Examining LA Lakers' Ideal Starting Lineup by the Numbers
In case you haven't noticed, there's something wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers.
With less than 25 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers sit under .500 and are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff bubble looking in; their postseason hopes are dwindling.
Sadly, the Lakers aren't exactly doing themselves any favors at the moment; they're not doing what is necessary to stop the bleeding completely.
They've turned things around since airing out their collective grievances in Memphis, at times even resembling a franchise no longer in flux. But as Los Angeles prepares to enter the last quarter of the NBA's regular season, "at times" isn't good enough.
If the Lakers are to prove that past numbers do, in fact, lie, they must embrace the strength in the current ones, beginning with the starting lineup.
Like plenty of other teams, Los Angeles isn't employing the "ideal" starting lineup, and it has nothing to do with Pau Gasol's injury.
Presently, the Mike D'Antoni-guided Lakers are using a starting lineup that consists of Kobe Bryant, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. At the moment, said five-man unit is Los Angeles' most heavily used batch of players by more than 60 minutes.
Because it's working, right?
While that's the general idea, it's not a virtue this faction is currently exemplifying.
The Lakers are 10-8 when starting these five, but not because they're starting these five. And even if that were the case, the goal isn't to play at a rate of just two games over .500.
Delve deeper than the record and you'll come to find that this unit is actually being outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions.
I know that may not seem like much, but consider this: The Lakers are the only sub .500 team to have actually outscored their opponents this season.
Then consider this: In the last 10 games, D'Antoni has expanded his rotation beyond eight players four times, and just two of those were in victories.
That the Lakers rely heavily upon their starting five. D'Antoni prefers to run a compressed rotation, much like most teams do in the playoffs.
Knowing this, Los Angeles needs to ensure the most productive starting five is being utilized. They're the quintuplet who will see the most time together on the floor; they're the five who will be worked to the bone should the Lakers make the playoffs.
Clinching a postseason berth doesn't seem likely, or even possible, if the lineup that is most vital to the team's survival is being outperformed.
Aside from simply being outscored by their opponents, the latest five-man congregation is allowing 1.07 points per possession. Just to put that in perspective, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Sacramento Kings—who rank dead last in defensive efficiency—are allowing 0.93 points per possession as a team.
Assuming you're a fan of sheer logic, common sense would dictate that changes must be considered.
As is the case with any and all alterations, though, there are a set of non-negotiable parameters that need to be followed when re-structuring Los Angeles' starting lineup.
Certain players simply can't be benched. Nash didn't spurn the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors, or even the Phoenix Suns, to play second-fiddle to Steve Blake or Chris Duhon. Relegating Howard to the bench would be a great way to ensure he books a one-way ticket out of Los Angeles this summer. And Kobe would sooner go an entire game without attempting a shot before he came off the pine.
No matter what the numbers say, those three have to start. Case closed.
One other aspect of any proposed shakeup must also acknowledge that limited sample sizes are about as useful as Howard behind the three-point line, in that they aren't.
That the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 51.5 points per 100 possessions when playing Kobe, Duhon, Gasol, Jordan Hill and Metta means absolutely nothing. Partly because Hill is done for the season, but mostly because this convocation has seen just over 26 minutes of simultaneous floor time.
Such drastic changes just wouldn't be allowed. Surprisingly, though, the change doesn't need to be drastic. The Lakers almost have it right, they're just not there yet.
Benching Clark in favor of Antawn Jamison gets them there, though.
Before I'm forced to look over my shoulder next time I'm haunting the streets of California, understand this isn't a reflection of Clark's performance. He's averaging a near double-double per 36 minutes (12.5 points and 9.6 rebounds) and should remain an integral part of what Los Angeles is attempting to accomplish.
Just not as a starter.
Benching Clark and then starting Bryant, Howard, Jamison, Nash and World Peace gives the Lakers as close to perfect a lineup as they can possibly have.
Of the 20 most used five-man units, this one ranks seventh in time spent together on the floor. It's also one of just eight lineups that have played more than 50 minutes together this season.
Not only is this outfit posting the highest point differential of those eight lineups we just mentioned, it's tallied the fifth-highest point differential overall. Considering "overall" includes cliques that have spent as little 22 minutes together, this clan's distinction is beyond impressive.
As for this point differential I alluded to, it stands at 20.7 points per 100 possessions, nearly a 22-point swing in the Lakers' favor compared to the current starting lineup.
In the interest of full disclosure, this five-man battery is still relinquishing 1.07 points per possession, but it's also scoring 1.28. In my never-ending quest to put this in perspective, the Miami Heat's offense ranks first with 1.01 points scored per possession. This one has that beat.
You may be wondering what type of impact this would have on the rest of the rotation, about how it affects the second-unit. Is moving Clark to the bench really what's best for the backups as well?
Quite simply, yes. And I'm not just saying that because Los Angeles' bench (per hoopstats.com) ranks 26th in points scored per game with 27 and realistically can't get much worse.
Going on the assumption (a valid one, mind you) that D'Antoni expands his rotation to include nine players once Gasol returns, Los Angeles' bench would consist of Clark, Pau, Meeks and Blake.
Of the top 10 players Clark has been paired with (two-man combinations), only three have outscored the opposition. Care to venture a guess as to who those three are?
Meeks, Gasol and Blake, in that order. Worrying about how Clark would fare alongside the second-unit personnel is then futile.
Broken record style, such a demotion of sorts is not an indictment on Clark's performance, but rather one on the entire team's.
Los Angeles can't use a starting lineup that essentially puts the team in a hole; the Lakers can't rely on sets of players that don't yield results.
Should the Lakers move Antawn Jamison to the starting lineup?
Not if they want to kill the current narrative that's been plaguing them for the entire season.
Not if they wish to turn their season around and climb above .500.
And most certainly not if they plan on actualizing Kobe's promise and, against all odds, make the playoffs.
To do that, the Lakers must embrace the vicissitude that comes with fielding Bryant, Howard, Jamison Nash and World Peace.
They're the ones who can push the needle above .500. They're the ones who can statistically back up Kobe's pledge.
They're the starting five that can help turn a seemingly whimsical playoff berth into an attainable reality.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.
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