance within the players’ respective skill sets on both sides of the ball.

This lineup shows a certain amount of care and understanding for what the Lakers’ new “Big 3” need to support them — namely shooting and defense. In Beasley, the Lakers offer their highest volume three-point shooter, the type of “laser” that — as LeBron explained — the defense must react to regardless of how hot or cold he is. With Vanderbilt, the team has a versatile combo forward who looks as comfortable chasing around a big-wing like Brandon Ingram as he is operating as the low-man in help defense to contest a shot at the rim.

On the bench, the Lakers have a combination of Dennis, Austin Reaves, Troy Brown, Rui Hachimura, and Mo Bamba as their next five. This quintet, as a group, make up an interesting lineup in their own right: a ball-handling point guard, a connecting combo guard, a three-and-D wing, a shot-creating power wing, and a stretch five. Against some teams, you could probably get a way with giving this group a short shift or two a game —though I’d much prefer one of LeBron or AD were on the floor for the entirety of the competitive parts of games.

However, when you pull out these players and slot them into groups around LeBron, AD, Russell, or any combination of those three, you can start to build out multiple lineup types that all have the opportunity to thrive and find success. At the same time, there’s the type of balance some of the pre-trade deadline guard-heavy groups simply did not offer; the type of balance that Ham himself has said is important to him when building out the rotation post trade deadline.

In a practical sense, balance can mean any number of things depending on what is valued in a lineup or the prism through which you view the game. But, from my vantage point, I’d argue that balance of offensive usage, skill types (on both sides of the ball), and defensive slotting are all important when building out groups.

For bench groups, then, I think targeting three different kinds of lineups are important:

  1. A LeBron based bench group that is built around his shot creation and gravity as a downhill force, while supporting his need for defensive motor and secondary ball-handling around him.
  2. An AD based bench group that is built around his elite finishing ability and gravity as a roll man offensively, while accounting for the fact that he’s a DPOY level defender.
  3. A group that has a mix of Russell and/or LeBron and AD, but supported by other bench players who offer different skill sets than the starters, but support them in similar ways.

For the first group, I imagine lineups where Dennis, Vanderbilt, Austin, and Bamba flank LeBron. Dennis and Austin provide the secondary ball handling, Austin and Bamba provide some spacing both from the perimeter and (in Bamba’s case) vertically, while all four players have defensive strengths that allow Bron to take on lesser individual matchups as much as needed.

For the second group, I think of lineups with Russell, Beasley, Rui, and Troy Brown to surround AD. This group has another wing defender in Brown, a shot-creating forward in Rui, and a combination of spot-up shooting, shot creation, and ball-handling from Russell, Beasley, and Brown. This group has multiple pick and roll ball handlers, can run in transition, and has enough size to compete defensively and on the glass.

For the third group, you can go smaller with Dennis next to Russell with Troy, LeBron, and AD as a faster group that still has a balance of shooting and downhill players. Or you can go with a big frontcourt of LeBron, AD, and Bamba with Dennis and Austin as headier defenders at the point of attack. You can even go LeBron, Rui, AD, with Austin and Russell, where you have more of a power look at the forward spots and skill players in the back court.

There are countless other options, too. But that’s the point. In reshaping the roster, Rob Pelinka has given Darvin Ham a more cohesive group of players that simply fit better together than the previous team he was tasked with coaching. And, ultimately, that should mean fewer opportunities for criticism. Particularly if future games go as well as Wednesday’s win over New Orleans did.

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