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The Lakers are rebuilding their identity at a crucial time

By reedifying distinct identities for their starting and bench groups, the Lakers are rounding into the image of the contender they desperately want to be.

The Los Angeles Lakers host the Sacramento Kings in an NBA regular season game at crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, Nov. 15, 2023. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Despite the best string of health they’ve ever had from their star duo, the Lakers have scuttled through the first half of the NBA season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have returned to consistent superstar form, giving the franchise arguably the best duo in the game, but the Lakers have also struggled to deploy the supporting cast around them in a way that generates winning basketball.

After deploying 11 different starting lineups through 40 games, the Lakers went back to the one they used on opening night, surrounding LeBron (37 starts) and AD (39 starts) with Austin Reaves (19 starts), D’Angelo Russell (30 starts), and Taurean Prince (39 starts).

The reversion led to a much-needed 112-105 win over a Thunder team that has the best net rating in the Western Conference, with the Lakers’ new/old backcourt combining for 29 points on 50% shooting and 13 assists. Although the efficient production may come as a surprise to those who have followed the pair’s poor track record of playing together this season — the Lakers have a -6.0 net rating when they share the floor this season — D’Lo and Austin certainly aren’t. The duo continued their on-court chemistry into the postgame presser, exhibiting a reverence for each other’s games and personalities.

Looking at the bigger picture, the pair’s struggles this season are more surprising than their resurgence given the preposterous +23.6 net rating they posted last season when on the court together, highlighted by even more effusive postgame gushing.

Much of the duo’s poor net rating this season can be chalked up to Austin’s slow start to the year. However, the duo is still -10 together since the start of 2024. The lack of foot speed and size between them leaves the Lakers’ defense vulnerable to perimeter penetration by high-octane scoring guards. Combined with the fact that the Lakers’ offense remains ranked 22nd overall and 23rd over the past two weeks, it’s not like the duo have been able to overcome their defensive shortcomings on the other end.

Until the Lakers truly figure out a way to get their 5-out offense firing on all cylinders — though strong scoring performances in each of the past two games suggest they might be turning a corner — this starting backcourt will continue to leak more points than it’s worth.

With Cam Reddish nursing a groin strain and Gabe Vincent still sidelined until the end of February after having knee surgery, the Lakers flanked those five with only four more. The back end of the Lakers’ nine-man rotation included Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Christian Wood and Max Christie.

While Christian Wood’s return to the rotation has provided a steady boon over the past couple of weeks, it was Hachimura and Vanderbilt — two players who have battled nagging health issues through the season’s first half — who made the biggest difference on Monday.

With Rui and Vando together on the floor for a couple of stints wrapping around the third quarter and into the fourth, the Lakers outscored the Thunder by seven points, the same as their total margin of victory. With both big forwards on the floor together, the Lakers overwhelmed the Thunder, imposing a level of force on their opponent like they did so often after the trade deadline last season.

Vando’s impact was as striking as any other player on the floor, tanking both team’s offenses simultaneously. Still, Rui’s shotmaking helped alleviate some of the crowding caused by Vando’s lack of spacing, leading to winning basketball for the Lakers.

Somehow, the duo has shared the floor in only two games this season but is the team’s sixth-best performer in total net rating. Further, no pair above them has played in fewer than five games, and seven of the Lakers’ top 10 net-rating duos feature one or both of Rui and Vando.

The Rui-Vando combination off the bench gives the Lakers a massive advantage in terms of physical force compared to most teams’ bench units. With a bench duo capable of dominating together, the back end of the Lakers’ rotation looks as solid as it has in years.

Still, there’s reason to doubt the Lakers are on the Thunder’s level just yet.

If the Thunder had only made threes at the clip they were expected to based on the quality of their shooters and the looks they got, they would have beaten the Lakers by somewhere between two and five points.

Nonetheless, if the Lakers’ starting lineup built on maximized “skill and shotmaking” can figure out how to cook on offense around LeBron and AD, the Lakers’ rotations should become more successful and, in turn, consistent.

After the Mavericks on Wednesday, a team who won a nail-biter against the Lakers the last time they played and is playing like a top-10 unit over the last two weeks, six of the Lakers’ seven remaining January games are against teams with losing records.

Stacking wins should improve vibes and give the team more options and leverage heading into the Feb. 8th trade deadline. Despite the health of their stars, the Lakers have missed the seventh-most games to injury in the NBA and played at a 52-win pace when they’ve had fewer than three missing rotation players.

Where they’re at in the standings at that point could determine the Lakers’ ability and willingness to make a move, making this a crucial stretch of games for Darvin Ham, Rob Pelinka, the legacy of LeBron James and everyone else in the Lakers’ orbit.

Leaning on what’s worked should help, but we’ll have to wait and see for now if it’s enough.

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.

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