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NBA Preseason Giving Lakers Clues on How to Build New Starting Lineup

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 7, 2021

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 06: Malik Monk #11 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against Cameron Johnson #23 of the Phoenix Suns during the first half of the NBA preseason game at Footprint Center on October 06, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Just over four months after the Phoenix Suns eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, they dominated L.A. in the preseason, 117-105.

In a game that wasn't as close as the final score suggests, Chris Paul picked apart the Lakers defense for 11 assists in just 22 minutes. Seven Suns scored in double-figures. And Los Angeles appeared overmatched by the second quarter.

The result probably should've been expected. Neither LeBron James nor Russell Westbrook suited up, and Anthony Davis called it a night shortly after halftime. But some of the team's role players could've made more of their mini-tryouts for the starting lineup.

When the five-team trade that sent Westbrook to L.A. was complete, the team's first three starters couldn't have been much more obvious. But the other two spots were as far the other way on the certainty spectrum.

Would LeBron and AD start at the 4 and 5? Would the lineup be rounded out with youth or experience?

Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Talen Horton-Tucker, DeAndre Jordan, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington and Carmelo Anthony (*exhales) offer all kinds of options, especially with the positional versatility of the big three. And though we're only two games into the preseason, we may already have some clues as to where coach Frank Vogel is (or should be) leaning.

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The easiest to spot is the starting lineups deployed so far. They've looked a bit different in each game. For example, AD started at the 4 against Brooklyn and was the 5 against Phoenix. He's been a constant, though. And again, that's no surprise.

The other two players who've been on the floor for tipoff in both games are Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, who also happen to be the fourth- and fifth-highest paid players on the roster.

There are good arguments for either or both to hang onto those spots heading into the regular season.

THT is just 6-of-18 in the preseason (including 3-of-7 against the Suns), but his versatility, particularly on the defensive end, makes him a good fit.

With a 7'1" wingspan and good lateral mobility, Horton-Tucker could either spare Westbrook the trouble of defending high-end 1s or switch around the perimeter against wings. He's also proven himself a capable driver and playmaker on offense. If he can just scrape out a league-average three-point percentage, he seems like a relatively easy choice for starter No. 4.

That leaves the fifth guy, and the answer there could change from game to game.

"Right now, nothing is set in stone but we want to see what that looks like, and I'm comfortable with that," Davis said of playing more 5 on media day. "Obviously, there's times where Dwight [Howard] or [DeAndre Jordan] might get the start at center depending on games, but for the most part, I think the plan is to go with me playing center."

If we can assume that the big lineups with Howard or Jordan will be reserved for matchups against bruisers like Nikola Jokic, the player who'll get most of the remaining starts figures to be a wing.

Bazemore got his shot against Brooklyn, but he had just five points on 2-of-6 shooting. On Wednesday, it was Ellington's turn, but he managed only five points on 2-of-5 shooting. As for Nunn, he has 20 points on 22 shots in the two games.

There isn't enough time or possessions in these preseason games for sweeping takeaways about any of those three, but one thing that's clear is that the younger option is making the most of his opportunities.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

After scoring 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting (including 3-of-6 from three) against the Nets, the 23-year-old Monk added another 18 on 7-of-11 shooting versus the Suns. He also dished out three assists on Wednesday.

Of course, this call isn't going to be made on basic box score scans, though.

Beyond the fact that Monk is putting up better numbers, it's clear he's more explosive than Ellington or Bazemore. He has a quick, compact release on his three-point shot, important attributes for floor spacers catching LeBron's kickouts. He's also quicker to the paint when attacking closeouts and can even finish above the rim.

A little more size would be nice on defense, but Bazemore, Ellington and Nunn aren't really offering that either.

If Monk is around (or better than) the player he was with the Charlotte Hornets last season, when he averaged 11.7 points and shot 40.1 percent from three, he'll be a part of L.A.'s highest-ceiling lineup, along with Westbrook, THT, LeBron and AD.

Of course, there's an argument for the bruising frontcourts that helped the Lakers win a title in 2020. The experience of Ellington, Ariza or Anthony could come in handy. Nunn is a solid shooter (36.4 percent from three for his career) who can handle the ball a bit too.

But if Vogel doesn't want to reserve Monk's heat-check potential for opposing second units, the idea of starting him has to be entering his mind.

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