Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has some critical decisions to make around his starting lineup.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis unquestionably have first-unit spots locked up. Danny Green, a low-usage three-and-D wing who fits perfectly alongside those two, should likewise be guaranteed to start.
That leaves the point guard and center spots up for grabs, but Vogel has been sending mixed messages about the former in particular.
On Thursday, Vogel told reporters that he planned on separating James and Rajon Rondo so they could each have time running the team.
“It’s going to be important that we stagger Rajon and LeBron,” he said. “And let each of them have their turn running the show, being the primary ball-handler out there. And obviously, they’re going to play a ton together as well. But staggering those guys is on my mind as well.”
One day later, he backtracked on that to some extent.
“I do like the lineup of [Rondo] and AD playing together because, obviously, they played together in the past in New Orleans and had a lot of success there, so I do like that combination,” Vogel told reporters. “But honestly, I like him out there with LeBron every bit as much, so it’s not a situation where I’m only going to try and pair him with Anthony’s minutes. I like those two guys together, but again: I think Rajon’s going to have an exceptional year shooting the basketball this year and he allows LeBron to exercise his versatility of playing off the ball, so I like him with both of those guys.”
Vogel raises a fair point about the chemistry Rondo and Davis developed together in New Orleans, but then again, those Pelicans teams didn’t have LeBron. And if last season is any indication, the James-Rondo pairing isn’t as fruitful as Vogel seems to hope.
In the 602 minutes James and Rondo shared the floor last year, opponents outscored the Lakers by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. That was the seventh-worst mark of any Lakers duo, and it was the worst involving James by a significant margin. James’ next-worst pairing was with Brandon Ingram, and the Lakers outscored opponents by 0.5 points per 100 possessions in their 911 minutes together.
While Rondo has shot at least 35 percent from three-point range in three out of the past four seasons, he’s done so on relatively low volume (2.4 attempts per game). And as ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted, that adequate efficiency doesn’t counter the side effects that come with playing Rondo alongside James.
“Their best lineups probably don’t feature Rondo,” he wrote. “I don’t really care that he drained at least 35 percent from deep in three of the past four seasons. That is a blah mark considering how open he is, and he’ll never take and make enough to outweigh the damage he inflicts on spacing.”
While James and Rondo will inevitably play some minutes together, Vogel should attempt to avoid too much overlap. Rather than starting Rondo alongside James and Davis, the Lakers should bring him off the bench to run their second unit.
As Lowe noted, Rondo is L.A.’s “only perimeter player aside from LeBron who can, like, dribble multiple times in succession.” By staggering Rondo and James and bringing the former off the bench, Vogel could ensure that the Lakers reserves can run some semblance of a half-court offense without turning the ball over on every possession.
To maximize Rondo’s impact as the second-unit ball-handler, the Lakers should also bring Dwight Howard off the bench.
Although Howard has yet again pledged he’s a changed man—for what feels like the fifth (fifteenth?) straight season, mind you—the Lakers can’t ignore his recent history. He quickly wore out his welcome in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, while the Memphis Grizzlies waived him this summer before he ever suited up.
“For years, Howard, 33, has sold an almost annual idea of a personal renaissance and epiphany, only to infuriate coaches and teammates with behavior that moved from selfish on the court to childish and disruptive off it,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote upon Howard’s arrival in L.A.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year remains a nightly double-double threat, but that hasn’t translated into winning basketball in recent seasons.
Since the Lakers want to limit Davis’ minutes at center during the regular season to reduce the wear and tear on his body, they’re inevitably going to play either Howard or JaVale McGee next to him in their frontcourt. While Howard may have the name-brand recognition, McGee would be the better fit in the starting lineup.
The Lakers offense is going to run through James and Davis, as well it should. The Lakers should start three-and-D wings and guards alongside them, such as Green, Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and a low-usage center who won’t clamor for post touches. Heck, even Kyle Kuzma makes so much more sense at the four with Davis at the five for as long as the latter can put up with it.
Two years ago, Howard had this to say about his time in Atlanta.
“It stung me how I started the season, getting a lot of shot attempts, getting the ball—and by the end of the season, in the fourth, I was sitting on the bench,” he told Wojnarowski. “It pissed me off. I knew that I had more to give the game, give myself and the team.”
Perhaps the past two years have (actually) humbled Howard to the extent that he realizes he’s now a rich man’s DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers won’t want him doing anything on offense other than setting hard screens, running pick-and-rolls, grabbing offensive rebounds and throwing down dunks, especially if he’s playing next to James and Davis.
Bringing Howard off the bench could be a happy medium.
He and Rondo could establish pick-and-roll chemistry as shooters such as KCP, Quinn Cook and Jared Dudley flank them. Howard still won’t get double-digit shot attempts most nights, but he can serve as an offensive difference-maker on the second unit.
Coming off the bench full time would be an undeniable adjustment for him, as he has started in all but one of his 1,044 regular-season appearances. Such a demotion might not sit well with the eight-time All-Star.
Then again, this could be the Lakers’ way of testing Howard’s resolve early in the season. If he’s willing to put his ego aside and sacrifice a starting spot, perhaps his second tenure in L.A. will go more swimmingly than the first (or just about everything else that’s come since it). Besides, he’ll have to adjust to a bench role in the playoffs either way, as Davis figures to spend more time at the 5 come mid-April.
Unlike last season, the Lakers have the requisite pieces to cobble together a dominant nine- or 10-man rotation. It’s on Vogel to realize that Rondo and Howard are best-suited for bench roles at this point in their respective careers, especially given the dynamic with James and Davis in the starting lineup.