Why small ball is the Lakers’ future!
How going small may be the best way for the Lakers to optimize Lonzo Ball’s once-in-a-generation skillset
If the Lakers are serious about optimizing Lonzo Ball’s once-in-a-generation skillset, they need to shift gears and play a lot more small ball this season. Small ball is the key to speeding up the game and unleashing Lonzo Ball.
Lonzo was bred, raised, and trained from crib to college to play small ball. Small lineups and killer speed were staples of his AAU, high school, and college teams. His game is a highlight reel of full court passes, cherry picked baskets, and 3-point bombs at breakneck pace like the Warriors on steroids. Playing the game fast is built into Lonzo’s DNA. The faster the game is, the better Lonzo plays. That’s why the Lakers need to play more small ball.
Small ball isn’t just about transition basketball. It’s about being an aggressor at both ends of the court and speeding up the game the entire 48 minutes, in half court as well as full court, on defense as well as offense. Offensively, it’s about pushing the ball, creating mismatches, spacing the floor, and spreading the defense. Defensively, it’s about pressuring the ball, switching everything, and forcing the offense to play at a pace they’re not used to.
While Brook Lopez will start at center for the Lakers this season, I expect Luke Walton to go small whenever Lopez goes to the bench, with Randle, Nance, Jr., or Kuzma playing center and Ingram moving to power forward. It’s no secret the Lakers want to play fast. That’s why they hired Luke and drafted Lonzo. Magic has dreams of bringing Showtime back to LA and the simplest and easiest way for a team to play fast is by playing small ball.
The good news is the Lakers have many of the key elements needed to play winning small ball, including a dynamic rookie point guard Lonzo Ball and three versatile power forwards with the skillsets to play small ball center in Larry Nance, Jr., Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma. Last year, the Lakers’ top 5-man lineups with the best offensive and defensive ratings were small ball lineups. Even with the addition of Lopez, I think small ball will rule again.
Last year, the Lakers played Mozgov or Zubac at center 43% of the time, meaning they played small ball 57% of the time. With Brook Lopez coming off a career year where he averaged 30 minutes per game with the Nets, finding minutes at the 5 for traditional centers Lopez and Zubac as well as small ball centers Randle, Nance, Jr., and Kuzma will be a challenge. Odds are Lopez will see fewer minutes with Zubac being the odd man out.
The beauty of small ball is its versatility, how it allows a coach to create specialized lineups to matchup against opponents’ strengths or change the dynamic within a game when you need more offense or better defense. The Lakers front office has done a good job giving head coach Luke Walton interchangeable pieces he can use to build innovative small ball lineups designed to solve special team needs like defense, speed, or shooting.
Larry Nance, Jr. played small ball center on the Lakers’ 5-man lineups with the best defensive and offensive ratings last year. We should expect more of the same this year. In fact, I expect most of the minutes Nance, Jr. plays this season to come as a backup center. Ideally, I would love to see a defensive oriented small ball lineup with Lonzo, KCP, Ingram, Kuzma, and Nance, Jr. develop into the Lakers’ version of the Warriors’ feared ‘Death Lineup.’
Julius Randle at center gives the Lakers a totally different small ball look. His freakish speed, quickness, and ball handling make him an impossible cover for opposing bigs. If Lonzo can turbo charge the Lakers’ transition game, I could see Julius Randle becoming our version of James Worthy and a 20/5/5 budding superstar whom the Lakers aren’t going to want to let go. I’d love to see a ‘Speed Lineup’ of Lonzo, KCP, Brewer, Kuzma, and Randle.
But the small ball lineup I’m most excited about is the ‘Shooters Lineup,’ where the Lakers put 5 of their best 3-point shooters on the floor at the same time. We saw a preview of this lineup during summer league when Kyle Kuzma played the 5 and the Lakers at times actually ran sets with all 5 players spaced out behind the line. I could see a lineup of Lonzo, Hart, KCP, Ingram, and Kuzma running and raining 3-pointers on the opposition.
Lonzo and small ball are the Lakers’ future, which will affect whom the Lakers pursue this summer and how they’ll approach manning the center position down the road. With more teams going small, playing time and salary cap for traditional centers is disappearing with ‘center by committee’ becoming the smart strategy for many teams. It’s hard to imagine the Lakers wanting to offer a max contract to DeMarcus Cousins in this environment.
If the Lakers want to optimize Lonzo Ball’s once-in-a-generation’s skillset, they need to look for creative ways to play fast and going small is the key to speeding up the game. That’s why small ball is the Lakers’ future.