LOS ANGELES — At 25-30 and in 13th place in the Western Conference on February 8, the Lakers were fighting for their lives. Dealt a shallow, ill-fitting roster around a still-dominant LeBron James and surging Anthony Davis, Darvin Ham could do little more than pick between bad and worse lineup machinations.
After the following day’s deadline deals netted the Lakers a handful of mostly reliable rotation players for just one highly erratic one, the team has gone 18-9, tied for the third-best record in the league over that stretch. Now, as they look to turn a play-in bid into a postseason run, Darvin Ham is saddled with a new kind of problem — the luxury of choice.
Between Rui Hachimura — the Lakers’ first addition by trade this season — and Jarred Vanderbilt, a starter in the team’s final 23 games, the Lakers have two solid forwards to slot between LeBron and AD with divergent strengths and weaknesses. Vando is a consistent source of energy and effort on the defensive end with the ability to guard up and down, whereas Rui — who saw his minutes recede after the deadline, and then surge back up recently — is a more broadly capable, albeit less consistent two-way contributor.
Heading into the postseason, each player has a credible argument for consideration in the starting lineup that has remained practically unchanged at full-strength with the exception of Austin Reaves’ ascendence into that group.
The case for the incumbent Vando is his defensive staunchness, especially on scoring wings. And considering the fact that basically every team the Lakers will have to go through has one, Vanderbilt makes sense in the starting group.
Vando had Brandon Ingram in hell when the Lakers and Pelicans last played, serving as a prime example of what he can do to opposing wings, and something that could come in handy for the Lakers against Anthony Edwards.
Jarred Vanderbilt's versatile wing defense has been a much needed dimension for the Lakers thus far.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 17, 2023
Gave Brandon Ingram a ton of issues yesterday with his size, length and quickness. Just such a tremendous defender whose motor never runs cold: pic.twitter.com/UMHjAqE91l
That’s something Ham spoke to before the Lakers’ final regular season contest on Sunday. Asked why the team’s improved so much on the defensive end since the deadline, Ham said, “I think Vando jumps right out—he’s the first guy that jumps right out in my mind. His versatility, his energy, his ability to guard multiple positions.”
However, his offensive limitations really hurt the Lakers’ ability in the half court, an inhibition that has led to slow starts and stands out in his lineup data. Overall, the Lakers have been 14.9 points/100 worse with Jarred Vanderbilt on the floor than off it, the worst mark of any Laker this season. That number is skewed by the team’s poor performances without LeBron or AD, as Vando and LeBron share a plus-10.9/100 net rating in their minutes together, but his specific skillset makes him a much better fit as an offensive connector than floor-spacer and guarding wings as opposed to trying to bang with bigs in the paint. Nonetheless, Vando’s presence in all but two starting lineups has been the most consistent thing about the Lakers since the deadline.
On the other hand, after starting out his Lakers tenure with a stretch of games with the starters, Rui’s almost exclusively been relegated to the reserve unit, and even earned one CD-DNP. However, he’s seemingly grown more comfortable and confident in his game, burying smaller players under the rim on both ends and even providing some surprisingly stout secondary rim protection on occasion.
Ham had some conditionally high praise for Rui’s recently increased comfortability, saying, “I think when Rui comes out with the right mindset to be aggressive and energetic and physical, he’s one of the better players at that position in the league. He’s a guy that can play small forward, a guy that can play power forward, and even a small ball five.”
That two-way viability has translated to team success. Unlike in Washington, where his Wizards were 8.2 points/100 worse with him on the floor than off it, the Lakers have been 1.7 points/100 better with Rui on than off. In basketball purgatory, the fourth-year former top-10 pick struggled to find his footing as a shoot-first, mid-range specialist who struggled with consistency on the other end of the floor.
With the Lakers, Rui’s thrived next to better playmaking, and his pull-up scoring ability gives the Lakers a prime bail-out option, raising the floor of their offense without asking him to ever create something out of nothing. Next to LeBron, lineups with Hachimura are plus-17.4 points/100, but it’s actually the defense of those lineups that makes them so dominant, limiting opponents to less than a point per possession.
After the Lakers’ March 31 win against the Wolves, Rui talked about seeking out the opportunity to guard Karl-Anthony Towns in isolation, a matchup in which he thrived.
Rui Hachimura has become one of my favorite players on this team. pic.twitter.com/gAttKyl4FW— Omar Siddiqi (@osid24) April 6, 2023
Ham credited Hachimura’s defense too, specifically citing his prowess from a recent performance, “Some of the blocks he had a few back in Houston were nothing short of incredible. Every time he plays with a sense of urgency and brings that energy, he’s good to go.”
Rui Hachimura, who has been playing great D for the Lakers, blocks 3 dunk attempts against Houston. He finished with 20 pts, 12 reb, and 3 blk pic.twitter.com/lfv77Z8Oet— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) April 4, 2023
He even had another one down the stretch against the Jazz, helping the Lakers seal a win in their final game of the regular season, playing in the closing group for the second straight game. Afterwards, Ham again praised Hachimura, “Rui’s been phenomenal. When he’s energetic and he’s playing with force, it’s great. You can finish [games] with him.”
Ham continued, touching on how Rui’s defensive versatility plays up in crunch time, “He can guard bigs. In late game situations a lot you have to switch and he has good enough feet where he can stay in front of a guard, and he’s strong enough where he can hold up a center and hold his own in the post or in pick and roll defense.”
Ultimately, each player’s relative utility depends on the Lakers’ matchup, as Rui has turned into the better all-around option, but Vando’s ability to be kryptonite to scoring wings remains unmatched. With the Lakers set to host the wingless Wolves on Tuesday, Ham may be wise to rejigger his lineups to account for Rui’s recent play, especially against KAT. And if the Lakers get a chance to see the Grizzlies in the first round, Rui’s superior girth will probably play up on the inside, while Vando might not make as much sense out on Memphis’s backcourt. Regardless, maybe the best thing Ham can do is to stick with what’s been working, which means a rotation heavily featuring the both of them.
All quotes acquired firsthand unless otherwise noted. Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.