Darvin Ham, the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, considered Wednesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns as a chance to experiment with a smaller starting lineup and rotation.
Ham claims that the pregame strategy was to play LeBron James, Austin Reaves, Patrick Beverley, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook. But with less than 20 minutes left before tipoff, Davis’ absence was announced by the team due to back pain that had been bothering him all preseason. The Lakers claimed the move was preventative and that Davis’ overall objective is to play in all 82 games this regular season, or as many as is practicable.
Darvin Ham said:
“We just wanted to get ahead of it. This thing is going to be a marathon and we need him to be available and healthy. And so, we’re not going to try to play hero and force him to be a hero to be out here for Game 2 of the preseason when we need him. Once we start October 18, everything is geared towards us being able to set a tone from that first game throughout the entire 82-game season.”
Ham’s strategy remained unchanged by Davis’ absence. Starting in Davis’ stead, with James, Reaves, Beverley, and Westbrook on each side of him, the Lakers’ 105-75 preseason opener loss to the Sacramento Kings featured Wenyen Gabriel, possibly the most impressive role player.
When two-way play is considered, one could argue that those are the Lakers’ four greatest perimeter options, and their connection was evident. Devin Booker was being pursued by Beverley. Chris Paul was subjected to pressure from Reaves, sometimes even from the entire court. James was active, making quick rotations, blocking shots, and starting his jump shoot. Westbrook drove to the rim while leading the transition attack.
James didn’t participate in the second half, but it’s important to note that the Lakers led the Suns after each of the first three quarters despite losing to them, 119-115. In the six minutes, the starting lineup was on the court, Los Angeles was plus-3, repeating the pattern from the previous season in which Westbrook units are most successful with just one big man on the floor.
The Lakers were outscored by 3.0 points per 100 possessions when Davis, James, and Westbrook were all on the court together last year. However, Davis as center significantly improved the Lakers’ performance against a traditional center. A paint-bound large generally obstructs James and Westbrook’s shooting lanes, keeps another defender close by if Davis is posting up or rolling, and makes the Lakers’ lack of impact from their role players worse.
By bringing in Thomas Bryant and keeping Gabriel, two big men who range from slightly below-average to above-average 3-point shooters, the Lakers somewhat fixed that problem. In the preseason, even Damian Jones has been practicing his shot. Their big guys are more agile and athletic as a group than the Jordan/Howard from the previous season, which adds to the spacing factor. However, Jones and Bryant have not been very impressive thus far, which would tilt an already unbalanced team more toward its backcourt.