The Lakers are 2-1 this preseason and, had it not been for a makeshift lineup of fighting-to-make-the-roster players losing a 4th quarter lead, they would probably be 3-0. The record has caveats attached — it’s only preseason!, teams are not playing their starters heavy minutes, rotations are wonky — but after three years of heavy losing, you’ll have to forgive some fans for feeling good about the W’s.
Even with the team playing well to start the exhibition season, their approach hasn’t come without some raised eyebrows. Namely, fans are wondering about the team’s starting lineup and why Luke Walton has had Lou Williams in with the first five instead of Jordan Clarkson while also turning to Metta World Peace and Nick Young instead of Brandon Ingram while Luol Deng has sat out with a sore knee.
Walton’s turn towards veterans shouldn’t be that surprising and that’s before even hearing his reasoning. As much as we would like to view Luke as the anti-Byron Scott, things are never so simple. Yes, Walton comes off as more thoughtful when explaining things to the media. He also offers his players much more praise than his predecessor did. And, of course, his offensive philosophy is more modern and indicative of a forward thinking approach.
But, when it comes to certain coaching values, I would imagine Luke and Byron have some overlap. We have already heard some soundbites which suggest as much. So, Walton following up those quotes with ones about wanting “more experience/a veteran” presence in the starting lineup when discussing Lou over Clarkson or his turning to Metta/Young in favor of Ingram shouldn’t really be shocking.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, there’s also the nuts and bolts of building a rotation and constructing a lineup. And while, on the surface, starting Lou over Clarkson seems hard to posit when putting it into the context of how pieces fit, there are arguments to be made in support of the move.
While Clarkson may be the better player (or, if you don’t want to concede that, the player who is in the team’s long term plans), he and Williams have a fair amount of overlap in role and skill-set. Both are scorers first, both can playmake for teammates, and both work primarily from the mid-range out to beyond the three point line. Clarkson is a better slasher, but Williams works better in isolation and is superior at drawing fouls. Offensively, then, while we do see differences in how the offense flows when either is in the game, how they are deployed isn’t so different.
Defensively, however, is where the real difference lies. This season Clarkson appears to have made real strides defensively while Lou really hasn’t. Starting the better defender would seemingly make sense then, right? Not so fast (#leecorsovoice).
When looking at the 2nd unit, a lineup featuring Calderon and Williams for any sustained stretch is inviting disaster. Putting two defenders who not only struggle to stay in front of their man, but ones who lack size and/or athleticism is simply untenable. Both guys will struggle when switching, when trying to rotate to the paint to tag cutters, and will have trouble rebounding against larger players.
This is where lineup construction matters. As it stands, the Lakers current rotation looks something like this:
- Starters: Russell, Williams, Deng, Randle, Mozgov
- First Subs: Black and Nance for Randle and Mozgov
- Next Subs: Clarkson and Ingram for Williams and Deng
- Last Sub: Calderon for Russell
This staggering effectively creates the following lineup groupings:
- Russell, Williams, Deng, Randle, Mozgov
- Russell, Williams, Deng, Nance, Black
- Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Black
- Calderon, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Black
In reviewing those lineups, I’d argue that’s about as balanced as it’s going to get considering the Lakers’ personnel. The first group is a bit more offense heavy and the last group is a bit more defense, but the gradations aren’t substantial. Fact is, all of those lineups feature at least two “defensive” players, at least two “shot creators/makers”, and at least two guys who fashion themselves as “two-way” players who can impact the game on both ends (even if not as primary creators).
Walton has already said that he views Clarkson similar to how the Phil Jackson Lakers viewed Lamar Odom — a 6th man who is essentially a starter. This is also quite similar to the approach Steve Kerr’s Warriors have taken with Andre Iguodala. If Clarkson doesn’t start, but still plays heavy minutes and on most nights ends up finishing the game, is this a big deal?
Don’t get me wrong, if you answer yes, I can see the reasoning. But, I also think this is somewhat a product of the current roster construction. If this team had a defense-first back up PG (say, like a Matthew Dellavedova) instead of Calderon or a starting caliber 3-and-D (like, say a Thabo Sefolosha) instead of Williams, you could achieve the same lineup balance I mention above with Clarkson starting.
That is not the case, though. As it stands, the Lakers have 4 guards in their rotation and the two least effective defensive players happen to be Williams and Calderon. Those guys have real value, but cannot be played together for any real period of time without creating real defensive lineup issues.
Now, maybe everything I have written above turns out to be for naught. Luke has said none of the lineups we have seen so far are permanent and that these groupings are subject to change. For all I know, Clarkson ends up back as a starter sooner than later.
But, when looking beyond the individual comparison of Clarkson/Lou and more at the full composition of all the main lineups the team has been playing, I’m guessing this change is here to stay. And, honestly, from what I have seen, I can support that even though it’s not the perfect solution. Really, there are no perfect solutions. There are only ones which seem to optimize the entire group on the floor and, so far, these seem to be doing that well enough. Time will tell if that stays true.
I can see the philosophy of balancing defense and offense behind starting Williams over Clarkson, but I would like to see the backcourt rotation with Clarkson & Russell handled similar to that of Curry & Thompson. Curry usually plays the whole 1st quarter while Thompson is taken out midway through, then reinserted at the beginning of the 2nd quarter. To me, that’s the best way to keep the backcourt effective throughout the game. I also like Clarkson better at the PG position, where he was effective as a rookie, even though he’s been playing mostly SG last year and this year. With him staggering his time with Russell, he’ll be able to operate as the primary ball handler and take advantage of his slashing abilities.
On a different note, I really want to see Ingram get some big minutes and be given the green light as the primary scorer on the court. I know he’s struggled a bit offensively and he’s still adjusting to the speed of the NBA, but I’m wondering if he just gets the opportunity to take over on offense, if he wouldn’t gain a little more confidence. We saw how he dominated the last game of Summer League when Russell was out, so I’m hoping Walton will throw him some extra minutes and give him a chance to find his offensive game before the season starts.
Ultimately I mostly just want both of them to get the MPG they deserve and that they get experience playing together, since they’ll hopefully be part of the central core for the foreseeable future. Neither of those things depends upon them both starting- it just begins the stagger at a different point.
Clay Bertrand says
I agree with what you wrote Darius.
IF indeed this rotation pattern and staring line up sticks, I can accept it much easier than I did last season because at least there is a rationale beyond what seemed to amount to a BS Hard Knocks view of Rookies with Byron.
Last year, I viewed Lou as taking minutes and usage away from young guys who, in a wasted year, should at least be getting thrown into the fire to learn and gain experience. Now this season, I see Lou possibly starting as balancing the roster and trying to best blend talents to form cohesive units. Byron would rather sit the rookies playing vets in their places. Luke is trying to take what each player has and YIN & YANG guy’s strengths and weaknesses not just among the starters, but among the whole rotation.
This season, Luke is piecing together the mosaic of what the team will be. You can’t just build your line up in a linear and statistical ON PAPER manner simply putting all the best players on the floor together. To establish a synergy, there has to be sort of a give and take in players talents and roles such that the whole is the best functioning unit it can be. Like having Rodman start and Kukoc come off the bench in Chicago or…..Ironically, Luke Walton starting and Lamar Odom coming off the bench. The goal is to have an functioning Orchestra not just 5 Taylor Swifts (I have never heard a Taylor Swift song she just seems like a “ME ME ME” type—I could be wrong—but I don’t care).
Superteams are great but too many Cooks can spoil the broth……..
I think the HUGELY underrated dividend from this current rotational structure should it continue is that our Bench unit seems to be outplaying other teams benches. Clearly this is a tiny sample size and the Nuggets and Kings both played irregular lineups for large chunks of time. But the change in game complexion brought about by this second unit, even with the staggered substitutions, has been substantial. These guys look like a gang of mercenaries and when they enter the game en masse, they change and impact it to the Lakers advantage. Their energy and defensive activity seem to increase the pace and really shake up the game IMO.
Without the bench group dominating the opposing benches, they would have lost all 3 preseason games.
They still need to build consistency and as the rotation crystalizes, guys will settle into their roles and consistency should follow. I know other teams have deep rosters but hopefully, our bench will match up well with other second units and be an overlooked strength for us.
Thanks, Darius. I was wonder whether you thought Anthony Brown could develop into the Thabo-like 3-and-D backup SF that would open up the starting SG to Clarkson? Why do you think we haven’t seen much of him thus far in the pre-season?
Williams will not be the starting 2 guard on the next Lakers playoff team but Clarkson could be. Ingram would be another possibility at the 2 this season as he adds more strength and weight to play the wing. Williams stops the ball when he draws fouls. It can be a critical skill when the team is having trouble scoring but it kills the offensive flow the rest of the time. Luke has his hands full figuring how to keep Lou effective while not stunting the growth of the younger players.
Clay Bertrand says
Good point. If AB steps up this year, he’d be a great option at the 2 IMO.
I don’t like Lou Williams. We should trade him, Nick Young and another piece for a SG who defends and plays off the ball.
A Horse With No Name says
The answer (perhaps!) is in plain sight: start Nick Young with DLO. Size, very good on the ball defender, one of the best shooters on the team. Give it a try.
A Horse With No Name says
kobe247 Like who for your package???
A Horse With No Name kobe247
I don’t know, CJ Miles, Garrett Temple, Hollis Thompson, Sean Kilpatrick, Afflalo, even Troy Daniels (I know his defense is meh). I don’t like the fit between Russell and Lou.
A Horse With No Name I’ve been thinking the same thing
Good post Darius. I’ve been perplexed by the move to start Lou but I never thought about it the way you laid it out here. I guess there are no simple solutions when your team is full of poor and/or inexperienced perimeter defenders. With that said, I am still a bit concerned about whether it’s worth keeping Lou matched up against starter-quality guards on a regular basis. Time will tell as you said.
A Horse With No Name hard to believe, but some of us are coalescing around this idea already. Young is a bigger, better defender today and more fluid in our O. Lou is more our best (expendable) trade bait than the right contributor on the team. The second unit has potential to be a difference making standout on D, especially if we could convert Lou-AB-change into another defensively minded guard eventually.