All season the Los Angeles Lakers have followed a pattern where the starters fall behind and it is left to the second unit to erase the deficit. It worked for a while, but with the team now decimated by injuries and with confidence waning, it is no longer as successful.
Head coach Luke Walton has tweaked the starting lineup while keeping the second unit intact as much as possible. But the changes have been ineffective and it may be time to make a more significant adjustment — at least until the injured players return and the roster starts to resemble again what it looked like when the season began.
In Monday’s game against the Utah Jazz, the starters were a highly unlikely group comprised of Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and Metta World Peace. That translates to a center, a power forward, and three small forwards. There were no guards.
The results were predictable, as the Lakers could not score or defend, and fell behind immediately. Enter the second unit, which with injuries, has been reduced to guards Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson and center Tarik Black, playing with new starter/former second unit member Ingram and holdover starter Randle.
The team came roaring back to take a brief lead and make it close at halftime. Then, Walton made a fatal mistake and started the third quarter with the same curious lineup that began the game. It had even more disastrous results this time, leading to a quick and insurmountable deficit, although the Lakers made a run late in the game to keep the final score close.
By the end of the game, one-third of the players on the Lakers’ roster were injured and unavailable. This included starters D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young, who between them, when they were playing, scored most of the points for the starting unit; key reserves Larry Nance Jr. and Black; and the only serviceable point guard on the roster after Russell, Jose Calderon.
Walton has gone to Herculean efforts to keep the second unit intact all season, consisting of Clarkson and Williams, Black, Nance and Ingram. They were extremely effective, and the hope was that the starting group of Russell, Randle, Young, Deng, and Mozgov would eventually get their act together.
These are the 10 men who were playing, and things were going very well, as the Lakers were one of the early NBA season’s biggest surprises. Four of these core players are now injured, which has wreaked havoc on the Lakers’ season in which they fielded a young team with developing talent and little margin for error.
Russell has missed 10 games due to what is described as a sore knee, and coming off last season’s struggles and with Walton making him the focal point of the team, the extended absence has affected the Lakers’ progress and momentum.
If Russell isn’t able to return soon, it could very well derail the entire season. Fortunately, he’s said to be progressing in the recovery.
When the roster was assembled, some Lakers’ fans beleived the front office made a serious mistake signing Calderon and Marcelo Huertas as the backup point guards.
Against the Jazz, Walton opted to start Ingram at point guard and World Peace, of all people, at shooting guard.
This, despite the fact that Ingram, while capable of playmaking, isn’t a point guard and is still trying to find his footing in the NBA. It was a curious decision, particularly when Clarkson and Williams were and are healthy and available.
Walton has made plenty of good decisions, but his obsession with trying to keep the remaining semblance of the second unit together is becoming a detriment. Right now, there is no way to justify Clarkson and Williams not starting and playing at least 35 minutes a night, or more.
In fact, when Nance and Black return, if Russell and Young are still out, and Walton is still intent on keeping the unit together, it might be worth temporarily reversing the rotations and starting Williams, Clarkson, Black, Ingram and Nance.
It has been proven all year that they play better together than the original starting unit does, and with the depleted starters, there really is nothing to lose.
Mozgov is contributing little right now, especially on defense, Deng has been missing in action all year, and even Randle is maddening with his inconsistency.
What do the Lakers have to lose by engaging in a brief experiment, using the five players who are best together to start and finish games, even if it is just temporary until Russell and Young return.
The Lakers progress and learning curve have been temporarily halted by all the injuries. They can’t move forward in any meaningful way until everyone returns, which will hopefully occur sooner rather than later.
At that point, Walton and his coaching staff can resume the rotations they implemented at the start of the season, and hopefully the team’s overall progress, and its record, will improve.
Until then, it makes no sense to deploy a starting lineup that does not include the five best players who are healthy and available, and mesh well together.