The 2016-17 Lakers got off to a surprising 10-10 start, allowing the more optimistic fans amongst us to entertain the possibility of Luke Walton hoisting the Coach of the Year Award after an improbable playoff push. Then the clock struck midnight, with the Lakers losing 31 of their next 41, turning a season that began with such positivity into yet another year where many of us prayed to the NBA Lottery gods while cursing every April victory.
So what happened? And how does it impact the 2017-18 season? The answer lies in the lineup data below:
|Every Other Lakers Lineup||3,343||-9.1|
Let’s put these numbers into perspective. Had the entire team performed as the starters did, the Lakers would have had the 4th best point differential in the NBA, between the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. The bench was even better, at what would have been the 3rd best differential in the NBA, behind only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. Yet every other lineup that the Lakers threw out there would have the worst team in the NBA over the course of a season, by a wide margin.
Overall, the Lakers’ -6.9 point differential was in fact the worst in the NBA, just behind Brooklyn’s -6.7, and that wasn’t even the result of the outright tanking creative lineups that the Lakers utilized after the All-Star break. Every other Lakers lineup was even worse (-9.6 points per 48) prior to the unabashed youth movement of the last two months.
Two Different Playbooks
Despite the fact that they were comparably effective, the starters were stylistically different from the bench, playing like the 19th fastest paced team in the league while the bench was the equivalent of the 6th fastest. This led to each unit essentially having their own playbook.
Without a “true point guard” in his bench lineup, Luke Walton astutely gave both Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams the directive to attack as quickly as possible, taking advantage of their natural scoring abilities while minimizing how often they had to run the offense. The above is a Drag Screen – when the trailing big sets a high ball screen for the ball handler – and Tarik Black draws free throws after slipping the screen.
Williams had a wider variety of plays run for him than Clarkson did, in order to capitalize on his high-volume efficiency. The play above is a Chin Ball Screen, where Brandon Ingram hands the ball off to Williams as he’s going left – which isn’t an accident – who then receives a ball screen from Thomas Robinson, setting him up for one of his favorite shots. This was often used to exploit bigs who didn’t defend the perimeter particularly well, and that’s Hassan Whiteside in this instance. If you ever noticed Brandon Ingram rubbing his chin as brought the ball up court, that was him calling this play.
Even when the Lakers needed to run half court sets they tapped into different parts of the playbook than the starters usually did. This is an Iverson Cut, which is another preferred action for Williams (who actually played with Iverson in Philly). It would often either result in a shot, as it does here, or flow into a ball screen. Larry Nance, Jr. and Black were critical to the success of all these actions, as effective ball screeners who were more than willing to do the dirty work that didn’t show up in the box score. This combination of potent scorers, selfless bigs, and a ball-handling wing was an excellent mix for the 2016-17 squad.
The starters functioned quite differently. Aside from Julius Randle’s coast-to-coast jaunts down the lane that often resulted in open 3’s for Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell, that unit didn’t do much in transition. Randle was the only player with above average footspeed relative to their position, and his presence alongside Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov provided the Lakers with some of the worst spacing in the league. This meant that utilizing the shooting capabilities of Young and Russell were of the utmost importance.
This was a common action that the Lakers ran last season, with Russell putting his fist in the air and punching skyward while bringing the ball up court to give his teammates the play call. Nick Young sets a screen for Julius Randle (this is called a Ram Screen or STS, for “screen the screener”), Randle comes up to set a ball screen for Russell, while Zubac sets a screen for Young as he exits to the corner. Russell has the option of utilizing the ball screen for himself, or passing it out to Young for the corner 3, as he does here.
The starters utilized a lot of Elbow & Horns touches, presumably to take advantage of Randle’s playmaking ability. Much of the offense ran through Randle last year, and his decision making in these situations was solid. Yet both Elbow Series and Horns, as well as the action for Nick Young above (probably named Fist Down Exit, or something along those lines) were almost exclusively run by the starters, while Chin Ball Screens and Iverson Cuts were reserved for the bench unit.
The fundamental flaw in this stylistic disparity was that the entire framework was too dependent on everyone being healthy. D’Angelo Russell was the first significant injury of the 2016-17 season, and Luke Walton was reticent to break up the second unit in his absence. This resulted in Jose Calderon starting in Russell’s stead, and the results were catastrophic:
The magnitude of a 30-point differential when replacing just one player with another is difficult to overstate, and speaks to the importance of having NBA caliber talent on the floor. This was exacerbated when Nick Young missed time in conjunction with Russell, culminating in a peculiar Ingram/World Peace/Deng/Randle/Mozgov starting lineup against the Utah Jazz…all in the name of keeping the second unit together. Neither Williams nor Clarkson could effectively replace Russell and Young from a stylistic standpoint, which was true in reverse as well, making the blended lineups a hodgepodge of mismatched pieces, or populated by third string talent that had no business going up against NBA starters.
The Lonzo Factor
This year’s roster is much more equipped to play at a fast pace for 48 minutes, starting with Lonzo Ball. I’m a vocal believer in what D’Angelo Russell brings to the table, but in terms of footspeed, urgency, and overall functionality in transition, the difference between him and Lonzo is staggering. If nothing else, Lonzo projects to be an immediate threat in the early portions of the shot clock, and unlike last year, the guys at the other four positions can keep up. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn’t the shooter than Nick Young is, but he’s significantly faster and fantastic at filling his lane. Brandon Ingram is a better ball handler and covers more ground than Luol Deng did. Brook Lopez is a bit less effective as a rim runner than Mozgov was, but his ability to pull up from behind the 3-point line as the trailer gives him more value in transition. Even Julius Randle, the lone holdover from last year’s starting lineup, has lost weight and looks like a new man, thanks to his work with Amoila Cesar this summer.
The bench’s transitional capabilities are a bit more suspect. If Luke Walton chooses to play four guards in his rotation, as he did last year, Tyler Ennis & Josh Hart will battle for the final spot. Hart is the superior player in the open court, but Ennis would alleviate some of the playmaking responsibilities from Clarkson. Will either Ivica Zubac or newly-signed Andrew Bogut be in the rotation? Where do Kyle Kuzma’s minutes come from? Does Luol Deng get minutes at PF, if at all? These unanswered questions make the bench more difficult to project, but at the very least the pieces that will be necessary for stylistic continuity are there.
Ultimately, Luke Walton needs to approach his lineups differently than he did last season. If he depends on 10 guys to stay healthy so that they may play in two very different 5-man units, his rotation will continue to be a house of cards that’s always an injury away from toppling. Thankfully, he has more complimentary ingredients to work with this year, and should be able to blend them accordingly.
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