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3 Questions heading into Lakers vs. Grizzlies

From Jarred Vanderbilt’s defensive assignment to the potential for a successful lineup to re-emerge, there are several key questions that will determine if the Lakers advance to the next round.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Memphis Grizzlies Set Number: X164319 TK1

I love the NBA playoffs. Absolutely love them.

While the NBA is often viewed through the lens of narratives and storylines (and drama) at the expense of the X’s and O’s and technical precision actually required to win games, the playoffs suffer no such stigmas. It’s well understood that the playoffs are where the search for advantage, and then the pressing and leveraging of those discoveries, combines with execution to create a clear and deserving winner.

There is no hiding in the playoffs. If you have a weakness it will be found, and the only way out of it is if your side is better at disguising it or limiting it for long enough to exploit the flaws of the other team. Adjustments, counters, and counters to the counters create a war of attrition where, by the end of a series, there are no flukes.

The beginning, though, is where so many things remain unknown. We can speculate and guess about how things might go, but until both teams get out on the court and their plans either succeed or get blown to smithereens, we can’t really know for sure. So, with that, here are three questions we have and whose answers I believe will have an impact on the direction this series goes...

Who does Jarred Vanderbilt defend (and how much does he even play)?

In the 148 minutes that Jarred Vanderbilt has shared the floor with LeBron James and Anthony Davis this season, the Lakers have a net rating of +18.5 with a defensive rating of 107.7. While not the biggest sample this number is fantastic roughly two points per 100 possessions better than the NBA’s top defense for the season.

From a defensive perspective, Vanderbilt is nearly perfect as a complementary forward to slot between the Lakers’ superstars — offering the range and athleticism to defend the other team’s best offensive wing, and enough size and length to defend some of the better stretch PF’s. This versatility alleviates LeBron from having to take either of those matchups — putting him into a more roaming and help position defender in order to save his legs while playing to his strengths as a smart back-line quarterback.

Against the Grizzlies, then, there are two options most mentioned as options for Vando to be slotted onto defensively. The first is Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ All-Star big man who shifts seamlessly between PF and C depending on his frontcourt partner(s). And the second is Ja Morant, who doesn’t need any superlatives and is the engine to Memphis’ offensive attack in both transition and the halfcourt.

I’ve seen some arguments for Vando to be deployed onto Ja, but I do believe him starting on JJJ is not only most likely, but the right decision. Normally, I see Vando as more wing than big and think his best utility is when he’s asked to scale down defensively rather than up. That said, this is much more the case when LeBron is out. When Vando can be protected more on the glass and in the paint with another true forward (and Bron specifically), my concerns go down.

This matchup makes sense to me for two reasons:

  1. As a starter, JJJ skews more perimeter and is less inclined to post up as much. Sure, he’ll still go down there and when he does Vando will likely need some help. But, in the big picture, he’s out there to space the floor and that plays into Vanderbilt’s strengths on the wing much more.
  2. Vando taking this responsibility to start means AD can defend Xavier Tillman and stay closer to the basket defensively. Because one thing is for certain — if (and when) AD is on JJJ, he will space more and try to draw him out to free up driving lanes for Ja.

Regarding the possibility of Vando to defend Ja, I’m not as big a fan of that as the full-time look. I think as a changeup, it’s fine. But I think the cumulative effect of having Vando chase that much and the cross matching in transition when he goes after so many offensive rebounds would prove tricky. To say nothing of how it impacts the other matchups (does that mean LeBron defends JJJ?) and the ripple effect of it all.

On the flip side, I’m also interested in how much time Vando sees in general, even with his aforementioned defensive importance. I fully expect the Grizzlies to defend Vando with JJJ, allowing him to play off him and try to gum up the Lakers’ halfcourt offense as a helper and rim protector — particularly on LeBron and AD when they attack the paint. If the Lakers cannot find ways to occupy JJJ in those situations, they may need to swap Vando out for Rui, whose offensive game requires more defensive attention.

Will LeBron be the Lakers' backup Center?

With Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke both out, the Grizzlies are suddenly pretty shallow in their big man positions behind Jackson Jr. and Tillman. And while both start, it’s fair to speculate that they’ll be staggered during the rest of the game to ensure there’s always a baseline of size on the court.

Even with that being the case, though, the lack of true centers coming off Memphis bench means the Lakers will have some opportunities to play LeBron as the nominal center in bench groups, particularly with Tillman on the floor. The question is, will they?

The Lakers own improved front court depth and defensive versatility could allow the Lakers to play groups that not only feature LeBron and Rui, but potentially ones where Vanderbilt is on the floor with them. Depending on who is on the court for the Grizzlies, Ham could also play a more traditional small-ball group where LeBron and Rui are the only natural forwards on the floor — a formula that has worked well for the team this season in a limited sample. In 37 minutes this year where LeBron/Rui were on the court and none of AD, Wenyen, or Bamba were in the game, the Lakers have a +54.2 net rating and absolutely dominate on both sides of the ball.

Of course, Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins is an excellent coach and an easy counter to this sort of thing is to simply play Jackson more, and target some of his minutes in the parts of the game where AD is out too. In these instances, I’d expect (and hope) the Lakers to still play Gabriel minutes, but do so with both LeBron and Rui on the floor with him. For the season, when LeBron, Rui, and Wenyen share the floor the Lakers have mostly played teams even with a +1.1 net rating in 43 minutes.

Will see the return of the three-guard lineup?

For all the discussion of size and how much the Grizzlies’ ability to defend the Lakers bigs with their frontcourt injuries, a bigger story might end up being the guards, and the Lakers’ ability to get back to one of their better foundational lineups that we have not seen as much of lately.

Since February 11th, no Lakers trio (with 95 minutes or more together) has a better net rating when they share the floor than the guard group of D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schröder. In 96 minutes, the boast a +39.7 net rating with great showings (133.0 offense, 93.3 defense) on both sides of the ball.

Here’s the thing, though. Since LeBron returned from his foot injury on March 26th against the Bulls, that trio of Lakers guards have only shared the floor for 3 minutes. THREE! Some of that is related to Russell missing games with the hip and foot issues he dealt with in the final weeks of the year. But, more than anything else, it seems as though LeBron’s return led to more lineups where he was the third ball handler on the floor and the presence of another guard was not needed as much.

Considering the Grizzlies’ dearth of big men and the potential for them to pivot to more perimeter-centric groups around a lone big (whether as core bench groups or as a closing lineup), could the Lakers’ trio of guards make a reappearance this series?

Yes, there’s a strong argument to be made that a closing group that includes Rui (as has been the case of late) can give the Lakers the size and frontcourt versatility they need on defense to better deal with any team’s challenges. But, if the Grizz are playing smaller lineups where their fifth player next to Ja, Bane, Brooks, and Jackson Jr. is one of Tyus Jones, Luke Kennard, John Konchar (or even Santi Aldama — though he’s a bit bigger), I wouldn’t mind seeing the Lakers playing smaller with their three guards next to LeBron and AD to not only better matchup, but to have one extra defensive guard in the game to deploy on either Ja or Bane.

There is still so much unknown about how this series will play out and, as the series goes on, which trends will endure and which will fall away as adjustments are deployed by both coaches. But I believe the answers to the above questions will give us key insights into who advances to the 2nd round.

I cannot wait until Sunday.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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