If you ask Luke Walton he’ll tell you that the starter for the Lakers power forward position is yet to be determined. There are three candidates – Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Kyle Kuzma. Each offers specific skill sets that are varied and useful enough to be considered legitimate answers.
Walton, does seem to be leaning towards Randle or Nance, however:
Walton said there is a 10 percent chance Kyle Kuzma starts at power forward on opening night. Very much a Nance/Randle battle.
— Bill Oram (@billoram) October 13, 2017
Are either Randle or Nance the best answer? Is it actually Kuzma? While Walton and his staff will have the final say, we commissioned our writers to weigh in on the topic too. So, without further ado, here’s what the folks at FB&G think about it all…
Julius Randle. Luke Walton evaluates lineups based on how 5-man units perform together, and Randle should be the first avenue that he explores to that end. Aside from Brook Lopez, the other presumptive starters can’t reliably create their own shot in half court situations, so the Lakers will be reliant upon their system. Their primary set in these situations during the preseason has been their Delay Series, which asks either the PF or C to distribute the ball from the top of the key as his teammates come off of screens. While Kyle Kuzma has excellent potential as a playmaker, he is still learning this set, whereas Randle exceled on these last season. Randle is also a theoretical fit next to Brook Lopez, whose 3-point shooting ability can provide him with driving lanes that didn’t exist when he was next to Roy Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov.
Lopez is a bit underrated as a rebounder, as his teams board better with him on the court despite his meager individual numbers. That’s because he goes out of his way to box out, but he needs someone next to him who can gobble those available rebounds up. Randle is easily the best option in this respect, as both Nance and Kuzma are below average PFs on the glass. Nance is still the better overall defender, but Randle has closed the gap a bit with improved conditioning and an increased commitment to help defense.
Kuzma deserves a ton of minutes at both forward positions, but he’s the least effective interior defender of the bunch and is still learning the facilitation responsibilities of the position on the offensive end.
I’ll look mostly at Randle and Nance, since I believe Kuzma should be backing up Ingram at the 3. Differentiating two power forwards on this team who aren’t strong post scorers or shooters comes down to transition, rebounding, defense, and passing to me. I’ll stick to stats, since the rest of this panel will be able to provide great film and quality eye test analysis.
Randle had about 4 times the transition involvement that Nance had last season. That’s been similar so far this preseason, with Randle generating 24 transition opportunities and Nance only having 7, both in 6 games. If Randle would be the much better forward to pair with Lonzo to take advantage of his ability to get the ball into transition, that’s a noteworthy distinction.
I don’t have data on rebounding for this preseason, but last year the two players’ adjusted rebounding percentages overall, on offense, and on defense were all essentially equal. Randle looks like he’s in better shape and is rebounding better on the film I’ve seen, so I’ll give him the edge here.
Where some separation and movement from last year has shown up is on defense. As a primary defender this preseason, Randle’s defensive points per possession in preseason has been in the 84th percentile, second best to only Zubac among likely rotation players. Nance’s 33rd percentile defense was only higher than Clarkson and Ingram. Yes, we’re looking at smaller samples and in preseason, but Nance gave up more points on about 15 less shots, so that seems to be notable in my eyes.
When it comes to passing, Nance’s data gives him the edge. We don’t have the full arsenal of passing metrics to utilize in preseason like we do for real games, but Nance has one less assist on about half the offensive possessions Randle does. Assists aren’t the most reliable stat, especially at low volumes, but the early data leans Nance.
One last thing: Randle’s efficiencies in each play type during preseason have been a mirror image of last year, so why has he jumped up in overall efficiency from the 39th percentile last season to the 51st this year? Style. Isolation was Julius’ most common offensive play type last season in the half court. In this preseason it occupies just 4.5% of his offensive possessions. He looks like a more fit version of the same player, but that one difference in his style should pay off dividends if that trend continues.
And Randle’s 51st percentile efficiency is fourth highest on the team, while Nance’s 26th percentile PPP was only better than Ennis among likely rotation players.
Overall, I’ll lean Randle. I think he’s played much better during preseason and it’s largely reflected by his data thus far, both offensively and defensively.
The starting forward for the Lakers should be a healthy Julius Randle. He has the strength to take over downlow when Lopez pulls his guy out to the arc and he has shown an increasing willingness to shoot. Sometimes he even makes those shots. It’s also important to note we do not appear to be a good defensive team. Our starters must be able to score because we will only be keeping the most hungover of teams under 105 points this year. That eliminates Nance as he is more shot averse than my toddler.
Randle is great in transition and has been less terrible at getting called for charging. If he shows any willingness to shoot from long range he can maintain the floor spacing for Lopez on the block and for Ingram rolls to the basket.
From competitive to contractual, there are a variety of reasons that make it necessary for Randle to start and succeed. Whether you want to keep him or trade him, he needs to play and succeed to make it happen. At this moment he is our most talented Power Forward and he deserves the opportunity to put his newly defined abdominal muscles to the test.
The only addendum here is if back spasms keep Randle out of the season opener the obvious choice behind him is starting Kyle Kuzma. Yes he is young. He has also been nothing short of a revelation. As Pelinka would say he has been a bush, burning in the desert, calling us to our destiny.
The heart wants to start Kuzma, but my mind demands Randle. Besides, after releasing more workout videos than Suzanna Somers, the least we can do is reward him with the starting Power Forward job. I’m fairly certain that’s how it works in LA.
Not to sound obnoxious about this, but I think the obvious answer is Randle. He’s the better player, has the higher ceiling, offers the more varied skill set, etc, etc. Besides Lopez, he has the most rounded game to actually help the starting wings be successful by offering shot creation and passing ability which should get them all shots. Also, I think Randle’s superior strengths defensively at the point of attack either on his own man or when switching onto smalls matter just like Nance’s back line defense as a rotator and rim protector do.
That said, let me make the case for Nance to be the starter.
Nance seems to fit in better with the starting group than he does as a reserve. I’ve come to the conclusion that Nance is a player who will look better alongside better players and it’s pretty clear, on this iteration of the Lakers, that means with the first 5. He complements Lopez well on both ends of the floor and can be a finisher flanking the team’s best passer(s).
Further, Nance’s weaknesses as an individual scorer matter less with the 1st unit than with the reserves. Lonzo will be the catalyst for the team’s transition based offensive attack and Lopez the anchor for their half court sets. In other words, Nance will always be slotted appropriately with the starters and should rarely be put into positions where he has to do more than he’s capable or would like to (based on his current mindset).
This simply would not be true with the 2nd unit. Yes, that group will have Jordan Clarkson and Kuzma as the primary scorers, but neither are the type of players who will intrinsically optimize Nance through their own style of play like Lonzo and Lopez can. When you slot Randle with that group, however, he can work with the reserve group serving similar functions as he would with the starters. Randle’s also developing a nice chemistry with Kuzma, which can be exploited against other team’s reserves.
The last point I’d make is one that Randle actually did when asked about this — even if Nance starts, I think Randle should be the one who finishes games.