Who Should Join Lakers' Big 3 in Starting 5 and Closing Lineup?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IAugust 9, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James speaks to his teammates on the bench during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers have undergone extreme roster turnover over the past two seasons in the wake of winning a championship in 2020 and a first-round playoff exit in 2021. Heading into 2021-22, only LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker remain from the 2020 title team, though they recently brought back Dwight Howard, who spent last season with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Newcomers Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore will all play key roles for the Lakers. 

Getting more talent is step one. Putting it all together is step two. 

Now, coach Frank Vogel must build lineups that maximize everyone's talents. The first question: Assuming good health for everyone, how should the Lakers start games this season?


Starting Lineup Possibilities: LeBron, AD, Russ, ____ and ____

Three starting spots are spoken for James, Davis, and Westbrook. That's an elite Big 3, but they'll need some three-point shooting help: James is a career 34.5 percent three-point shooter, coming in at 36.5 percent last season on 6.3 attempts, while Davis and Westbrook are simply subpar in that category (Davis 31.2 percent; Westbrook 30.5 percent).

Surrounding that trio with strong perimeter defenders should also be a priority in the starting lineup. Westbrook was a plus defender for the Washington Wizards last season by just 0.5 points in defensive rating when he was on the court. Still, Westbrook is not a good defender. Davis is a rock-solid backline defender and James is better playing free safety versus on-ball defending. 

This leaves the Lakers with a few options for their starting lineup: Ellington, Monk, and Bazemore all could start alongside Westbrook in the backcourt. All three shot above 40 percent from deep last season. 

Ellington is a better career three-point shooter, but he's not a good defender. Last season, the Pistons' defensive rating was four points better when Ellington was off the court. Monk was better for the Hornets, a plus-3.5 defender. Bazemore had the best defensive rating on/off splits at a plus-6.4 for the Warriors.

Bazemore's solid defense with the Warriors last season wasn't anything new, either. He has been a plus-defender in each of the past four seasons, a stretch that includes stops with four different teams.

Kent Bazemore looks like the Lakers' best option at shooting guard in the starting lineup.
Kent Bazemore looks like the Lakers' best option at shooting guard in the starting lineup.Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Considering the above criteria for what the Lakers need most, Bazemore makes the most sense if he can continue to be a deep threat.

The frontcourt is where things get interesting. Last season, the Lakers continued to start a conventional big lineup, with James at small forward and Davis at power forward. 

Assuming they leave Davis at the 4 in starting lineups, that leaves two options for a starting center: Howard and Marc Gasol. Howard is a better rim protector, while Gasol is a better team defender. 

The big difference is on the other end: Gasol can space the floor as a threat to shoot from three (41 percent last season), as long as he's willing. Howard is strictly a paint player and will operate in the dunker spot like he did in his previous stint in L.A. 

If the Lakers stay conventional, their best starting lineup would be Westbrook, Bazemore, James, Davis, and Gasol. 


Or Another Option...

As Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times reported, both James and Davis are willing to play more minutes as the power forward and center to make it work with Westbrook. A smaller lineup with Davis at center has been a rarely used trump card for the Lakers. If they choose to start small, there's an opportunity at small forward. 

The options are Ariza, Anthony, or going even smaller with Ellington or Monk. 

Anthony adds more shooting on the floor, hitting 40.9 percent from three last season. But he would be another negative defender on an already defensively spotty lineup. 

Ariza is not quite on Anthony's level as a shooter, but he is the Lakers' only three-and-D wing. Last season in Miami he shot 35 percent from three and was a plus defender, but played only 30 regular-season games. 

Vogel could start Westbrook, Bazemore, Ariza, James, and Davis. That's a good complement of skill sets. 

Comparing those two lineups, the Lakers' small-ball lineup is better equipped defensively on the perimeter than their big lineup. That should really be their starting lineup, but concerns of wearing Davis out at the 5 are valid, especially considering his lengthy injury history. I'd expect the Lakers to start with a conventional big lineup. 


The Bigger Question: How Should the Lakers Close Games? 

For the past two seasons, Vogel has not had a set crunch-time lineup, often going with in-game trends and hot hands. This year, only one thing is clear: Davis, James, and Westbrook will be on the floor for all close-game minutes.

Unlike the starting lineup, closing lineups will be more situational. Will they need more offensive firepower? Better defensive strength? Equitable balance? Those will all factor in.

Looking at the vacant backcourt position, Ellington, Monk, Bazemore and Nunn are all viable options. Of those four options, Bazemore played the most closing minutes last season with 30 minutes in 16 appearances. Monk played the least: just a total of four minutes over six games.

Does Vogel seek more scoring? Ellington, the best shooter in the group, would be the best option. If it's defense, Bazemore should be the choice. His defensive energy and capable shooting would be helpful.

Expect to see Wayne Ellington in closing lineups if the Lakers need an extra dose of shooting.
Expect to see Wayne Ellington in closing lineups if the Lakers need an extra dose of shooting.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The frontcourt situation is similar. If the Lakers need more scoring to get back into a game, Vogel is likely to pair Anthony with Davis and James. If it's a defensive game, Ariza should get the nod.

There's one wildcard: Horton-Tucker. He's not projected to get starter minutes. Most likely, he will not get many clutch minutes. But that could all change if the 20-year-old's development leaps forward on both ends of the court, especially his shooting.

Expect there to be a lot of lineup-tinkering for at least the first half of the season as Vogel gets a feel for the new guys on the team and how they pair with James and Davis.


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australia men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA.