When Larry Nance broke his hand in early November, I thought he could be out up to 2 months. Even an aggressive timeline said it could be 4-6 weeks. Turns out, a little over 3 weeks later, he’s set to return to the Lakers lineup when the Lakers play the Clippers tonight.
Nance’s return is a positive development, even though the Lakers have fared alright without him. In the 8 games Nance appeared in (including the one he broke his hand) the team went 3-5, while in the 11 he’s missed, the team went 5-6. Small samples aside, the Lakers have not missed a beat without Nance available. The team is mostly able to sustain an injury to a single big man due to depth at those spots. An injury on the wing would be more an issue, but that’s another topic for another day.
In any event, Nance isn’t just returning to game action, he’s likely returning to the starting lineup too.
First, I’ll disregard that “any” Luke threw out there since I’m sure if you pressed him he could find a reason or two for Kuzma to remain a starter. Moving beyond that, though, I think it’s worth actually digging into the numbers a bit to see why Luke would be so adamant about Nance getting his starting gig back.
In terms of lineup data, we actually have a decent sample of both the pre and post Nance injury starting groups (remember, KCP was suspended the first two games, so the Nance starting group only played in 6 games making their minute total smaller than it would have been otherwise):
*Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Nance, Lopez: 100 minutes, Offensive Rating 98.6, Defensive Rating 99.5, Net Rating -0.9
*Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Kuzma, Lopez: 216 minutes, Offensive Rating 99.6, Defensive Rating 101.9, Net Rating -2.3
These numbers reflect our preconceived notions of things, I think. The lineup with Nance is better on defense and worse on offense. That said, it’s how much the team is better/worse — or, more specifically, those net ratings — that I think makes this decision as easy at it is for Walton.
Basically, the Lakers defense is over 2 points per 100 possessions worse with Kuzma as the starter while their offense only improves by 1 point per 100 possessions. You can chalk this up to any number of variables, and this may not line up with our eye test or jibe with our understanding of how the Lakers would like to play, but the numbers are what they are.
Further, there is a domino effect of Kuzma moving back to the bench that we must account for. Two of the Lakers better lineups while Nance was available were bench units where Kuzma and Randle were flanked by some combination of Ingram, Clarkson, Ball, Brewer, and Hart. These lineups didn’t get huge minutes together, but when they did they performed well. And, the constant of these groups has been the Kuzma/Randle pairing.
For the season, in the 284 minutes Randle and Kuzma have shared the court, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 104.2, the best mark of any two-man pairing that has played more than 150 minutes together. For a team that’s so hard up for scoring, finding groups that can put up these types of numbers over larger samples is incredibly important. The Lakers defense does drop off with this pairing as well (104.5 defensive rating), but I think Walton is willing to gamble on his bench units getting needed stops over the long haul.
Now, I don’t think all of this is cut and dry in either direction. I’d be fine with Kuzma remaining a starter and Nance finding his way from a bench role. I will say, though, that I am less convinced the Randle/Nance pairing can be successful long term as I was a year ago at this time. There is also mounting evidence that Nance will play his best when paired with Lopez specifically and more generally with the first 5, instead of as a reserve.
And this leads me to my last point in all this: if we’re discussing things that matter to me when it comes to lineups and rotations, I’d offer these rankings:
- What lineups play well together and how much those lineups actually see the floor.
- How does flow of the game and Walton’s feel for the action dictate the substitution patterns which impact these lineups.
- Who closes games.
- Who starts.
Basically, I want the groups that play well together on the floor the most and I want Walton’s substitution patterns and game management building towards optimizing these lineups’ time together. Then, I want the team to find fairly consistent closing groups that can go win the team games. Next, I’ll worry about who starts because if those other things take precedence, then I will be fine.
This isn’t to say who starts should be disregarded or that it doesn’t matter. That first 5 will get at least two shifts together each game and is tasked with ensuring the team doesn’t dig a hole at the beginning of each half. That said, the starting group with Nance was actually fine and there are ways to build a rotation and viable lineup combos off that starting group to ensure you’re maximizing your best groups over the course of the game.
If Walton is going to decide Nance is going to start — which is totally defensible — he must also ensure he’s building out the rest of the rotation to be as competitive as possible.