Four Possible Championship-Caliber Los Angeles Lakers Starting Lineups
The new and improved version of the Los Angeles Lakers start training camp with 6 players potentially competing for the 2 remaining starting positions alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves.
Gabe Vincent with his superior defense and better playoff performance should win the Lakers’ starting point guard job over lame duck D’Angelo Russell, who will almost certainly be moved before the trade deadline. Unless Reaves fails his early season audition to become the team’s next starting point guard, there’s no way the Lakers go into the playoffs next June with Dlo at point. Lakers will finish season with new point guard.
That leaves Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Jaxson Hayes, and Christian Wood as the 4 players who’ll be competing to be the Lakers’ fifth starter next to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, and Gabe Vincent.
Each potential fifth starter has their strengths. Vanderbilt would give the Lakers their best defensive lineup, Wood their best offensive lineup, Hayes their biggest front court, and Hachimura their most versatile fivesome.
Looming over the intense competition to start is newly extended superstar Anthony Davis’ continued preference to play power forward and renewed request not to play as many minutes at center this season as the last two. While Anthony Davis wants to play the four, LeBron James likely needs to play the four, which is why the Lakers are also considering two starting lineups where James plays the four and two where Davis plays the four.
There’s also competition within the competition as Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura fight to be the starting small forward while Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood battle to win the starting and backup center jobs. Training camp and preseason will ultimately determine whether the Lakers open the season with a traditional starting lineup with Vanderbilt or Hachimura or a two-bigs starting lineup with Hayes or Wood at the five.
While the Lakers are likely to start the season with either Vanderbilt or Hachimura as the fifth starter, there will be constant pressure during the season to give Hayes and/or Wood their inevitable opportunity to start.
It’s entirely possible that we will see a progression where the Lakers start the season with Vanderbilt as the fifth starter, then change to Hachimura, then change to Hayes, and finally ending with Wood as the fifth starter.
So let’s take a deeper dive into the pros and cons of the four possible championship-caliber Los Angeles Lakers’ starting lineups featuring Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Jaxson Hayes, or Christian Wood.
1. The ‘Jarred Vanderbilt’ Starting Lineup
The ‘Jarred Vanderbilt’ starting lineup with Vincent, Reaves, Vanderbilt, James, and Davis should be the Lakers’ strongest defensive lineup as it includes the best defender at every one of the five positions on the team.
Gabe Vincent at point guard, Austin Reaves at shooting guard, Jarred Vanderbilt at small forward, LeBron James at power forward, and Anthony Davis at center are each the best defender on the team at their position. Darvin Ham is a defense first coach so it’s not a stretch to imagine him deciding to start his best defensive team and to give Jarred Vanderbilt the opportunity to improve his offense performance and remain a starter.
Vanderbilt was a major factor in the Lakers post trade deadline finish to make the playoffs and was rewarded with a 4-year $48 million extension despite struggling to stay on the court in the playoffs due to his offense. The Lakers had Vando working 1–on-1 with Phil Handy all summer to improve his 3-point shot and back-to-the-basket game. He apparently has also grown taller over the last summer and now claims to be 6' 11."
How the additional height affects his game offensively and defensively will be one of the top stories in camp. If Vando can raise his 3-point shooting from 30% to 36%, he could easily lock up the starting small forward job.
The Lakers and Vanderbilt were smart to wait to sign the extension so he would not be eligible to be traded until next summer. That gives Vando and the Lakers more time for him to work on his offense and overall game.
Having said that, if the Lakers do give Vanderbilt an opportunity to start, he’ll likely also be on a short leash because they have three other possible championship-caliber starting lineups to whom they could quickly turn.
2. The ‘Rui Hachimura’ Starting Lineup
The ‘Rui Hachimura’ starting lineup with Vincent, Reaves, Hachimura, James, and Davis is the favorite to start the season as it gives the Lakers needed size and shooting but also allows LeBron to play power forward.
After showing he was capable of banging bodies with Nikola Jokic in the Western Conference Finals, Hachimura has worked hard on slimming down in anticipation of playing more small forward the coming season.
At 6' 8" with a 7' 2" wingspan, Rui has the versatility to play down or up a position. In the playoffs, he showed he could play up and bang bodies with a five as well as play down and guard smaller and quicker wing threes.
Critically, Rui playing the three allows LeBron to play power forward, which is the position he is best suited to defend at this point in his career. The last thing the Lakers want is LeBron chasing wings around screens. Starting Hachimura is also a more versatile and innovative way for the Lakers to play two-bigs. While Rui’s best as a four, he can play down to three or up to five. Rui, LeBron, and Anthony can three, four, or five.
The big question is which Rui Hachimura will the Lakers see this season? Will it be the player they traded for who had an excellent finish to the regular season or the player emerged as a potential star in the playoffs?
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle but with untapped upside as Darvin Ham, Phil Handy, and this young Lakers’ coaching staff seems to have a talent for figuring out how to grow and develop young players.
Right now, Rui Hachimura is the poster child for the great success the Lakers’ young coaching staff has had in turning around project players. If Rui gets a chance to start, he could easily turn it into his permanent job.
3. The ‘Jaxson Hayes’ Starting Lineup
The ‘Jaxson Hayes’ starting lineup with Vincent, Reaves, James, Davis, and Hayes would give the Lakers’ their biggest front court with Haves at the five and Davis at the four but would require James to play and defend the three.
While it’s easier for the Lakers to start Vanderbilt or Hachimura, players from last season’s team who could allow James to not have to play the three, pressure will ultimately grow to start two bigs so Davis can play the four. Before they even had an opportunity to sign Christian Wood, the Lakers had penciled in Jaxson Hayes as the likely starting center in a two-bigs lineup that allowed Anthony Davis to play his preferred power forward.
There’s a good argument that Jaxson Hayes is the better candidate to start next to Anthony Davis in a Lakers’ two-bigs lineup than Christian Wood because Darvin Ham would prefer his defense over the latter’s offense.
Just as Christian Wood is insurance against Anthony Davis getting injured, he’s also better suited to be AD’s backup than Jaxson Hayes, who does not have the offensive chops to score at all three levels like Wood can do.
Jaxson Hayes is viewed by the Lakers as a traditional defensive oriented center like Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee, which essentially makes him the perfect candidate to fill the same regular season role they each filled. Late last season, the Lakers suddenly saw a sea change in how the team performs when one of their superstars rests. For the first time, they lost the minutes Anthony Davis rested but not the minutes LeBron James rested.
Starting Jaxson Hayes would not only allow Anthony Davis to play his preferred power forward position but also allow Christian Wood to come off the bench and give the Lakers an able replacement when AD rests.
4. The ‘Christian Wood’ Starting Lineup
The ‘Christian Wood’ starting lineup with Vincent, Reaves, James, Davis, and Wood should be the Lakers’ strongest offensive lineup as it includes the best shooters and scorers at every one of the five positions on the team.
Ultimately, this could be the Lakers most dangerous starting lineup as it would boast both dominating size with a Wood, Davis, and James front court and high volume 3-point shooting with Vincent, Reaves, and Wood. While Wood is the perfect backup for Davis, there’s also a good argument his greatest value could be playing alongside Anthony Davis because of his ability to complement him by spacing the court to free him to attack.
Christian Wood at the five and Anthony Davis at the four would give the Lakers one of the most versatile and dangerous front court duos in the league with two players who can both score and defend at all three levels. Wood will have to prove he can pay attention to defense and become a team-first player who fits the Lakers culture and personality. Once he does that and earns Ham’s trust, he will quickly become the Lakers fifth starter.
Wood is in many ways the perfect fit to play both with and without Davis. Since the Lakers signed him to a 1+1 contract with a second year player option, the the NT MLE would be their only chance at re-signing him. There may come a time this season when the Lakers will regret not trading Jalen Hood-Schifino or Maxwell Lewis to the Mavericks for Christian Wood just so they would have gotten his Bird rights so they could re-sign him.
While it may take time for him to become acclimated to playing defense, a ‘Christian Wood’ starting lineup with Wood and Davis as the two stud bigs should ultimately become the Lakers’ preferred fivesome to start games.