NBA
September 11, 2020
BY Isaiah Freedman

What's the Los Angeles Lakers’ Best Lineup?

There's no question that the Los Angeles Lakers are an elite basketball team. They were a force to be reckoned with all season thanks to their stingy defense (3rd best defensive rating in the league) and respectable offense (11th in points per possession), and now they are a top-five offense AND defense in the playoffs. But that doesn’t render them bulletproof, because they do have one scary weakness: a glaring lack of reliable playmakers to surround superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis

A frequently asked question this season has been, “Who is the Lakers’ third-best player?” And the answer, so far, is nobody, but that's OK!

Sure, some nights Kyle Kuzma scores from all over the floor, or Alex Caruso makes some incredible hustle plays or one of Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets hot from beyond the arc. But in reality, no one has really stood out for a prolonged period of time.

The truth is, not every team needs an obvious third star, but if they don’t have that Dennis Rodman or Manu Ginobili-type player — spoiler alert: most do not – then they need to have quality players whose games complement the Lakers' dynamic duo

When constructing the most effective Lakers lineups, there is going to be a common thread, which is that Anthony Davis — yes, the nearly seven-feet-tall freak of nature with the 7-foot-6 wingspan — will need to play the center position more. And to Davis’ credit, he is willing to do so, according to Yahoo Sports. 

There are two clear advantages to playing Davis at center. One is that it removes a space clogger (either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard) that will allow the Lakers to spread the floor more, which means the defense has to cover more ground. The second advantage is that James and Davis have more room to work with, either in the pick-and-roll or on the block when they post up. It also gives their defense more flexibility by removing a big man who is susceptible to getting burned by a speedy guard or wing off switches.

With McGee and Howard out of the picture, which crunch-time five is Lakers' most effective lineup? Let's break them down. 

Lineup 1: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

This lineup barely played together all season, but there is massive potential for this group. For starters, Playoff Rondo is back, and better than ever, which is a humongous addition to this Lakers squad. In Game 3 against the Rockets, Rondo logged 30 minutes and poured in 21 points and nine assists on 8-11 shooting. Rondo was a +35 plus/minus in Games 3 and 4 and has served as the extra creator they desperately need aside from LeBron. 

If Rondo keeps playing like Playoff Rondo, he raises the ceiling of this already great Lakers squad.

Surrounding Rondo, Bron and AD are Kuzma and KCP, who are serviceable 3-point shooters that defenses must respect. Kuzma is one of the few Lakers players who can create his own shot, and having players who can simply get buckets down the stretch are invaluable to a Lakers team that needs everything to go right to win the title. KCP is a classic 3-and-D role player who has been valuable all season and would get to focus on defense while being the fifth option on offense.

Imagine LeBron and Davis setting a double screen for Rondo, with Kuzma and KCP spacing the floor. That’s got to make coach Frank Vogel’s mouth water.

Lineup 2: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris

James and Davis will always be on the floor, and Kuzma’s value increases at the end of games as buckets are harder to come by. 

Inserting Caruso for Rondo, and Morris for KCP makes the Lakers more explosive and stingier on defense, but it hurts them in the playmaking department.

Having Caruso out there is always going to bring a high-level of intensity and stingy defense. The Bald Mamba's shotmaking ability needs work, though, as he's hit just 26% from beyond the arc in the playoffs. However, Caruso's activity makes up for his inconsistent scoring as he's constantly cutting and attacking to keep the machine moving.

Morris represents even more rim protection, and he’s knocked down 38% of his shots from deep this season. With no Rondo, there is definitely more pressure for LeBron to facilitate, but when has he not been up to the challenge?

Lineup 3: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green

This is one of the Lakers' simplest lineups, but it’s very effective. Los Angeles has their facilitator in LeBron, rim-runner in Davis, tertiary scorer and spot-up shooter in Kuzma, and two 3-and-D guys in KCP and Green. That allows the defense to be versatile enough to switch on most possessions.

On the other end, removing Caruso for Green places even more of a playmaking burden on James, which calls into question whether this lineup will actually end games. Vogel might be forced to play one of Rondo or Caruso to spruce up the playmaking.

Green has been in a prolonged shooting slump and his defense has slipped, but two-time champions who have been in high-pressure situations do not grow on trees. 

In a limited sample size this season, this lineup torched opponents by 23 points per 100 possessions. Vogel would be wise to give this lineup a lot of run throughout the game.

Verdict

While all three lineups have their advantages and disadvantages, the Lakers' best lineup is none other than Lineup 1, especially if Rondo plays like the third-best player on the team. When he’s at his best, Rondo is exactly what the Lakers need. His entry passes into the post are among the best on the team, he’s not afraid to guard the James Hardens of the world and he won’t shy away from the big shots. Add Kuzma and KCP, and you have potentially the best Lakers lineup.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration