Frank Vogel is searching. He changed his starters again on Tuesday for a visit from the ancestral rival Celtics, sending Dwight Howard to the second unit while promoting Avery Bradley. It marked the fourth straight game with a new first five for a Lakers team that has already had 12 different starting lineups in 25 games this season, second most in the NBA behind only the COVID-walloped 76ers—and as many as the Lakers had in their entire 2019-20 championship campaign.
Some of that can be chalked up to circumstance: LeBron James has yet to play in more than three consecutive games this season, due to a mixture of injury, suspension, and a COVID-19 testing snafu that launched a school of emoji. Mostly, though, it’s about Vogel shuffling the deck and looking for a winning hand: a combination that puts L.A.’s superstar trio of James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook in position to thrive offensively while maintaining the strong defensive spine that’s been the Lakers’ calling card over the past two seasons. So far, he’s had to fold a lot.
“We’re a team working to build cohesiveness to get over the hump,” Vogel told reporters after the Lakers lost to the Clippers last Friday.
That the Lakers’ starting lineup problem has proved nettlesome for Vogel isn’t exactly a shock. Many predicted the Lakers would struggle to space the floor and defend at a high level after Rob Pelinka traded half of L.A.’s rotation for Westbrook in a draft-night blockbuster, and then reloaded with old friends. Injuries have only cranked up the degree of difficulty: James lost two weeks to an abdominal strain, third-year swingman Talen Horton-Tucker missed the first 13 games after thumb surgery, and offseason additions Trevor Ariza (right ankle surgery) and Kendrick Nunn (right knee bone bruise) still have yet to suit up. The Lakers’ most frequently used five-man lineup has played just 53 minutes, the lowest total for a top line of any team in the league. It’s tough to solve the equation when the variables keep changing on you.
But no one’s all that interested in hearing about variables when you’re talking about L.A., where championship contention is the expectation, and LeBron is in a perma-title push that comes with being in Year 19 and nearing his 37th birthday. Hence the recent rumblings that Vogel might be on the hot seat, less than 14 months removed from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy and four months after getting a contract extension (albeit for just one additional year).
That sort of pressure comes with the territory, as Vogel and James have both said. (Though LeBron saying so without technically endorsing the job Vogel’s done has arched some eyebrows.) But the Lakers’ convincing 15-point victory over Boston on Tuesday, arguably the the team’s best win of the season, likely decreased the temperature a few degrees; so, too, might Lakers governor Jeanie Buss telling Mark Medina of NBA.com that “until we’re 100 percent healthy, I won’t make any judgments about anything” related to Vogel’s job security.
Full health isn’t imminent—Vogel said Tuesday that Nunn won’t see game action until next year—but with Ariza now scrimmaging, it’s getting closer. And with the Lakers now healthier than they’ve been all season, you can bet that Vogel’s position will grow increasingly precarious if they don’t improve upon a start that’s got them just outside the bottom 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, and sitting a tenuous sixth in the West. Vogel has to work out his own salvation—something he’s begun to do by cutting L.A.’s center rotation in half.
DeAndre Jordan’s paint-plugging presence has only further occluded the Lakers’ faltering offense; they’ve scored just 85.7 points per 100 half-court possessions with him on the court, equivalent to the third-worst mark in the league. He hasn’t provided enough rim protection to make up for his issues defending the pick-and-roll in space or his teammates’ struggles to contain ball handlers on the perimeter: Opponents have shot 64.2 percent against him at the rim, according to Second Spectrum, 82nd out of 148 players to face at least 50 up-close shots. And yet, he’s started 16 games this season and logged 276 minutes, in which the Lakers have been outscored by 44 points. Excising him and handing Dwight Howard his spot in the rotation was a good choice; doing it while keeping Howard in the second unit and maintaining Davis as L.A.’s starting center, which Vogel did against Boston on Tuesday, was even better.
It probably sets Vogel’s teeth on edge to move away from the traditional two-big identity he’s favored throughout his coaching career, from his earliest days with Roy Hibbert and David West in Indiana through the AD/JaVale/Dwight combo in L.A.’s title run. And it’s no surprise that the Lakers are most dangerous when Davis kicks inside; that’s been true for three seasons now. But the innings-eating big-man minutes of seasons past are a luxury a scuffling team can ill afford, and the early returns suggest that, yet again, the first step toward improving the overall health of the Lakers’ 18th-ranked offense is moving AD into the middle:
No Country for Big Men
|Points per Halfcourt Play
|Points per Halfcourt Play
|LeBron+AD+Russ, No DeAndre
|LeBron+AD+Russ, No DeAndre or Dwight
|Lineup data via Cleaning the Glass.
Vogel fully understands this: It’s why, after playing Davis next to a traditional center more than 90 percent of the time last season, he now has AD spending nearly 70 percent of his minutes as a 5. That alone isn’t enough, though. The point of mothballing traditional centers in favor of getting more shooting on the floor is to allow James, Davis, and Westbrook to benefit from improved spacing rather than needing to create it themselves, so how Vogel fills the two wing spots matters a lot, too.
In theory, Kent Bazemore makes a ton of sense as a low-usage shooter who can give the big three more room to maneuver. In practice, he’s 13-for-43 from deep this season, and the team has scored less than a point per possession with him on the floor, without profiling as a true stopper on the other end. Vogel has limited Bazemore to garbage-time duty over the past few weeks, preferring to roll with Horton-Tucker and/or Bradley for starters’ minutes; they, however, are shooting a combined 55-for-156 from the field (35.3 percent) and 17-for-66 from 3-point land (25.8 percent) since mid-November.
This is the uncomfortable position that Vogel’s been placed in by Pelinka’s roster restructuring. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma jettisoned in the Westbrook deal, and with Alex Caruso allowed to walk to Chicago over luxury tax concerns, L.A. lacks the two-way wings to both hold up at the point of attack and give LeBron, AD, and Russ the room to breathe. Lean toward the guys you think give you a better shot of stalling dribble penetration, like Bradley and Horton-Tucker, and you give defenses carte blanche to pack the paint and risk offensive gridlock. (The need for long-range decongestant is one reason James’s early-season shift in shot profile has persisted; the four-time MVP is taking nearly 41 percent of his field goal attempts from 3-point range, a career high, compared to 28 percent within 3 feet of the basket, a career low.) Go too far the other way, with heavier minutes for shoot-first defensive liabilities like Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Wayne Ellington, and you risk a steady stream of perimeter blow-bys.
The latter approach might have Vogel Googling migraine remedies on the nights when L.A. struggles to navigate ball screens and keep opponents out of the paint. But given a roster construction that not only has him playing smaller more often, but considering skewing even further that way—he’s said he plans to lean harder on Davis-at-center lineups once Ariza is back, and even has an eye on more minutes with James or Anthony as the nominal 5—it seems like going “damn the torpedoes” might be the Lakers’ best bet.
The model, essentially, would be the post-2020 trade deadline Rockets, whose grand experiment of dispensing with centers cleared the runway for Russ to rampage (he averaged 31.6 points per game on .581 true shooting between the deadline and straining his quad in the bubble). There’s potential with that version of Russ, LeBron in place of James Harden, and the role of micro-ball pseudo-5s Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker instead being played by a 6-foot-10, 253-pound perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It’s a plan that would demand a lot of Davis as both a secondary offensive hub and a defensive mistake-eraser, but “small-ball big who’s actually very big” is a role he might be better suited to play than anybody else in the NBA—and one that, in tandem with more rotational and tactical adjustments to L.A.’s offensive approach, could turn the Lakers into the title contender they believe themselves to be.
Throttling back on the minutes for Bradley, who has by far the worst on-court/off-court splits on the team, in favor of longer looks for Monk, Ellington, or even early-season surprise Austin Reaves could open up even more runways for Westbrook. (Who, by the way, has continued his recent-years trend of thawing out after an awkward assimilation process, averaging 23.5 points on 50.4 percent shooting to go with 8.9 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game over his past eight outings.) More rim pressure by Russ, and more viable catch-and-shoot options making defenders think twice about sinking down to clog up the lane, could create more opportunities for Davis to attack one-on-one from the mid-post. It could give James more chances to get downhill into the lane off a high screen or an off-ball cut.
And when the Lakers’ stars are touching the paint, as they were in the second half against Boston, good things tend to happen:
One good night against an also-scuffling Boston team isn’t the cure for what ails L.A. all by itself. (Let’s be real, though: The fact that the team was the Celtics does help. Just ask James Worthy.) The Lakers still have plenty to figure out, including how to stay afloat in non-LeBron minutes, during which they’re currently being outscored by five points per 100 possessions, how to find the right balance between the uptempo game in which Westbrook thrives and the more measured pace at which LeBron prefers to play, and how to ensure that the decisive, quick-acting AD who torched Boston in the third quarter appears more regularly. But just past the quarter mark of a season in which Vogel has said his goal is “peaking at the right time,” he and his team might now have a sense of what it’ll take to eventually reach that pinnacle.
Asked whether the win over Boston provided a blueprint for these Lakers, Westbrook offered some old-head wisdom: “Listen, the game will always tell you what to do.” It seems to be telling Vogel that his search is over—that he needs to shelve his time-honored preference for twin-towers orthodoxy by going smaller to win bigger. We’ll see whether he listens, and whether L.A.’s able to develop that elusive cohesiveness before his seat starts to get toasty again.