The sky isn’t exactly falling for the Los Angeles Lakers. A 1-2 start against three of last season’s top four seeds in the Western Conference, in itself, isn’t cause for alarm. But their overall performance within that stretch leaves something to be desired. After playing LeBron James only 29 minutes in the opener, the Lakers have already relented and given him 74 combined minutes in their following two games. They’ve had to do so because the team has been outscored by 36 points in the few minutes that James actually has spent on the bench. Even when he’s been out there, supporting players around him have disappointed.
The starting backcourt of D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves, which the team hoped could lead the offense as it lightened James’ workload, is shooting just 24-of-71 through three games. The absence of Jarred Vanderbilt has created a gaping hole when it comes to point-of-attack defense. Rui Hachimura, one of the most important pieces of their playoff run a season ago, hasn’t played more than 17 minutes all season.
And head coach Darvin Ham himself acknowledged how untenable all of this is. As the Lakers struggle to integrate new players while maximizing old ones, their coach made it clear that figuring out the rotation is his priority at the moment. “My rotation, we gotta really dig into that and figure out and really take a close look so guys are in rhythm,” Ham said after Sunday’s 132-127 overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings. “We have a great collection of players. I played in this league, and when you know when you’re going in and who you’re playing with and all that, that matters. So buckling down on our rotation, I’ll start there.”
So far this season, the Lakers have largely relied on 10 players. James, Russell, Reaves, Anthony Davis and Taurean Prince have been the starters. Gabe Vincent, who was signed to replace Dennis Schroder, has earned the most bench minutes by far. Hachimura has fallen a bit behind. Cam Reddish is on the periphery of the perimeter rotation, while Jaxson Hayes and Christian Wood are both getting backup center minutes, with Wood also seeing some time at forward.
Ham suggested that the Lakers are hoping to keep James closer to 30 minutes per night than the 37 he’s averaged in their last two games. That means there are bench minutes available, but when Vanderbilt returns, there will be another mouth to feed as well. The easiest moves right now would be settling on a single backup center—and Wood has been the superior option through two games—while preparing to send Reddish, who has seen his playing time decline in each game, to the bench.
That, at least, opens up some minutes for Vanderbilt when he returns, but, in the meantime, it could give the Lakers a chance to look at one of their youngsters. Max Christie, Jalen Hood-Schifino and Maxwell Lewis all had up-and-down preseasons, but the Lakers have a strong recent track record of developing young players, and Reaves is a prime example of that.
But this roster was also designed with depth in mind. The Lakers chose to bring back most of last season’s core while adding a few external free agents instead of consolidating around another major piece. That decision will come in handy as injuries pile up later in the season, but, for now, it’s making it hard for anyone to get into rhythm. Hachimura just averaged roughly 34 minutes per game in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers gave him a hefty three-year deal to stay put. Immediately cutting his minutes down to 15 per game doesn’t seem like the best way to build on what went right for him last season.
It’s a tricky balancing act, and it’s probably going to leave a few players disappointed with their workloads. But Ham is right. There is no defined pecking order on this roster after James and Davis. The rotation is very much a work in progress, and the sooner the Lakers sort it out, the sooner they can get back to winning basketball games.