D’Angelo Russell practiced in full on Saturday and the team is hopeful he will return to game action on Tuesday when the Lakers return to the court for the first time in 5 days. Russell’s been dealing with a mild MCL sprain and a strained calf, but considering the original prognosis was 1-2 weeks he is right on schedule.
Russell’s return is much needed. We have discussed it plenty this year, but the Lakers need Russell. Even more specifically, the Lakers’ starting 5 needs him. When Russell plays, the starting group of him, Nick Young, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov post an offensive rating of 110.9 and a defensive rating of 103.3. When Russell is replaced with Jose Calderon, the team’s offensive rating falls to 88.9 and the defensive rating jumps to 117.0. Replace Russell with Brandon Ingram and those numbers are 71.3 and 108.2 respectively.
The sample sizes of the Calderon/Ingram lineups are much smaller, but the eye test reflects what those numbers spell out. Neither of Russell’s replacements do as good a job of him at…well, everything on offense. And while Calderon works hard on defense, he’s bad. Ingram is, of course, a better defender but asking him to chase PG’s has not worked out well at all. So, yeah, Russell is important. He makes the starting group go.
If you’re looking for a reason why Russell has played 403 of his 894 total minutes this season with the starters, those numbers above would probably be the #1 reason.
And, if you’re looking for reasons why the starting lineup might remain the same, those numbers would also be the driver. Especially when you consider Larry Nance is again healthy and it would allow Luke Walton to go back to the all-bench unit of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Nance, and Tarik Black. Though their overall effectiveness has dipped from their blistering start to the season, they still boast a very good +7.8 net rating on the season. Getting that unit more burn would make sense.
Or at least you think it would. But it’s funny how a season evolves (or, you know, not so funny when it’s evolved like the Lakers’ has). The team’s 10-10 start seems like an eternity ago and there has since been the type of tumble, record wise, which should shape priorities for the 2nd half of the season (and beyond).
We have already started to see some of this unfold, of course. Ivica Zubac has wedged his way into the center rotation, flashing all the tools which had him ranked by some as a top 20 prospect in his draft. Zubac has already had more games with double digit rebounds this season in 15 games (three) than Mozgov has had in 49 games (two). When you add his ability to set massive screens and then make the various different plays as a roll man in the P&R, you can understand why his teammates might be high on him.
— D'Angelo Russell (@Dloading) January 29, 2017
Russell showing the love here dovetails nicely into the next point: I want to see more of Russell and Zubac. Just as I want to see more Russell with Ingram. Just as I want to see more Russell with Nance and more Russell with Clarkson. As noted above, Russell has spent nearly half his minutes this season playing next to the starting lineup. This means he’s only played with Ingram for 269 minutes. For Clarkson and Nance, those numbers are 218 and 74 minutes respectively. Those numbers are affected by injury (at least Nance’s are), but at some point the Lakers need to find out whether some of their young players can develop the chemistry the starting and all-bench units have been able to through game reps.
The argument against this is pretty clear: when Luke Walton has played lineups which are a mix of starters and reserves the results have been mostly poor. Yes, there are lineups where replacing one starter with a sub (or vice versa) works well, but over the course of the season this team simply hasn’t found a way to mix these lineups effectively for long stretches. After all, if the starting group has a net rating of +7.6 on the year and the key all-bench unit is +7.8, the math tells us is all the other lineups the team throws out which are (mostly) struggling to play well.
For the long term success of the team, that needs to change. The players must find ways to work better together and the only way to do that is to up the sample size and give them an opportunity to succeed (or fail) with a longer leash. This is especially true for the young players. And, with Russell returning soon and Nance already back, there is no better time to start than now.