The Lakers’ best starting lineup?
Why the Lakers need to prioritize putting together their best possible starting lineup and not worry about the bench
As preseason winds down and NBA teams begin setting their starting lineups, I thought it would be the perfect time to look at the challenges confronting Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton as he makes his decisions on who’s starting.
One player is a 22-year old NBA rookie with 3 years of college experience who’s gotten off to a sizzling start, appears to be unflappably confident, and is a perfect fit to provide needed scoring punch for the Lakers’ starters.
The other is a 20-year old NBA sophomore with 1 year of college and 1 year of pro experience who’s gotten off to a horrible start, lost his confidence due to high expectations, and was miscast as a potential go-to scorer and closer.
Which do you start and why? It’s not just about the player but also how Luke wants the Lakers to play as well as how each player fits as a starter or reserve. Let’s take a look at what Luke might be thinking and what might happen.
It’s hard to get a read on exactly what Luke is thinking about his forwards. One thing obvious is the very disappointing subpar play by Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance, Jr. hasn’t shaken the head coach’s trust and confidence in them. Luke is also trying to temper fans’ expectations about Kyle Kuzma, downplaying the chances of his starting while acknowledging the idea is “on the table” although he likes Kuzma’s scoring punch off the bench.
There’s probably only a remote chance Luke Walton will decide to start Kyle Kuzma over Brandon Ingram at small forward when the regular season begins even though that could be the better decision for the Lakers as well as for Ingram. Kyle Kuzma will be fine whatever Luke decides because he’s already earned starter minutes and shown he’s most likely the go-to scorer and closer the Lakers had been hoping Brandon Ingram could become.
So let’s take a look at Luke’s lineup options and what he might be thinking:
- THE INGRAM/RANDLE LINEUP
The most likely decision Luke will make would be to leave Brandon Ingram as the starting small forward and continue to bring Kyle Kuzma off the bench. That would produce the following starting and bench lineups:
Starters: Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, Randle, Lopez
Bench: Ennis, Clarkson, Kuzma, Nance, Bogut
This is the lineup most expect Luke to roll with despite the horrid start by Ingram and Nance and torrid start by Kuzma. My concern with this lineup is the starters’ lack of firepower with Brook Lopez and Julius Randle being the only plus scorers and Lopez the only plus 3-point shooter. While Luke likes Kyle Kuzma’s scoring off the bench, the worry is a repeat of last year when slow starts by the starters left the Lakers always playing from behind.
Even though Luke has stated that point guard was the only starting position that had been decided, there’s no doubt that Ingram and Randle fully expect to start against this season. Randle is already supposedly angry at coming off the bench and apparently using it to motivate himself into having a terrific game off the bench last night. There’s a lot to say about not rocking the boat and waiting to see how keeping Ingram and Randle at the 3 and 4 works.
2. THE INGRAM/NANCE LINEUP
One option Luke is experimenting with is starting Larry Nance, Jr. at power forward for defense and bringing Julius Randle off the bench for his energy. That would produce the following starting and bench lineups:
Starters: Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, Nance, Lopez
Bench: Ennis, Clarkson, Kuzma, Randle, Bogut
Personally, I have mixed feelings about starting Nance at the 4. I love the idea of adding Larry’s defense to the starting lineup ala Kurt Rambis or A.C. Green but have always believed the Lakers need a stretch-4 like Kuzma who could spread the defense rather than a traditional power forward like Nance, Jr. The big concern in replacing Randle with Nance, Jr. in the starting lineup is that the starting lineup would be woefully short of firepower like last year.
The Lakers would have to rely way too much on Brook Lopez as the only proven scorer in this lineup who could generate double digit offense. At this point, counting on more than single digit points from Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, or Nance would be foolish. The other major problem with this lineup is Ingram’s and Nance’s skillsets are poor fits to play alongside point guard Lonzo Ball as neither are capable 3-point shooters or consistent finishers in transition.
3. THE KUZMA/NANCE LINEUP
The solution to the loss of firepower caused by starting Nance, Jr. instead of Randle can be easily fixed by also starting Kyle Kuzma for Brandon Ingram. That would produce the following starting and bench lineups:
Starters: Lonzo, KCP, Kuzma, Nance, Lopez
Bench: Ennis, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, Bogut
This is the starting lineup I hope Luke will end up with. Nance upgrades the starters’ defense while Kuzma upgrades the offense and 3-point shooting. No other starting lineup gives the Lakers the balance between offense and defense that this lineup does. In fact, I think it is the Lakers’ best potential defensive starting lineup with great size and length and three plus defenders in KCP, Nance, and Lopez. I like Kuzma’s speed and quickness over Ingram.
To me, this is the kind of move Luke and the Lakers need to make although he will have to get Ingram and Randle to buy in on coming off the bench, which I think he can do. In addition to delivering the best Lakers’ starting lineup, I love the idea of an Ingram, Randle, and Clarkson bench. These three players could comprise one of the most dynamic benches in the league. They also know Luke always lets the guys who are playing well close out games.
4. THE INGRAM/KUZMA LINEUP
The one other possible starting lineup Luke might consider would be to start Kyle Kuzma as a stretch power forward and bring Julius Randle off the bench. That would produce the following starting and bench lineups:
Starters: Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, Kuzma, Lopez
Bench: Ennis, Clarkson, Randle, Nance, Bogut
This would potentially be the Lakers best offensive starting lineup as all five starters would be 3-point shooters who could stretch the floor. I would love to see Luke roll out 5-out sets that would open up gaping holes for Lonzo and the team to exploit. Surrounding Lonzo Ball will four players who can shoot the 3 or attack the paint when challenged would give the Lakers the ultimate pace-and-space offense as well as great size and length on defense.
Unfortunately, I worry about the lack of offense from a bench with a Bogut and Nance as the frontcourt. The key would be running the offense through Bogut, one of the best passing big men in the league. Ennis and Clarkson would have to prove they can shoot from distance and Bogut and Nance would have to dominate defensively. It’s kind of the reverse where teams bring in their benches more to score points than to prevent them.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the next two preseason game go and whom Luke and his staff decide to start or bring off the bench. Last year, Luke stubbornly refused to break up his bench despite injuries to several starters. Hopefully, he will remember that mistake, which left the Lakers to play catchup in almost every game as the starting lineup lacked the firepower to compete with the superior starting lineups in the Western Conference.
Luke’s top priority needs to be to put together the best possible starting lineup offensively and defensively and not get distracted with trying to win games with the bench. Starters win games while reserves just save them.