Through 49 games this season, two Lakers have started 46 games, tied for the most on the team. If you heard that before the season, you might hope that those two would be the Lakers’ superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Unfortunately, you’d only be half-right, as AD has proved to be more Ironman than “Street Clothes,” this year. And while LeBron has fared well for it being his 21st season, he’s only suited up 44 times, falling just short of his co-star’s mark.
The other most frequent starter, as you might already know — especially if you are one of the many Laker fans who has grown frustrated with head coach Darvin Ham’s apparent infatuation with this particular seventh-year veteran — is Taurean Prince.
After starting in the majority of his games in the second, third, and fourth years of his career, Prince has primarily been featured as a reserve, safe for a spot start here and there. Past the halfway point in the season, Prince has already started 36 more times than any of his post-pandemic seasons.
Ham’s steady deployment of Prince with the starters is like rebooting Pretty Woman with longtime character actress Miriam Margolyes in the role originally played by a 21-year-old Julia Roberts — she’s a great actress, but not if she were so egregiously miscast.
It’s unusual for a player at this point in their career — almost 30 years old — to emerge as an everyday starter after settling into a smaller role, especially without some major change. Prince wasn’t stuck behind some juggernaut starting group with the mostly middling Nets, Hawks and Wolves, and he hasn’t evolved into a wholly different player than the one that he was with those teams.
Instead, Prince is doing almost exactly what he has since he entered the league: he shoots threes (38.5% on 5.4 attempts per game), moves the ball (1.7 assists per game) and plays passable perimeter defense (1.4 stocks per game). However, he doesn’t create much offense for himself or others beyond occasionally attacking a closeout, he lacks the physicality or quickness to be a real defensive stopper and, worst of all, he’s an exceptionally poor rebounder for his size and position; 2.8 boards per game and a career-low defensive rebounding rate that puts him in the 22nd percentile amongst wings.
The only player whose context closely parallels Prince’s is recent Laker Malik Beasley, who has started 45 games for the Milwaukee Bucks on a veteran’s minimum $2 million salary. However, instead of starting next to two other defensively-challenged guards, Beasley is one of those two, next to Damian Lillard, and is surrounded by three more above-average-to-elite defenders.
Also, he’s shooting 45.5% on threes — third-best in the NBA and 10 percentage points better than he shot as a Laker. The Bucks have survived Beasley’s defensive impact with the league’s fourth-best offense, but just replaced their head coach and still sport just the 18th-best defense after being a perennial leader in that category.
All of this is to say that no player who earns less than Prince has been given a more central role on their team, and the only one who is similarly situated has made threes at an unsustainably high rate and has more defensive cover within his own starting group.
Taurean Prince, as a basketball player, is good at some things and bad at others. He has clear strengths and weaknesses that make him a deserving, NBA-caliber role player on a particular type of team. Ideally, Prince injects some shooting into an already physical team with plenty of playmaking, something the Lakers have aimed to be but have fallen short of becoming this season.
The Lakers coaching staff and players alike have openly pined for a superior defense, especially in recent days, as they’ve fallen out of the top 10 and down to 13th overall in defense and 23rd over the last two weeks.
After the second embarrassing loss to a team with a losing record in as many nights, Jarred Vanderbilt said, “I think we should be a defensive-minded team to start the game...I think our defense should ignite our offense.”
Vando’s presence in the starting lineup helped give the Lakers one of the NBA’s best defenses after last year’s trade deadline and carry them into the postseason. It makes sense that he’s grown frustrated watching the team struggle on that end of the floor, especially as he’s played himself into shape after missing the early part of the season with a heel injury.
Ham, too, has expressed frustration with the Lakers’ starting group's lack of defense. After the loss at the Hawks, he said, “I just told the team after the game, we got to figure out how to give more resistance defensively with those first and third quarters.”
It is genuinely strange to hear Ham complain about the team’s defense to open each half when the only thing preventing them from rolling out last year’s starting group is him. It’s reasonable to aspire towards lineup continuity, but only when building off of what actually works.
Although the Lakers have gone to last year’s starters sparingly — only 32 minutes — this season, it’s still been their best unit in terms of overall plus-minus at +27 overall and +39.6 per 100 possessions. Alternatively, the same group with Prince in for Vando is their most used this year with 228 minutes and has remained a loser (-10, -3.4 per 100 possessions).
The Lakers have gone to the group that supplanted the previous one when Vanderbilt proved unplayable offensively in the latter part of their playoff run even less, but to similar effect. With Rui Hachimura in, and Vando out, next to the Lakers’ other four starters, the team has dominated opponents (+12, +28.5 per 100 possessions), but used it incredibly scarcely (16 minutes).
There might be a good team in there based on the existence of good lineups in small samples, but the Lakers aren’t using the good ones enough to overcome bad starts with their four best players on the floor on a nightly basis, as they had to against the Warriors.
Doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is both what Ham has done here with his starting lineup and the definition of insanity.
Prince isn’t the reason for the Lakers’ defensive issues, but he certainly isn’t the answer and continuing to ask him to be one is going to continue to result in the losing basketball we’ve seen all season. The Lakers need to slide Prince into a bench role that suits his offensive strengths instead of a starting one that immediately exposes his defensive shortcomings.
That means starting Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, or a player acquired before the February 8 trade deadline.
The Lakers need to turn their season around to avoid wasting a third straight season of LeBron’s waning superpowers and risking a total collapse if he decides to escape the franchise’s ineptitude this offseason.