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NBA Daily: Solidifying The Lakers’ Closing Lineup

Title aspirations for the Los Angeles Lakers hinge on the health of their two big stars, but figuring out the three best players to put alongside them in close games could determine their fate. Chad Smith writes.

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Once the Los Angeles Lakers were able to acquire Anthony Davis, the attention immediately turned towards their roster construction. With LeBron James fully healthy, these two were widely regarded as being the best duo in the entire league. Aside from the two superstars though, there wasn’t much left on the table.

In a way, the story of the 2019-20 Lakers has been their reclamation projects. Players that were thought to be on their last leg or out the door have unexpectedly become valuable pieces to the puzzle.

Dwight Howard already had a rocky tenure with the organization, but was brought in on a non-guaranteed deal. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was re-signed and JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo were brought back on team-friendly deals. Many people had forgotten about Avery Bradley and Jared Dudley, but they too have thrived alongside James and Davis throughout the course of the season.

Aside from James and Davis, the Lakers have just two players that are making more than $4.8 million this season.

Obviously, playing with high-level superstars will enable them to play at a higher level themselves. When the attention is focused elsewhere, guys will have the opportunity to make an impact. That being said, it is still up to them to make the correct reads, know where to be on the floor and to make the right decision — if and when the ball gets to them.

Frank Vogel had some success with the Indiana {acers and eventually took the reins of the Orlando Magic. He has never coached a team like this before. Vogel has had many up-close looks at James throughout his career, as their paths often met in the postseason. Vogel was 0-10 in the playoffs against James’ teams, but now he is on the other side.

While not considered one of the five best coaches in the league, Vogel is tasked with arguably the most difficult job. He has the best weapons to use, in James and Davis, but he also has to know how to use them. With the size that the Lakers possess, they have found a way to exploit their opponent with these Hail Mary passes from one end of the floor to the other. They have feasted on lobs at the rim, whether it be James, Davis, McGee or Howard.

Another thing that Vogel must manage is egos. David Griffin has spoken eloquently on this subject before, having been in Cleveland during the days with LeBron. Phil Jackson had to deal with guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. With the player empowerment of today, managing James might be the toughest of all.

As challenging as all of those things may be, the riddle that the Lakers need to figure out is how they are going to close games. Many people will focus on who is starting and playing which positions, but the real foundation of the team is figuring out the five best players to have on the floor during a tight game. This is something that every team needs to have figured out before the playoffs begin.

One recent example of this was the “death lineup” that the Golden State Warriors have used during their championship runs. They would play a type of small-ball with Draymond Green playing the center position, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at the guard spots and Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala at the forward positions. This unit was virtually unstoppable and thrived on both ends of the floor.

The Lakers don’t have an obvious lineup of five guys that fit in every position. That is actually one of their greatest strengths. Putting James at the point guard spot allows them to go bigger with either McGee or Howard alongside Davis. They could go smaller and shift Davis to the center spot and play three guards with James. This type of versatility and flexibility is a big reason why they have had so much success in the regular season.

As the trade deadline approached, the Lakers were able to identify a few areas of need. They could always use more perimeter shooting, but what they really needed was another playmaker to run the offense when LeBron was resting. Rondo has been a good floor general, but his lack of shot creation and threat as an overall shooter can hurt them.

Alex Caruso may not look the part of your typical NBA player just walking down the street, but he has been instrumental to the Lakers’ winning ways. The former G League guard has shown the ability to read defenses, get to the rim, make the correct pass and also the ability to play off the ball. That has been one of the reasons why he and James have had such great chemistry.

On average, James and Caruso play together for about ten minutes per game. The two have a 23.4 net rating together, which is the highest of any two-player combination in the league this season. Alex is also very adept at taking care of the ball, which James has praised him for.

One thought has been how would the Lakers use their size against smaller teams like Houston and Dallas? Often their size has been a major advantage, but the smaller lineups have given them some trouble so far. That isn’t to say that it will not work in the postseason, but it cannot be viewed as an automatic solution when they face those teams.

Depending on the opponent, the Lakers could throw out a multitude of finishing lineups. Should they choose to be reactionary and try to match up with their opponent, there could be a lineup with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope in order to mitigate a strong backcourt. They have also been giving more minutes to Kyle Kuzma and even newly-signed Markieff Morris to gauge their fit.

Should they face a team like Milwaukee, Boston or Philadelphia in The Finals, the focus may be on the frontcourt instead. Trying to defend bigger guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid is definitely a challenge. All three of those teams have a combination of size and strength, with players like Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, etc. These are lineups where the Lakers could realistically have just one guard on the floor.

The toughest test the Lakers might face in the postseason is the team they share the city with. The LA Clippers haven’t quite lived up to expectations so far this season, but if this group is able to flip the switch after 82 games, things could get very interesting in May.

Much like their older brothers, the Clippers have the ability to alter their lineup at the drop of a hat. Defense is the main focus in the playoffs, and this team is oozing with piranhas at every position. They can also go big or small, depending on what Doc Rivers is feeling. That being said, they may not have enough big men to combat all of the Lakers’ centers.

The Lakers have a firm grasp on the top seed in the Western Conference and rank inside the top five in both offense and defense. Their abundant role players have all bought in and are rolling on all cylinders at the moment. Giving 12 players substantial minutes will not continue as the regular season comes to a close. How Vogel opts to attack the closing minutes will be key to them raising their 17th championship banner.

Potential health issues aside, figuring out their five closers will be the biggest problem the Lakers face. It is a problem that 29 other organizations would love to have.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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