Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis
Bulls: Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Tony Bradley
Lakers: Austin Reaves (out); LeBron James (technically “day-to-day” — but aren’t we all?); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Bulls: Patrick Williams (out); Nikola Vucevic (out); Coby White (out)
I’m going to be honest here, this game is likely to be dominated by discussions around Alex Caruso’s free agency, the he said/he said nature of negotiations and, ultimately, the (pretty fairly logical) conclusion that the Lakers cheaped out by not coming closer to the Bulls offer in order to retain AC. I certainly have my feelings about this too — mostly that the Lakers should have spent the money and not doing so signifies either them not being willing to go deeper into the luxury tax to retain a player who helps you win or them not valuing what Alex does enough to adjust what they thought he was actually worth.
So, it’s either a money issue, a player evaluation issue, or a combination of both. None of it is a particularly flattering look for the organization and that much is clear by now. Harping on this point is certainly anyone’s prerogative, but I’m personally tired of being mad about this; or, to say it better, tired of expressing that anger in a demonstrable way. My complaining cannot change this. Alex is on the Bulls now, he’s doing well there, and as much as I wish he were playing for the Lakers, that’s not in the cards now. That sucks, I know. But I’d rather focus on the things that the Lakers can actually change and things that help them win now, with the roster they have at their disposal today. 1My last point on Caruso, however: My sense is that the Lakers ownership gave the front office a payroll number that they could not go over this season. I think they offered AC a contract that would allow them to keep him, keep THT, and then sign minimum players for the rest of the slots. If they’d have gotten Alex to agree, I bet they would not have used the tax payer MLE that they used to sign Nunn. I also think they clearly valued THT more than Alex and, in the big picture, that maybe correct in the long term. They’re different types of players, however, and both player types help you win. What I will say, though, is that valuing Alex the way they did was, in my estimation, a mistake. I think he’s the type of low usage, high effort, high BBIQ, defense first guard who slots in most any lineup, but can especially work as a connector between the Lakers 3 stars. And this is to say nothing of me thinking the Lakers championship window is right now and splurging on the best possible roster for the remainder of Bron’s contract is just how it should go. Clearly, this ownership group and front office thinks otherwise. But, that’s enough of that.
On this point, Frank Vogel made a significant lineup shift in Sunday’s win over the Spurs, moving Melo to the starting group at the expense of Kent Bazemore, then giving Baze a DNP and not giving him any minutes at all, and playing AD at the 5 for about 90% of his total minutes. The Lakers only played 9 guys, with Rondo serving as a quasi-proxy for LeBron where you can imagine whenever Bron does return it will mean Rondo goes back to not playing and Melo moves back to the bench. For now, though, I’d imagine this new configuration sticks until LeBron is back — which likely is not today (unless things change from the time I’m writing this).
Against the Bulls, this sort of lineup should matchup fairly well, though it’s not a great defensive matchup for Melo. He’ll likely have to defend Caruso, but AC’s quickness, activity, general ball handling + transition play, and off-ball screening could prove a bit tricky for Melo to track while still keeping up with his own help responsibilities. But, you’re likely not putting Melo on DeRozan and he’s surely not going to end up on Lonzo or LaVine. One option that could get some traction is putting AD on DeRozan, Melo on Tony Bradley, THT on LaVine, Russ on Caruso, and Avery on Lonzo, but that’s a lot of cross matching and it may not be tenable in P&R’s that bring Melo to the level of the ball and AD spaced out dealing with DeRozan. Anyways, we’ll see. 2Fwiw, AD has defended DeRozan in the past and that sort of matchup isn’t so different than AD defending Jimmy Butler or Kawhi — which he’s also done plenty of in the past. So, again, it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Of course, accounting for who Melo defends, DeRozan’s strong play, or the various P&R actions the Bulls will throw at the Lakers aren’t the only defensive challenges to overcome. Zach LaVine is a wonderful one-on-one scorer and his ability to both create shots for himself and teammates will be problematic. LaVine is one of six Bulls players averaging more than 3.5 assists a night and this ability of him (and his teammates) to share the ball and get the defense rotating until a good shot is surrendered is one of the bigger issues the Lakers will face tonight. The Bulls simply have a lot of firepower and accounting for it all is hard.
On the other end of the floor, offensively, this is a game the Lakers need to establish AD early and often in the hopes of getting him going. AD was not as effective in the 2nd half vs. the Spurs, but his 27 first half points count just as much on the scoreboard and helped the Lakers win the game too. So, if you can get him on the board early and force the Bulls into helping and scrambling around some, the hopes the Lakers can generate enough open looks + knock then down is probably the best approach.
Beyond AD, this is also a game where the Lakers could really use an impactful night from Russ. The Bulls have a really good defense this year, but not a lot of that is because of rim protection. No, the Bulls perimeter players are good at the point of attack and their general switchiness and quickness moving around the floor helps contain opponents. Russ, however, can help break down those barriers via the types of blunt force attacks he’s been known for in his career. In order to get those, however, the Lakers must start setting better screens and work more vertical angles that help Russ get downhill rather than playing more side to side. I’d love to see more step up screens in early offense — whether from big men who have rim-run or from guards and wings who have gotten up court quickly. Either way, use the lack of being set against the defense and allow Russ to get a runway towards the hoop so he can be more assertive getting up shots in the paint.
Two last notes — one on each side of the ball. The Bulls aren’t a high volume 3 point shooting team, but they’re also very good at keeping teams from shooting (and making) 3’s themselves. The Lakers are middle of the pack in made 3’s this season, but on their best nights they can get hot and really create an advantage from behind the arc. If the Lakers are to have a chance to win, they’ll need to get up and hit from distance. Defensively, the Lakers must avoid fouling. The Bulls are 9th in FT attempts, 1st in FT percentage, and 3rd in makes. The Lakers, meanwhile, foul a lot and their opponents lead the league in attempts. That’s a bad recipe and, if that doesn’t change tonight, it could literally be death at the foul line. So, the Lakers need to be disciplined defensively and not put the Bulls at the line.
As I’ve been saying a lot lately, I do not expect the Lakers to win tonight. Sunday’s win was a nice bounce back after Friday’s bad loss, but the Bulls are a different class of team and they’re playing very well having just beat the Clippers last night. That said, if the Lakers are to make test my perspective, it will come because their bench units really put it together, they shoot the ball well, and AD proves to be the best player on the floor by dominating the paint on both ends. That’s certainly not out of the realm of possibilities, either. Let’s hope for a fun one tonight.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.