The 2016-17 NBA season has just started, but the Los Angeles Lakers have already faced teams that feature James Harden of the Houston Rockets, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, Dwight Howard of the Atlanta Hawks, DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. For the past three years, the Lakers have pursued players of this caliber in free agency, to no avail. It is often said that the NBA is a star-driven league, and the conventional wisdom is that a team cannot win without one or more All-Stars on their roster.
So what does it mean that the Lakers won all of their games against these teams and their superstars? They have bucked the trend by winning without any stars or consistent go-to player. Coach Luke Walton recognizes that his roster has no one who can carry the team every night, so he has to try to win by committee. So far, it is working pretty well, as the Lakers have started the year with a 6-4 record and have won three consecutive road games.
Many observers believe the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves have the best young talent in the league, so it is only natural to compare and contrast the approach these teams are taking. Minnesota is led, in every sense of the word, by 21-year-old Andrew Wiggins, 21-year-old Zach LaVine, and 20-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns. Each is averaging around 35 minutes a night and over 20 points per game, statistics which far surpass those of anyone else on the team.
The Lakers feature 20-year-old D’Angelo Russell, 21-year-old Julius Randle, and 24-year-old Jordan Clarkson. Each is playing in the 26-28 minute per game range and averaging around 15 points. Unlike Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine, as things have unfolded, Russell, Randle, and Clarkson are not the leaders of their team. Nine members of the roster are playing between 20 and 28 minutes per night, and five are scoring in the 14.2 to 15.9 points per game range. It is Lou Williams who is leading the team in scoring.
Minnesota has created a system that is entirely dependent on three young players, each of whom has star potential. It is no exaggeration to say that, as goes Wiggins, Towns, and LaVine, so go the Timberwolves. While they have too much talent to continue to struggle, thus far, following that course, they have started the season with a disappointing 2-6 record.
The Lakers, in contrast, have found a way to feature Russell, Randle, and Clarkson but without really relying on them. They also lean heavily on Williams, Nick Young, Brandon Ingram, Timofey Mozgov, Larry Nance Jr., Luol Deng, and Tarik Black. This balance was on full display in their most recent game against the New Orleans Pelicans, as five players finished in double figures led by Clarkson with 23, Russell with 22, and Williams with 21, and eight men played between 20 and 28 minutes.
In sum, Walton realized very quickly that if the Lakers are going to win games this year, it will have to be by committee. They do not have superstars like Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson of the Warriors, or emerging stars like the Timberwolves’ Towns, Wiggins, and Levine. They do, however, have depth and a lot of interchangeable, athletic players who can do varied things, play different positions, and fit well together in the system Walton devised.
Walton warned that it might take quite a while for him to figure out the best pairings and rotations, but it happened quickly. Russell, Randle, Mozgov, Young, and Deng are the starting lineup, followed by Clarkson, Williams, Black, Ingram, and Nance off the bench. There is very little drop-off from the first to the second units, and on many nights the reserves outshine the starters. The Lakers’ reserves are number one scoring bench unit in the league. This gives the team a marked advantage over most teams they face.
Winning by committee also requires a flexible approach to the game. Since the Lakers have no stars, by definition that means they don’t have any player who can be counted on to score 20 or more points on a consistent basis nor do they have someone who can close out games every night. Thus, the coaches ride the hot hand from night to night. Some games it has been Clarkson, other games it has been Williams, and other times it has been Young. Instead of robotically finishing each game with the starters, a variety of different combinations have closed out the games.
A good example is the recent road victory over the Kings, Russell and Clarkson shockingly sat on the bench and watched Williams and Young finish the game at the guard position. Mozgov had not played much in the fourth quarter but against the Kings he finished the game because the team needed someone his size battling Cousins in the post.
Any attempt to discuss the Lakers success so far this season would be remiss if there was no mention of Nance, Black, and Ingram. While their statistics are modest compared to those of other players in the rotation, the team seems to play better when they are on the court. They possess intangibles that don’t always show up in the box score but apparently lead to victories.
In the case of Nance, he changes games with key steals, stellar defense, and rim-rattling dunks. The Lakers have played only one bad game this season, against the Dallas Mavericks, and some believe that a major cause was the absence of Nance that night due to a concussion. Black plays the fewest minutes of anyone in the regular rotation but still seems to contribute a key block, a key rebound, or a key basket, every night. For example, against the Kings, he tipped in a missed shot at the buzzer to end the first half which was instrumental in changing the momentum going into the third quarter when the Lakers came roaring back from a large deficit.
As for Ingram, his offensive contributions have been modest, but he has hit some crucial fourth quarter baskets, made some key steals with the game on the line, and he can disrupt shots with his length. Ingram has been finishing games while Deng, a veteran who is the highest paid player on the squad, sits on the bench. Even though he is a rookie who is not yet scoring as expected, Ingram is playing a solid all-around game, so much so that the coaching staff trusts him to be in the game in crucial moments of the fourth quarter.
In the end, because the Lakers are not overly reliant on any one player, someone different seems to step up every game. No doubt Russell, Randle, and Clarkson would like to be playing 35 minutes a night, as many expected would be the case this year, but so far they seem okay with the situation.
There are a lot of players on the roster who are capable of being “that guy” on any given night, and while it may not be the norm in the NBA right now, spreading the minutes, the shots, and the glory among ten separate players seems to be working as the Lakers have been one of the league’s biggest surprises so far this season.