The Los Angeles Lakers entered Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in desperate need of a spark. Losers of four straight games, the Lakers and head coach Darvin Ham hoped a lineup change could provide the jolt the team needed to get back on track.
Ham moved veteran Russell Westbrook to the bench in favor of a bigger and more defensive-minded starting five. The new look lineup featured LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, and Cam Reddish. While unorthodox by today’s NBA standards, the move initially paid dividends in a 129-120 victory over the Thunder. However, significant questions remain if the lineup tweak should become permanent going forward.
A Starting Five Built With Size and Physicality in Mind
In explaining the lineup change, Ham emphasized wanting to go bigger and tougher defensively. “You see the size and physicality we can put out there with that lineup,” Ham said. “It enables us to switch a lot of stuff and cover for one another.”
The new starting five features legit size across the board. James and Davis are multi-time All-NBA talents familiar with carrying the load offensively. Meanwhile, the 6’9″ Vanderbilt, 6’7″ Prince, and 6’8″ Reddish provide length and athleticism defensively.
On paper, the group provides the versatility and physicality Ham covets. The Lakers have struggled to contain dribble penetration all season, often requiring James or Davis to leave their man to provide emergency help defense. Theoretically, the new starting five should make getting stops easier.
However, the lineup flouts the conventions of modern NBA strategy. Floor spacing and shooting have become increasingly critical components of building a competitive offense. Yet outside of James, the other four starters are non-shooters by NBA standards.
Across their careers, Prince, Reddish, and Vanderbilt combine for just 3.24 three-point attempts per game. Neither Reddish nor Vanderbilt are respected floor spacers and rarely draw defenders out to the perimeter. As a result, the lane becomes extremely cramped for James and Davis to operate.
James Thrives as Makeshift Point Guard
The lack of shooting forced James into the role of primary playmaker and ball-handler. While certainly doable for the 18-time All-Star, it also adds extra creative burden on James at age 38.
Throughout his career, James has made no secret of his preference to play from the forward spots rather than run the offense as a lead guard. The addition of Russell Westbrook in 2021 was largely to alleviate James of full-time playmaking duties.
However, with Westbrook relegated to the bench on Saturday, James seamlessly adjusted by racking up 11 assists while expertly navigating the Thunder defense. He masterfully orchestrated the two-man game with Davis, who chipped in 30 points of his own.
The duo’s excellence powered the Lakers to score 23 points over the nine minutes the new starting group was on the floor together. However, the Thunder also managed 23 points of their own over that same stretch, concerning given OKC owns the NBA’s worst offense.
Russell Westbrook Takes Bench Role in Stride
The biggest storyline from the lineup change centered on Russell Westbrook. The former MVP came off the bench for the first time since the 2020-21 season, turning in a solid performance with 14 points, three rebounds, and three assists in just 17 minutes.
After the game, Westbrook emphasized prioritizing winning over individual accolades or starting status.
“The result was a win. To me, that’s all that matters,” Westbrook said.
The move to the bench should benefit both Westbrook and the Lakers. The team’s net rating improves by 15.2 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook off the court. His high-usage style is better suited leading the second unit rather than sharing the floor with James and Davis.
Meanwhile, Westbrook regains control of the offense running the show against opposing bench units. The role better maximizes his attacking strengths while limiting his weaknesses as an off-ball floor spacer.
Concerns With the Lineup’s Sustainability
While Ham was pleased with the lineup’s first outing together, there remains doubts if the group should remain intact long-term.
The lack of shooting places massive offensive burden on James and Davis. While both played spectacularly on Saturday, the Thunder missed several wide-open three pointers afforded to them by Los Angeles’ lack of spacing. Against most NBA defenses, the cramped driving lanes will only get tougher to navigate.
There is also the question of how long James can effectively play point guard at his age. While certainly doable in the short-term, having James initiate offense and create for others throughout the grind of an NBA season is likely untenable.
The Lakers thrived last season when James played forward alongside two other ball-handlers like Westbrook and Austin Reaves. Yet Reaves only logged 28 minutes on Saturday, while Westbrook played just 17. Los Angeles’ 24th ranked offense will struggle generating consistent scoring if its two supporting playmakers continue seeing such limited playing time.
Ham also justified the lineup change as a way to separate Westbrook and Reaves defensively. However, both playing so few minutes together decreases the possible staggering of their minutes that Ham previously touted.
Bigger Lineup Gamble Could Pay Off Through Trade
In the long view, there could be logic behind Ham’s otherwise confounding lineup decision. Westbrook has struggled mightily this season amid trade rumors. The demotion to the bench could be early preparation for Westbrook’s inevitable departure.
Meanwhile, Reaves avoids disruption coming out of the starting lineup. If the Lakers trade for an upgrade at guard like Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Reaves can comfortably move back to the bench without a dramatic reduction in role.
The Lakers currently sit 16-14 and tied with the Suns for 10th place in the West. While still in the playoff picture, Los Angeles cannot afford extended growing pains waiting for a roster-improving trade.
The Lakers are taking a major gamble employing a starting group so divergent from the modern NBA. While the lineup could supply short-term benefits like energy and defense, it seems unlikely Ham will stick with the group long-term.
Shooting and balanced playmaking remain paramount for contending teams. Until the Lakers add more of those elements to their starting five, Darvin Ham may need to reconsider the sustainability of his grand lineup experiment.