The Los Angeles Lakers have started the new season 3-5, and one issue that has received a lot of attention is who should be in the starting lineup. There have already there been a number of changes as the only two players to start every game are LeBron James and JaVale McGee.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton and his coaching staff have struggled to figure out the best rotations. So far, Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo have both started at point guard. Three different shooting guards have been utilized as starters: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram.
And at small forward, Ingram, James and Kyle Kuzma have started. The results have been inconclusive, but for the good of the team, Walton must decide on a first unit and stick with it at least for a while to give it a chance.
That is the only way cohesion and unity can be established, not only for the starters but for the second-unit players as well. As of now, the rotations have been all over the place and the disunity has been reflected too often by disorganized play especially on the defensive end.
One big question is whether Ingram or Kuzma should remain a starter at forward. Going into the season, it was almost unanimous consensus that to succeed, both of these young players would have to step up dramatically and become consistent options behind James.
There is no question that Ingram and Kuzma will be the second- and third-leading scorers on the roster, but will they average 16 or 21 points a game?
One of the challenges entering the season was how to find minutes for Kuzma on a team that features James and Ingram at the forward positions. The Lakers tried him at center in a small-ball lineup but the results were not positive, as Kuzma has no experience at that position and is not big or strong enough to play center.
Once Jonathan Williams was re-signed, he has been the one spelling McGee when he goes to the bench.
The problem was temporarily settled when Ingram was suspended, as a spot opened up for Kuzma in the starting lineup and he shined. He did especially well in his first start against the San Antonio Spurs, finishing with 37 points in a performance that was reminiscent of the way he played last season.
But Ingram is too gifted on both ends of the floor to come off the bench, so when he was ready to return from suspension, Walton faced a dilemma. Ingram or Kuzma?
The surprising answer turned out to be, both. In a move that many fans hoped for but few expected, Ingram was moved up to the shooting guard spot so that Kuzma could remain a starter at forward.
The move paid quick dividends against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kuzma scored 11 of the team’s first 12 points, and Ingram finished the quarter with 10 points. For the half, they had 16 and 17 points, respectively, far more than any other teammate.
This is exactly what the coaching staff hoped would happen by teaming Ingram and Kuzma in the starting unit. Unfortunately, the second half was not as successful.
Ingram was in foul trouble and missed most of the third quarter. He scored only seven points total in the second half. Kuzma did not attempt a shot in the third. He finally took one midway through the fourth but had a mere two attempts in that quarter, finishing with only three points in the second half.
As the Lakers were losing another close game, Ingram and Kuzma were mostly non-factors during the second half after getting off to a hot start in the game. Walton should remind them daily that they need to be consistently aggressive for 48 minutes a night.
As for inserting both Ingram and Kuzma in the starting lineup, the results were inconclusive because the first unit played so little together throughout the game. Part of it was Ingram’s foul trouble, but beyond that, the coaching staff has shown a tendency to rotate players in and out starting midway through the first and third quarters.
The starters on most teams play nearly the entire first and third periods, but Walton is liberally substituting players into and out of the game throughout.
For the season, Kuzma is the team’s second leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and Ingram is third at 17.3 points per contest, which is likely to continue. This is partially why they should both be in the lineup.
With a starting unit of Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, James and McGee, the team is long and athletic. It should present a problem for most opponents. On paper it looks ideal, and based on what’s been seen during the group’s time on the floor, it can be effective as well.
If the Lakers are going to choose between Ingram and Kuzma, Ingram is going to win. There are myriad reasons for this, some valid and some not, but as a former No. 2 pick in the draft and a player the team has steadfastly held on to when others have asked to trade for him, Ingram is a good two-way player who has proven to be much more aggressive this year. The suspension was unfortunate, but he is back now and should do well
As for Kuzma, he has proven over the past year that he plays better as a starter. He interacts on the court with James perhaps better than any other player on the roster, as the two have developed a nice chemistry. Kuzma still needs to improve on defense, but he has worked hard on it to start the new season and has had some good defensive moments.
The clear answer is that Ingram and Kuzma should both be in the starting lineup. That gives the Lakers the strongest unit, the greatest scoring, and it still allows for a strong bench with Josh Hart, Caldwell-Pope, Rondo and Lance Stephenson.
These are the rotations that Walton should utilize for the foreseeable future.