Assuming he’s successfully played his way into being part of their long term plans, the Lakers should seriously consider playing more small ball next year and starting enigmatic Julius Randle at center rather than power forward.
While Randle’s recent play as the team’s starting power forward has finally earned him membership as part of the team’s future young core, there are compelling reasons Julius’ best role on the Lakers going forward could be as their starting center in a dynamic small ball lineup that would allow them to play positionless basketball and switch everything on defense while also relentlessly pushing the pace and playing at a breakneck speed on offense.
First, Julius Randle’s natural position in the modern NBA is small ball center, not power forward. Until he develops into a capable 3-point shooter who can stretch the floor and spread the defense, Julius will never be a great fit at power forward but his freakish speed, quickness, and handle for a player his size and relentless bully ball style on offense and unique ability to guard all five positions on defense make him a better fit as a modern small ball center.
We saw this when Julius was coming off the bench and dominating games but his critics always complained that he was playing against second stringers and questioned whether he could succeed as well against starting quality NBA centers, despite his favorable outings against players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, and DeAndre Jordan. More often than not, Julius held his own or straight out won those one-on-one matchups.
Second, starting Randle at center also allows the Lakers to put their best five players on the floor to start games as it allows Kyle Kuzma to start at power forward, giving the Lakers the stretch 4 they’ve always desperately wanted. Frankly, Kyle Kuzma is just too promising a talent not to start. He plays better as a starter and when playing alongside Lonzo Ball. Randle at center with Kuzma at the 4 also eliminates the need to find a stretch 5 to play center.
In the past, Luke has worked hard not to start Kyle Kuzma, wanting to keep him and his ability to stretch the floor on the bench where he would fit with the team’s reserve centers, none of whom were stretch 5’s. While I think it’s important to have a strong bench, I also think you can’t stifle development of a player with Kuzma’s upside when his play deserves the opportunity to start. Unless the Lakers sign LeBron or Kawhi, Kyle Kuzma needs to be a starter.
Third, the Lakers are at their best defensively when they go small with Randle at the 5, which enables them to switch everything and make it hard for teams to penetrate. By embracing small ball from the start, the Lakers will be able to better dictate the tempo of the game defensively from the tip off. Julius has always been able to win matchups with traditional centers and I believe his unique physicality and athleticism will be more dominant playing the 5.
A Lakers starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle has the potential to be one of the most dominant small ball defensive units in the NBA. Five players 6–6 to 6–10 all of whom are long, quick, fast, and athletic plus defenders who can switch everything. With Julius at the 5, this would be the ultimate switch everything lineup, the Lakers’ version of the Golden State Warriors famed ‘Death Lineup.’
Fourth, the Lakers play their best offensively when push the pace and play fast and score in transition. Randle at the 5 gives the Lakers five players who can outrun their counterparts down the court. The Lakers goal is to run their opponents into the ground so they’re the fresher, better conditioned team in the fourth quarter. Replacing a slow plodding traditional center with a fast small ball center like Randle turbo charges the Lakers’ transition offense.
The Lakers right now lead the NBA in pace, playing faster than even the champion Golden State Warriors. Much of that is due to playing small ball. With his ability to handle the ball and make plays for teammates, Randle is at his best when playing in transition, just like Lonzo Ball and the rest of this young Lakers team. Going small with Lonzo and Julius rebounding and PG, Ingram, and Kuzma flying down the court will surely bring back Showtime.
Going into next season, the Lakers should seriously consider playing more small ball with Randle starting at the 5 and Kyle Kuzma at the 4. That would allow the Lakers to start their best fivesome on offense and on defense.