The Los Angeles Lakers won their sixth game of the season Wednesday night, walloping the Boston Celtics with a 112-point uppercut. It was Los Angeles’ third win since head coach Byron Scott decided to alter his starting lineup by replacing D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle with Lou Williams and Larry Nance Jr.
Russell and Randle both shined off the bench in their first trips to Boston, combining for 31 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and only three turnovers. At times, both youngsters carried the Lakers, particularly a struggling Kobe Bryant, who finished with 15 points on 18 field-goal attempts.
When Scott demoted Randle and Russell, back on Dec. 7, it was viewed as a temporary experiment. Change was necessary, as Los Angeles’ starting unit of Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Bryant, Randle and Roy Hibbert was easily the least effective five-man unit in basketball, getting blasted with a net rating of -13.9 in 261 depressing minutes, per NBA.com.
The move has been a relative success, in that Los Angeles is slowly starting to isolate less and pass more. But it hasn’t resulted in wins, and it isn’t the most ideal way to develop the organization’s most important player: Russell.
Immediately after the Lakers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas Day, Scott was asked about the rotational imbalance that continues to fuel his team’s inconsistent play.
“One of the main reasons I made the change with the starting lineup was the starting lineup wasn’t getting off to a good start, and the bench was playing pretty well,” Scott said. “Now the starting lineup has recently been getting off to a good start and the bench hasn’t been playing well. Well, this is game 10, and, like I said, I’d give it about five, 10 games…but I’m really kind of inclined to let this play out until the end of the year. We have three more games this month.”
The new group with Nance Jr. and Williams alongside Bryant, Hibbert and Clarkson has played 164 minutes since Dec. 7. In that time they’ve been outscored by 17.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Los Angeles’ second-most used five-man unit in that time is particularly interesting, with Russell in for Clarkson.
Granted it’s only a 47-minute sample size (and did not appear against the Celtics), but that lineup is playing its opposition to a draw, outscoring them by 0.1 points per 100 possessions, with a blistering offense that’s more efficient than the Golden State Warriors.
Through it all, Scott has persistently harped on his rookie point guard’s mistakes, highlighting them as the most significant reason he’s stayed on the bench. But given that Los Angeles is 6-27, and 3-7 in its last 10 games, it only makes sense to reinsert Russell into the starting lineup.
The team's winning percentage is higher since the change, but its offensive and defensive rankings both dropped a spot, to 29th and 30th in the league, respectively. Wins and losses aren't everything for the Lakers right now, and placing Russell in a situation where he can maximize playing time against elite point guards on a nightly basis will crystalize the developmental process.
He'll take lumps, sure. But Russell needs to learn from mistakes on both ends of the floor. He sat for a few weeks and his shooting splits actually decreased. There's no long-term benefit in having him struggle in lesser minutes, in a role he isn't destined to fill.
Who would Russell replace? The most obvious answer is Williams, who’s more than comfortable coming off the bench. But those two have developed quite a bit of chemistry together; Williams draws more defensive attention than any player on the team except Bryant, and it opens things up for everybody else.
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Instead, the more intriguing play here is to experiment with their most successful offensive unit and bench Clarkson, who’s shooting 13.6 percent from behind the three-point line since returning from an ankle injury Dec. 15. Clarkson erupted for a team-high 24 points against the Celtics and has yet to come off the bench this year.
But he’s struggled quite a bit over the past few weeks, and he might be more comfortable commanding the Lakers’ second unit, running free alongside a younger, faster supporting cast—players who better complement his skill set, like Nick Young and Brandon Bass.
Unlike Russell, Clarkson's NBA future isn't driven by lofty expectations. He's a second-round pick who's perhaps destined to be an offensive spark off the bench. Defenses don't respect his outside shot, but he's quick, athletic and a creative finisher.
It may be that his long-term fit with the Lakers is as a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. If so, why not gauge how he does now, and use this lost season to examine his comfort level in a different scenario? He isn't the point guard of the future, and he's too small to defend most starting shooting guards.
(The Lakers are 2.9 points per 100 possessions more efficient when Clarkson is on the court without Bryant than when both players share the floor, with a net rating that’s 7.4 points higher, per NBA.com.)
As for Randle, the Lakers’ second-year forward has struggled in the starting lineup and off the bench, but it’s not a bad idea to let him continue to develop against inferior bigs. His confidence is rising, as indicated by his steadily increasing output from behind the three-point line (he’s 5-of-15 in his career, with all of his makes coming since he's come off the bench).
Whether it’s intelligent or not, the Lakers still want to win now, and the desire to balance player development with on-court success means Nance Jr. should absolutely stay on as the starting power forward. He’s a better shooter and defender, and knows how to impact games when the ball isn’t in his hands.
After a recent blowout loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott was pleased with what he’d seen from his new starting unit.
“The combination with the first unit is pretty good,” he said. “They do work well together. Larry and Lou seem to have a nice little click. Larry and Kobe have a nice little click…so we’re just trying to find more, instead of just one or two guys, we’re trying to find four or five guys that work real well together. That’s the key.”
In a distant universe, the Lakers could also test out a rotation that lets Bryant come off the bench, but that isn’t practical when you throw in annoying factors like “context” and “reality.”
It may in all likelihood be that zero combinations over the long-term will produce positive results. But Scott needs to keep searching. This team has talented players, and Russell is without a doubt one of them.
It’s time he returns to the starting lineup, which is exactly where the Lakers hope he stays for the next 15 years.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.