The Lakers Are Banking Big on Their Versatility

The Lakers don't seem to have a defined closing lineup, instead swapping in players based on matchups. Is that the right decision?
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LOS ANGELES — If a throughline exists between the Lakers’ two critical wins over the second weekend in March—with L.A. notching its first victories over the league-leading Bucks and championship-favorite Clippers—it’s flexibility. 

Whereas the Lakers’ biggest Finals obstacles are steadfast in their winning combinations, Frank Vogel prefers to mix and match players based on the opponents. And Vogel’s formula—or lack thereof—finally came to fruition in a big way against the Bucks and Clips.

It’s fascinating comparing the Lakers’ rotations across their wins against Milwaukee and the Clippers. 

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Against the Bucks, Vogel relied heavily on Alex Caruso in the second half, playing the third-year guard significant minutes in the final two quarters, including giving him run with the closing group in the fourth. Javale McGee also saw some fourth-quarter minutes vs. the Bucks’ frontline, while Rajon Rondo only played a brief spurt in the second half, finishing with 12 minutes total.

Against the Clippers, it was a completely different story. McGee didn’t play again after his first stint to tipoff the third quarter. Caruso went from 18 minutes Friday to only seven Sunday, not seeing the court in the second half. And Rondo, even after struggling in the first half against the Clips, was a key part of the closing group Sunday, and also spearheaded a bench lineup sans LeBron that was a significant factor in the win over the Clips.

For better or worse, the Lakers seem comfortable going into marquee matchups and letting the flow of the game dictate who will be on the floor at the end. It’s a bit of a departure from how other teams in the league, particularly contenders, approach closing time. You can assume the Clippers will end games with who they did on Sunday—Kawhi, Paul George, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, and Marcus Morris. Depending on your perspective, Vogel is either still figuring out which five players he trusts the most, or he has equal trust in players three through eight on the roster, and he genuinely doesn’t mind plugging and playing based on the matchup.

At this point in the season, the Lakers’ strategy of versatility feels a little bit like a gamble. On one hand, filling in capable veterans around LeBron and Anthony Davis is still a viable plan, in large part because of how great those two perform no matter who else is on the floor. And Vogel deserves credit for not being stubborn. He employed a completely different rotation from the Lakers’ Christmas Day loss to the Clippers and he’s willing to admit defeat on certain lineups within games. On Sunday, for instance, the Lakers tried a regrettable LeBron-Rondo-Dwight Howard trio that sorely lacked enough shooting threats. Howard didn’t see the floor again after that second-quarter stint.

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However, the difficulty in the Lakers’ strategy is its replicability. Teams like the Clippers, Rockets, or even Nuggets have defined closing units that typically dictate how their opponents will match up. 

The Lakers are willing to bend to who is on the floor opposite of them or ride that day’s hot hand, and that’s where things get tricky for Vogel. Rondo played important minutes Sunday, but does that negate how much he struggled to close against the Clippers on Christmas? Avery Bradley was hot Sunday, hitting six huge threes. But he played nearly 10 minutes more than his season average. Is he definitively a closer now?

Of course, whatever plan of attack the Lakers have employed has generally worked this season. L.A. has been in first place in the West for most of the year, and the Lakers have the second-best net rating in the NBA. While not having a crystal-clear rotation may seem like nitpicking, it’s fair to wonder how this highly specific issue could affect the Lakers when the margin is at its thinnest, which it would be in a potential playoff series against the Clippers. 

For now, Vogel and the Lakers appear content with their nontraditional formula for success, even against their biggest competition. What L.A. showed in its wins against the Bucks and Clips is that its nimble approach can pay dividends against teams who like to finish with a particular five. The concern is having several different ways to win isn’t the same as knowing one way that will work every time.