Then came the brouhaha last weekend in the team’s home opener against the Houston Rockets, which resulted in the suspensions of starters Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo and left the Lakers exposed to what figured to be further delays in the team-building process.
But over the three games both Ingram and Rondo were sidelined, the Lakers (2-3) looked like a different team. They took the San Antonio Spurs to overtime Monday at Staples Center — a game that both teams alternated giving away, before the Spurs eventually won. Then they blew out the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, and made a late comeback to hand the Denver Nuggets their first loss the following night.
The Lakers did so in large part because of the contributions of Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, the players who replaced Rondo and Ingram in the Lakers’ starting lineup during the suspensions. It stayed that way Saturday in San Antonio even as Rondo returned from his suspension, though it remains to be seen what will happen when Ingram returns on Monday in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves. But the Lakers should consider keeping the same group together moving forward.
For all of the fanfare surrounding the Lakers entering this season, their best lineup may be three players — Ball, Kuzma and Josh Hart — who were rookies last season, along with vagabond center JaVale McGee and, of course, James.
The flaws within this Laker team are well-chronicled. McGee is the only legitimate NBA big man on the roster, which has led to Johnathan Williams, a rookie combo forward from Gonzaga on a two-way contract, turning into the team’s second-best big. There isn’t much of a defensive presence outside of Hart. There are only a couple of credible threats from behind the three-point arc.
Hart has outplayed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope since the start of training camp, and his place in the starting five seems secure. And, since the suspensions, adding Ball and Kuzma to the starting lineup has begun to erase some of the Lakers’ issues.
Walton deflected when asked after Thursday’s game if Ball would remain the starter upon Rondo’s return, saying he would need to look at the tape and speak to his coaching staff first. But there is ample evidence that Ball should stick in the starting lineup — both for his present-day value and for his potential, as opposed to the veteran Rondo, who is operating on a one-year deal.
Over the three games Rondo was suspended, here’s Ball’s stat line: 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game, all while shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Ball’s decision to start pressing Jamal Murray full court Thursday against the Nuggets, which led to a steal and an easy layup, was credited by Coach Luke Walton as the catalyst of the Lakers’ second-half turnaround.
“He’s had some of the quickest hands that this league has,” James said. “A lot of people always try to discredit what he does offensively, but they never give him enough credit for what he does defensively.”
For all of the focus on his father, and for all of the complaints about the ugliness of his shooting form, Ball is an upgrade over Rondo in both of the Lakers' weakest areas — defense and shooting. His combination of physical and cerebral gifts made him the No. 2 overall pick last season and allowed him to contribute as a rookie — despite his rough shooting numbers.
“[Ball is] a big-time game-changer for us when he’s playing aggressive,” Walton said.
The Kuzma-Ingram debate is far more complicated. Talk to anyone around the Lakers, and they will tell you their hopes for becoming a force in the West sooner rather than later center on Ingram, and if he can reach his ceiling. But how high is that ceiling?
Ingram is long, lean and lanky, but still has flaws in his game early in his third season. He came into the season hoping to make significant strides as a three-point shooter, but made just one of his first 12 shot from beyond the arc this season (which, okay, includes five preseason games). He was benched in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ season-opening loss in Portland, then was ejected in the fourth quarter of the Houston game.
Kuzma, meanwhile, has averaged 25 points in the three games since Ingram was suspended. He and Ball have given the Lakers deep threats.
But Kuzma also brings an offensive dynamism overall that Ingram simply hasn’t shown. Kuzma is never going to be the best passer — but if you’re playing next to James and Ball, you don’t have to be. Instead, he needs to catch passes from those two and make plays once he does. Both as a rookie and this year, Kuzma has shown every willingness to do just that.
The Lakers, however, simply have too much invested in Ingram to put him in a reserve role after six games. He has been anointed as the future second star next to James, at least until a second one comes in free agency next summer assuming the Lakers can convince someone to do so. And given how much Rondo has been touted as a leader, he could always reclaim his starting spot from Ball down the road.
But the way the Lakers played without both of them should give Walton pause, as well as a willingness to reconsider.
The Lakers were bound to improve by the end of the season. They could expedite that process by starting their best lineup. The suspensions of Rondo and Ingram may have accidentally allowed the Lakers to discover what that lineup is.
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