The Lakers are a surprising 6-5 through 11 games this season. Considering their Vegas over/under was 24.5 wins, being on pace to win almost close to twice that many games isn’t something many (any?) people saw coming. I know I didn’t.
There are several factors which are contributing to the team’s early season success, but I’d argue none are more important than the performance of the team’s bench. The unit of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black is destroying opponents. Seriously. It’s not hyperbole.
Just consider this: In 73 minutes together this season, the team’s bench unit has outscored teams by 29.0 points per 100 possessions. They are posting an offensive efficiency of 112.8 and a defensive efficiency of 83.8. To put those numbers into context, the Lakers’ bench unit is scoring about as well as the Warriors league leading offense (112.9) and is nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better than the Clippers’ league best defense (93.0).
They are running up against other team’s second units and obliterating them. There’s really no other way to put it.
I understand this is where the “small sample size” caveat needs to go. It has been 11 games and only 73 minutes of court time. At some point, you would expect these numbers to revert more towards reasonable numbers on both sides of the ball. I do.
That said, what’s become clear to me is that the Lakers actually have a group of players on their 2nd unit who complement each other well offensively and defensively.
In Lou Williams, they have a gunning type of guard who is great at creating his own shot, but also shows enough skill as a passer to keep his big men involved. In Clarkson they have a similar player, but who is more of a slasher than shooter and can do work both on and off the ball. Ingram is showing some point forward skills as an initiator, but is doing his best work as a scorer when working as a spot up option who gets either stand still jumpers or drives against closeouts. Nance and Black are both good screeners and dive men in the P&R, but are also dependent on the guards/wings to create shots for them via dump offs or swing passes.
Defensively, this group also works well. Williams is the weakest link defensively, but he’s got quick hands and reads passing lanes well. Clarkson is much improved as a defender — especially in funneling his man to help. Ingram’s length works wonders when closing out and challenging shots. Nance and Black both have good feet when switching onto wings, make early rotations on the back line, and can challenge shots at the rim. All of these players can battle defensively and they have enough versatility to switch and not get exposed over long stretches.
All credit to Luke Walton for making decisions early in camp which set things in motion for this group to find each other. Moving Clarkson to the bench has worked out masterfully so far. Deciding at the end of camp that Nick Young would start at SG and moving Lou back to the bench has had similar results. Determining that Black would be the primary backup at C which prompted Yi to ask for his release has uncluttered the front court rotation. And, finally, empowering Ingram as a ball handler and removing Calderon/Huertas from every game minutes has helped optimize the group’s defense.
Again, I’m not sure how long this sort of dominance will continue from this group. Over a larger sample we are likely to see the defense loosen and the offense not be as explosive. However, I think it’s also safe to say that this mix of players just works and that even if they’re not as great as they are now over the course of the full season, they are still likely to be a weapon which can not only keep the Lakers in games, but turn them in their favor some nights.