We’ve talked a lot about Luke Walton this year. His rotations. His lineup combinations. His rugged good looks. Maybe not the last one. But, his general coaching style and tactics have been a growing source of debate among a growing subset of fans who are, I think, generally frustrated.
I should say, too, that this frustration is not just rooted in this season. The Lakers are now in their 5th consecutive year of being a below .500 team. Before this recent downturn, the team had never missed the playoffs more than two seasons in a row. If they miss them again this year (which looks to be the case), it would be a half-decade since the team saw a playoff game at Staples Center that wasn’t a Clippers game. Welp.
Anyways, when you’re this bad for this long and have a history of never being this bad for even half this long…fans are going to get impatient. They’re going to express frustrations and they’re going to be loud about it. Whoever needs to be the fall guy will be sought out and pilloried. In this town, with this team, and since Phil Jackson rode off into the sunset after the 2011 season, that’s usually meant the head coach.
From Mike Brown to Mike D’Antoni to Byron Scott, if you coached the Lakers and the team was bad you were going to get flack. Yes, Jim Buss and later Mitch Kupchak caught their share of the heat. But, in many ways, one of the main reasons they did was for hiring those coaches. So, you get the point. It almost always came back to the same position.
Luke Walton has mostly been immune to this type of criticism. Simply not being any of the guys named above was enough, even if he didn’t do other things well (which he has). Not this year, though. This year, when the Lakers lose, it’s inevitably Walton who gets the blame. It’s Walton who trends on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. It’s Walton who gets skewered in the comments section of this site and every other Lakers related one on the internet.
I should get this out of the way sooner than later: I like Luke Walton. I think he’s a good leader, has the right personality for a head coach, and seems to understand how to poke/prod/coddle/finesse/straight-talk his way into generating and maintaining buy-in. This, to me, is the one of the most important jobs of a coach. Get the players who play for you to do the things you want them to continuously and indefinitely. Walton does this well, I think. And I want him to keep doing it.
End of story.
Except, that’s not the end. Because if Walton is also going to be the guy motivating the players, he’s also going to be the guy devising the schemes, sorting out who plays and who doesn’t and with whom they share the court with when they execute said schemes. And this is where those frustrated fans I mentioned above are putting their focus and, honestly, it’s not so far-fetched to say they have some points even if they’re not always presented cleanly or with full context provided.
It’s hard to know if the Lakers should be better than what they are. There’s a lot of variables that go into that and certainly more than I’ll cover now. But, I think what we can say with some relative certainty is that there are certain things which are not working.
And while the sample is small enough to say some of these things could turn around, I’m of the mind a couple of them are not likely to if they continue in the same way they are now. And one of those things is the performance of the Lakers current starting lineup.
The Lonzo, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Nance, Lopez group is one of the worst performing 5-man lineups which has played (relatively) heavy minutes this season.
Of groups that have played 150 minutes or more, only the Orlando Magic starting 5 has a worse net rating (-11.7) than the Lakers current starting 5 (-8.4). If you up that to 200 minutes played, the Lakers are the worst (Orlando’s group is a hair under that threshold as of this writing). The only other teams who have lineups which perform this poorly at minute counts this high are the Bulls (-7.5 and who are terrible) and the Pistons (-7.5 and whose starting 5 is bad for reasons which aren’t entirely clear to me, but have been true all season).
Back to the Lakers starters, there’s a few different angles to take when examining the starting group and why it does not work — or at least has not worked to this point in the year.
I could give you a bunch of nuance here — how at various points in the year at least one, and up to three, of the starters (Ball, Ingram, Lopez) have been sub-standard on offense. Or how preseason injuries didn’t allow chemistry to develop for when the regular season began. Or how the intricacies of the schedule combined with Nance’s injury have skewed some of the numbers. I could do that and there’d be truth in those reasons.
Instead, though, I’m just going to say that I actually don’t think this group of 5 players is a good match, skills wise on offense. This group lacks a certain balance of skills and style of game and I think it shows in the lineup data — specifically the data we got from when Nance missed time with his broken hand. But we’ll get to that in a second.
First, though, I think it’s best to look at this group through the prism of usage and shot creation.
Basketball-Reference cites Usage Percentage as “an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.” At any given time, then, all 5 players on the floor will, in aggregate, use 100% of the team’s possessions. Individual styles and the different player combinations that play together will then influence what your usage percentage is over the course of a full game or a full season.
Said another way, over a large enough sample, we get an idea of how many possessions a player will use regardless of who his teammates are. Like, Russell Westbrook or James Harden will always have a high usage. They have the ball a lot. They shoot a lot. They assist a lot. They turn the ball over a lot. They get to the FT line a lot. These are the things that end possessions and these guys do them at a high rate.
Further, since at any given time a team can only use 100% of their possessions, an “average” usage rate would be around 20% — though it rarely works out that cleanly. As noted above, Harden’s usage will be much higher than 20. So he’ll need teammates who he plays a lot of minutes with to have lower usage rates. This happens naturally and it’s reflected in the usage of guys like Trevor Ariza or Ryan Anderson as players who naturally have the ball less and can go strings of possessions barely touching the ball, much less executing an action which actually ends a possession.
If all of this is common sense and you want me to get to my point, here you go. The Lakers two highest usage players in the starting 5 are Lopez (25.5) and Ingram (22.2). No other starter has a usage of even 18. Combined, the usage rates of the current starting 5 do not actually equal 100 (they tally up to 98.2). Again, this doesn’t mean that when these guys share the floor they’re not using 100% of the possessions. They are.
What this tells me, though, is that the players the Lakers starters are devoid of a certain amount of shot creation in comparison to the rest of the roster; they have too many players who, through scheme or the limitations of their skill-sets/games do not typically perform actions that end possessions.
When you start players like Ball, KCP, and Nance what you’re doing is putting stress on the other two players in the starting 5 to create scoring looks not only for themselves, but for others. Some nights this will not be an issue. Players get hot or find a more aggressive tone to their game and it all comes together. But over the course of a large enough sample, players are what their habits say they are.
So, I think a change is needed to bring more shot creation ability to the starting group.
When examining the starting 5, I think the answer is fairly clear. But let’s work backwards from least likely to be replaced to most…
- Lonzo Ball is not going to be moved out of this group. He’s the teams only pure PG, is the best player at getting them into their sets, and the pace setter for the fast style the team wants to run. Add this to his status as a high profile draft pick and it’s a no brainer.
- Brandon Ingram is making incredible strides as a scoring threat, is the team’s best pure SF, and is starting to mix in more of the playmaking he showed last season into this year’s mostly scoring focused approach. He too is a high profile draft pick who just turned 20. He’s not going to the bench.
- Brook Lopez is the most established veteran on the team, carries a high burden as a high usage player, is the only stretch 5 on the team (not counting Thomas Bryant, here), and was brought in to play the exact role he’s providing. His performance has probably been a bit below expectations, but I think you see this playing out in him finishing fewer games rather than no longer starting them.
- KCP is very similar to Lopez in terms of being an established veteran who is clearly playing the role he was brought on to play, but is also the lone high volume 3-point shot taker on the team (and is shooting 36% from deep – 3rd on the team). I see him as the 2nd most replaceable starter and wouldn’t be averse to a direct swap between him and, say, Jordan Clarkson. But…
This brings me to Larry Nance. Nance is the quintessential “perfect 5th starter on a good team” who does all the little things coaches love while playing a style, especially on offense, which is devoid of loud mistakes that stand out when watching games. He dives for loose balls, is a more than willing passer, and basically acts as a conduit for all of the other players moving towards their strengths and away from their weaknesses. This has real value.
The issue with this is, the Lakers aren’t a good team and, with the imbalance in their first 5 they very likely need someone who does more of the big things well in order to compensate for the other starters who either cannot or do not do them already. Swapping Nance for, say, Kyle Kuzma or Julius Randle may impact the team’s defense (Kuzma) or the flow of their offense (Randle), but I’m beginning to believe those trade-offs are worth it considering the performance of the starters as a whole.
This isn’t a dig on Nance, necessarily. I like him as a player and think he really helps the team. If the composition of the roster were different — say if the team had established stars on the wing or more high usage players on the perimeter in general — I’d have no issue with him starting. But that’s not the case.
Do I actually think Walton is going to make this type of change anytime soon? No, I do not. For one, Walton loves Nance and for good reason. I’m sure Walton doesn’t see Nance as the problem and, in a way, he’s not the problem. As I’ve said, what Nance does has value.
The problem is, in the aggregate, the Lakers are not currently starting a mix of skills which result in good enough offense. They consistently start games poorly, fall behind on the scoreboard, and then have to make up deficits using their more productive lineups over the course of the game. This is a generalization, of course, but it happens a lot and, really, more than it should.
So, if it were me, I’d move Nance to the bench. And I’d probably do it for Kuzma while keeping everything else the same. That’s the simplest solution even if it may still result in the starting group being a bit below the level in which they’d need to be. And this is where the lineup data comes back to tell another story. The group of Ball, KCP, Ingram, Kuzma, and Lopez has a net efficiency of -1.8 in 223 minutes this year. That’s solid, but if that were the team’s differential it would still only be good for 20th in the league.
Still, though, it’s about 7 points per 100 possessions better than what the current starters are providing in about the same number of minutes. This is not a small number and I’d want to see if that could be sustained as the sample gets larger. Maybe it wouldn’t, but I think they deserve their chance to try.