Lakers need to start Randle & Kuzma!
Why Luke Walton needs to embrace small ball by starting and finishing games with Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma
It’s been a frustrating start to what Lakers’ fans optimistically expected to be a break out season for rookie Lonzo Ball and a dynamic talented young roster but it’s too early to panic, especially in light of how competitive they’ve been.
In fact, you could argue the young Lakers’ improvement on defense trumps any concerns about the team’s slow start and struggles to make 3-point shots. As Luke has made clear, the early focus has been on the defense, not offense. But after losing their second winnable game in a row and third in the last four, it’s time for head coach Luke Walton to change direction, embrace small ball, and start Julius Randle at center and Kyle Kuzma at power forward.
The reasons for making the changes are simple. The Lakers’ current starting lineup with Brook Lopez at center and Larry Nance, Jr. at power forward is not getting the job done. Meanwhile, small ball lineups with Julius Randle at center and Kyle Kuzma at power forward excelled defensively and offensively and have been instrumental in triggering comebacks that have enabled the Lakers to be competitive despite their slow start and internal struggles.
The NBA’s 5-man lineup stats confirm the Lakers’ best lineups were Randle and Kuzma small ball lineups. In fact, six of the only seven Lakers’ lineups with a positive net rating included Randle and Kuzma. Ironically, the only Lopez and Nance lineup with a positive net rating was the lineup with Corey Brewer that ignited the Lakers comeback win against the Suns. 70% of the time the Lakers’ lineups had positive net ratings were small ball lineups.
The plus/minus stats for the Lakers’ players from the last four games also confirm Randle and Kuzma have played much better than Lopez and Nance. Since the loss to the Clippers, Randle and Kuzma have posted plus/minuses of +4.4 and -2.4 versus Lopez’s and Nance’s plus/minuses of -4.8 and -6.8. The only Laker with a worse plus/minus than Lopez or Nance was KCP, who was suspended for 2 games and then posted a -8.8 plus/minus for 3 games.
Playing small ball to start and end games is also a better fit for Lonzo Ball and how the Lakers want to play in the long run. While Lopez has done a great job reinventing himself by adding the 3-point shot, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to defend opposing players in pick-and-rolls or on the perimeter, which is a critical need for a championship caliber defense. The Lakers need a center who is a grey hound who can protect the rim and guard the perimeter.
I believe Julius Randle has shown in the last couple of games that he can be that center. Struggling after Luke gave the starting power forward role to Larry Nance, Jr., Julius finally got his head straight and showed he could be the elite rim protector and perimeter defender the Lakers desperately need. More importantly, his aggressiveness and intensity on defense had the same contagious impact on the team’s defense as Lonzo’s passing had on offense.
Offensively, Randle is also a much better fit to play with Lonzo Ball and for a team that wants to run and play faster. Randle leads the team with a PER of 19.5 and gives the Lakers another player who can handle the ball on a break and find open teammates in transition. He is hitting his free throws and continues to work hard on improving his ability to stretch the defense and hit a clutch 3-point shot as he did to clinch our victory against the Wizards.
Randle’s small ball front court mate has been Kyle Kuzma, whose offensive and defensive versatility has been exceptional. Kuzma is averaging 14.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.6 assists while shooting over 50% from the field and close to 90% from the line. Kuzma has also excelled on the defensive end, showing the ability to defend bigger players in the post and smaller players on the perimeter. He is the perfect fit to play alongside Randle.
Ideally, the Lakers best small ball lineup could be Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle. I know it’s crazy to start three rookies and a sophomore along with Randle but the truth is those are the five players who are playing best at both ends of the court. They can switch everything on defense as their bigs can defend guards and their guards can defend bigs. And they push the pace and run like the Warriors on offense.
Starting and finishing games with a small ball lineup of Lonzo, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, and Randle backed up by a bench lineup of Clarkson, KCP, Brewer, Nance, and Lopez would give the Lakers’ starters and bench better balance. The move would give the starting lineup the offensive firepower to get the team off to a good start rather than always having to come from behind plus the defensive focus and intensity to build leads and dominate teams early
The current modern trend in the NBA is for teams to play more small ball. Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton needs to embrace small ball and start both Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma to improve the Lakers offense and defense.