In the 2nd quarter of the Lakers loss to the Warriors, Brook Lopez rolled his ankle severely and had to be helped off the court and back to the lockerroom. X-rays taken that night were negative, but an MRI revealed a sprained ankle. Lopez will be reevaluated in 3 weeks, so the Lakers will be without their starting C for at least that long.
I think we can all agree that Lopez has not quite been the player many (including me) expected he’d be this season. Lopez is posting career lows in minutes per game and points per game, shooting under 45% from the field for the first time in his career, and also posting the 2nd worst rebounding season of his career. Of course, with low minutes come low totals/averages, but the general impact has not been what, I think, anyone (including Lopez) would have hoped.
When you combine what Lopez’s level of play has been — good, but not up to his normal standards — and the depth the Lakers have at the 4/5 positions, this looks to be an injury that the team can sustain and come out the other side alright.
This isn’t to diminish what Lopez contributes — he has been better than given credit for defensively (the Lakers have a better defensive rating when Lopez is on the floor than when he’s off), his big body eats up space in the defensive paint even if his rebounding totals are low, and he’s still treated as a threat from behind the arc by defenses even though his shot hasn’t been falling at a good rate so far. The resulting spacing helps the team’s offense in a variety of ways and I’m not ready to downplay this just because his individual numbers have suffered.
However, the Lakers are well equipped to be without Lopez for this stretch. It just depends on how Luke Walton decides to proceed and how the rotations are impacted.
If the 2nd half of the Warriors game is any indication, Walton’s first choice to replace Lopez will be to insert Kyle Kuzma into the lineup at PF and slide Nance up to C. Kuzma brings shooting and offensive versatility to the lineup, but this will hurt the lineup defensively. Of the regular rotation players, the Lakers defensive rating of 106.0 with Kuzma on the floor is worst on the team and this lines up with the eye test an the game tape. Still, though, if Kuzma can bring more focus and attentiveness on that end, his offensive ability can be a big boost to the lineup.
As for Randle, I think he’d be fine as a starter, but the question remains as to whether he’d be a good pairing with Nance. History has told us they do not play well together on either end of the floor, possessing not enough complementary skills to help each other excel. That said, Randle has been one of the team’s best players this season, showing defensive versatility and enough offensive punch in both the half court and in transition to help on both ends of the floor.
I think, in an ideal world, the Lakers would actually start Randle and Kuzma, leaving Nance to be the 3rd big who comes off the bench. As I’ve written before, I think Nance is the lone rotation big man who only truly fits as a frontcourt partner next to one of the other 3 PF/C’s. And that player is Lopez. Now that he’s injured, I fear there’s going to be more minutes of clunky fits with Nance struggling to hold up in the post against bully-ball bigs while also not showing enough switch-ability on the perimeter next to either Kuzma or Randle.
Lastly, many wonder if Lopez’s injury is suddenly going to open up playing time for one of the other natural C’s on the roster — Bogut, Zubac, or Thomas Bryant. My guess is that it won’t. Bogut could, in theory, get more run against bigger/stronger C’s who are either primarily post up threats or who simply are so big Walton doesn’t want to put Randle or Nance on them for too long a stretch. But Walton has already said that, for now, Zubac will remain with the South Bay Lakers in the G-League while Bryant is not likely to go from end of the bench to a key rotation player overnight (even if he has been tearing up the G-League).
So, I’d imagine (or, at least, I hope) Walton moves to a 9 man rotation with Kuzma, Randle, and Nance all taking on 6-10 more minutes a night each to compensate for Lopez being out. If need be, the team can also slide Ingram up to PF for a few minutes each night so he can get some run next to Randle (or Nance) playing C with some combination of Ball, KCP, Clarkson, Brewer, and Hart playing on the perimeter.
All in all, this should all work out for the Lakers. Which, before the season, would have been a crazy thing to consider. I don’t know if this says more about the play of Lopez or how much Randle or Kuzma have exceeded the pre-season conventional thinking of their games. But, here we are.