gThe Lakers are winners as the NBA passes the quarter-mark of the season, nabbing 11 of their last 14 games. L.A.’s questionable roster composition had many speculate it’d be a fringe playoff team, but at 15-9, the Lakers look better than units expected to be shoo-ins.
Part of the Lakers’ success is solely on LeBron James’ shoulders, as he’s having yet another MVP-caliber season, but more is on the team’s ability to find the right players to surround him with this early into the year. As we know from his days in Cleveland and Miami, James thrives next to shooters, and in some cases, a big man who rebounds but doesn’t need the ball on offense. These are the James Jones’s and Tristan Thompson’s of the world.
The lineup that closed out the Lakers’ 121-113 win over the Spurs on Wednesday night looked just like this, overcoming an eight-point deficit and never looking back. The mix: James, Tyson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and either Josh Hart, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. (Lance Stephenson also finished the game, but please exclude him from this narrative.)
That’s the unit that’s going to bring L.A. from a good team with LeBron carrying it to a great team with LeBron carrying it. No co-star necessary.
(Feel free to include Brandon Ingram in this mix, but he left the game on Wednesday night early to an ankle injury.)
What makes that group work?
The mix of 30-something board-crashers and 20-something shooters is the perfect blend teams have tried surrounding James with since he launched into supernova best-player-ever mode. James is a pass-first legend until he needs not to be, and the attention he draws inside as he dribbles through the paint almost always leaves someone open. At one point in his career it was Kyle Korver, another Ray Allen and Mike Miller, even further back it was Daniel Gibson, and now that role is in the hands of Kuzma, Ball, Hart and Caldwell-Pope.
Chandler, a November signing after he was bought out by the Suns, is helping James preserve his energy down low, too. He’s boxing out the opposing team’s biggest guy, grabbing effort rebounds and blocking shots in the interior without ever caring if he scores. It’s the perfect flurry of role talent, and a lackluster San Antonio team was hopeless against it.
How well is it working?
Among Lakers five-man lineups that’ve spent 10 minutes on the floor or longer together, three of the top six involve the aforementioned James, Chandler and kids. Granted these numbers are small in sample size because the season is young and Chandler is a newer acquisition, but the stats are promising.
The top lineups*:
- Chandler, James, Ingram, Kuzma and Hart outscored opponents by 56.2 points per 100 possessions in 12 minutes
- Chandler, James, Ball, Kuzma and Hart outscored opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions in 15 minutes
- Chandler, James, Caldwell-Pope, Ball and Kuzma outscored opponents by 20.7 points per 100 possessions in 13 minutes
*(This information doesn’t yet include Wednesday night’s game yet)
Kuzma appears to be James’ favorite target, as they link for 2.2 assists per game, including nearly one three-point make. Everyone’s finding their purpose.
Even when Rajon Rondo comes back healthy and Stephenson goes off on random nights, or JaVale McGee is really feeling himself, Luke Walton should stick with lineups that feature LeBron, Chandler and a mix of three-point shooting and good-defense-playing 20-somethings. That variety is surprisingly working so soon into the season, and the hope is it gets even better from here.
Sometimes it looks like LeBron is doing everything by himself, especially on 42-point nights. But that isn’t the case.
The predicted stumble through the gates came and went very quickly in L.A., where LeBron, without a true co-star, is making brilliant use of who surrounds him.
Will it be enough to make a run against the Warriors? Probably not. But nobody was feeling this good two months good.