Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton isn’t completely ready to commit to breaking up the second unit bench duo of Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson, but he’s definitely thinking about it. While Williams and Clarkson have soared in that bench mob (with Williams ranking first in the NBA in scoring from the second unit with 18.4 points per game and Clarkson ranking fourth with 14.6 ppg), the Lakers have some serious deficiencies with their starting lineup, which has now changed in eight of their 23 games this season.
Those deficiencies were magnified when Walton brought out a starting lineup of Brandon Ingram, Metta World Peace, Luol Deng, Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov in their loss to the Utah Jazz Monday night, their third straight. Walton admitted he wouldn’t have given such an unconventional lineup a try, if the Lakers hadn’t been so depleted with injuries: D’Angelo Russell (sore knee), Nick Young (strained calf), Jose Calderon (strained hamstring), Larry Nance, Jr. (knee contusion), and to make matters worse, Tarik Black exited the game with a knee contusion.
The idea behind that starting lineup was twofold: keep what’s been working with the Lakers bench unit intact, while going with a starting lineup that could disrupt the opposing starters with their size and get them out of a rhythm.
But, the experiment was just that, an experiment, and one that left Walton contemplating breaking up the second group.
“We are getting pretty close to that,” Walton said of moving either Jordan Clarkson or Lou Williams into the starting lineup. “Which has obviously been the most consistent successful group we’ve had all season, so we would hate to break it up, but with the amount of people going down it might be time to roll in that direction and see how we do.”
In fact, the Lakers second unit hasn’t only been the most successful group for the Lakers, it’s been the most productive bench in the NBA, ranking first in bench scoring at 53.0 points per game, 10.7 points more than any other bench.
Hence, Walton’s dilemma…
“It’s where we feel like we have the best advantage to win a game,” Walton explained after Tuesday’s practice about what he’s been weighing with his starting lineup decisions. “And, with the second unit, we feel like it’s such a big advantage with the way we’ve been playing all year, that even if we get off to a slow start, if we have that group coming in, we can make up for that and get momentum.”
“And it’s an opportunity to get other guys reps to get guys, like Thomas Robinson and Metta (World Peace), that work everyday an opportunity to play some minutes, knowing that some of those second unit guys are going to play starter minutes, just keep doing it as a way to keep them all on the court together is kind of the main thing we weigh back and forth.”
Except that now, after three straight losses, even the bench production isn’t enough to overcome the slow starts or a shorthanded roster.
“We might do it tomorrow night,” Walton said of breaking up the backcourt. “We haven’t decided yet, but I think we’re at that point that we’ve got to really think about making that happen.”
What Walton won’t change is finding minutes for that core group to all be out on the floor together.
“Even if we change the starting lineup, we’re still going to find a way to get back to that group together.”
The biggest key, though, is staying unselfish
“I don’t think we’ve started playing selfish at all yet, but I think right now is an important time for us for the season, as far as what direction we’re going to go, with the injuries and struggling,” Walton said. “If we are going to continue on playing unselfish, or if we’re going to turn into a team that accepts losing and becomes selfish and becomes more interested in individual success. I told the guys, I don’t think that’s who we are or what we will do, but we’re kind of at one of those points in the season that it could go that way.”