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A case for Christian Wood as a starter

The Lakers lost by 34 points in the one game Christian Wood started this season, but his solid play through a miserable stretch means Darvin Ham should give him another look.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Since winning the In-Season Tournament in early December, the Lakers have won only three of the dozen games they’ve played. A pair of those wins came against two of the four worst teams in the NBA and the other came on a night where LeBron James scored 40 points. Anthony Davis and LeBron have been available for all but two of those 12 games, including one of the wins, so their struggles cannot — unlike in past seasons — be chalked up to the mere absence of their superstar duo.

During this stretch, the Lakers have struggled to find any kind of on-court consistency, falling into the bottom half of the league in terms of net rating on both sides of the floor and 19th overall according to Cleaning the Glass. Despite steady health from their most-played players, the Lakers’ lineups have fluctuated tremendously, running out five different starting lineups featuring 10 different players.

After bottoming out below .500 in Wednesday’s disappointing loss to the Heat at home without Jimmy Butler, the Lakers are reeling, openly desperate for answers to stop the slide.

As the leader of a highly talented team that seems to have lost the ability to fall back on a style of basketball that works for them, Darvin Ham needs to figure out a way to cohere the strengths of his best players instead of trying to mold the roster around his preferred style of play.

As evidenced by his solid play upon returning to the rotation, even during this team-wide rough patch and after weeks of relegation to the bench, Christian Wood is arguably one of the team’s five most talented players and deserves consideration for a spot in the starting lineup.

After some success following a stretch of five DNPs in 10 games that ended on Christmas, Wood said that his “next guy up” mentality has been key to his ability to perform when called upon after the team’s win over the Hornets. Specifically, Wood said, “Just me doing conditioning, lifting, watching a lot of film and seeing areas where we can work on. We’ve been lacking a lot in 3-point shooting so I think it’s a big thing for me to come in and make shots.”

Wood has done just that, posting 50/55/80 shooting splits over the last four games while the team has won his minutes in three of them, even as the Lakers have lost three straight games.

His impact has been broader than his shooting as his defensive rebounding and rim protection have also helped buoy the net ratings of the lineups featuring him. He’s pulled down exactly five rebounds and a block in all four games and is starting to show how his proper deployment can embolden defensive skills that go beyond his poor reputation on that end.

On the season, Wood remains fourth in on-off rating and has helped the Lakers win minutes with him on and AD off (plus-3.7 points per 100 possessions) as well as about average (-0.6) when both on the floor. Further, there is some evidence of a budding synergy between the Lakers’ best two pure bigs based on their play against Miami.

Although Wood was central to the Lakers’ latest fake comeback, Ham ended up having to play him, LeBron, AD, and Austin Reaves almost the entire fourth quarter. Instead of overextending the Lakers’ best group at the end of games, it would make sense to spread their minutes out over the course of a game so that each of them can play at the highest possible intensity for the most total amount of time.

Additionally, Ham’s choice between backup bigs should be even easier given how poorly Wood’s alternative has been all season. Jaxson Hayes is not only the team’s worst on-off performer of any regular rotation piece, his lack of strength or skill makes it wholly unclear what his even hypothetical on-court utility might be. With Wood’s emergence as the obviously superior option to backup AD, Ham would be wise to plan 48 minutes a game of either Wood, Davis, or both on the floor against most matchups.

Without much going right for the Lakers lately, Ham would be wise to extend Wood a longer leash and try to incorporate him as a more central member of the rotation. Trying for a version of the team built around its best players, and giving it an extended chance to succeed, could unlock the Lakers’ highest possible ceiling if it all works out. The good news is that even if it doesn’t, things can’t be a whole lot worse than they are right now.

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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