The Los Angeles Lakers have a bit of a problem, and it isn’t Lonzo Ball’s wayward shooting or the five-game losing streak they are currently mired in. Instead, it’s Julius Randle.
More specifically, the lack of minutes available at power forward and center, which may be preventing this year’s Lakers team from playing up to their full potential. Randle, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, is a man on the mission.
Already an explosive player, he spent the offseason shedding the baby fat that had limited him, creating a chiseled physique that one typically only sees in the UFC octagon.
This season, the Lakers decided to remove Randle from his role as the team’s starting power forward in favor of using him primarily as a backup center, where his speed advantage is somewhere between solid and ridiculous depending on who he is matched up with.
The move initially appeared to be a demotion, but it has resulted in Randle playing the best basketball of his young career.
His defensive effort has been noticeably more consistent and impactful, allowing him to turn into the kind of switchy jack-of-all-trades that the league is craving these days. He can even protect the rim and has become an adequate shot blocker, which few imagined possible given his relatively short wingspan.
Thanks to these improvements, Randle is now a plus defender everywhere on the floor, and on the other end his offensive efficiency has been wondrous. He’s filling the “Draymond Green” role to near-perfection, and could even make a case for being the team’s best player this season.
The only problem is that Randle may not be a Laker after this season, and could even be sent elsewhere prior to this season’s trade deadline.
His rookie contract expires this summer, and assuming the Lakers extend Randle a qualifying offer (and there is little reason not to), he will be a restricted free agent.
That would give the Lakers an opportunity to match any offer opposing teams present to Randle, and the lack of cap space available suggests that the market for him won’t be very robust despite his unquestioned skill.
Still, it won’t be easy for the Lakers to work out the math so that they can afford Randle if they are able to land a superstar duo like Paul George and LeBron James. It’s not impossible, but also not easy.
And one has to wonder just how willing the Lakers will be to move heaven and earth for a player who, despite being seemingly indispensable, is currently being used as backup.
This version of Randle, the one who is protecting the rim with ferocity, scoring almost at will, and defending all five positions, may be too good – and too expensive after next summer – to continue coming off the bench.
At the very least, he’s certainly been too impressive to average the 22 minutes per game he is seeing currently.
Admittedly, Randle has struggled a bit as the primary defender on mammoth centers like Joel Embiid and DeAndre Jordan, but more than holds his own against opposing benches. As such, starting him at the five may not be in the cards.
Still, if the Lakers are hoping Randle can become their version of Green, and this year he has taken massive steps in that direction, it may be time to start deploying him the same way the Golden State Warriors use Green himself.
That would entail starting Randle at power forward and shifting human Swiss Army knife Larry Nance Jr. to the reserves, and naturally, some of his minutes to Randle.
This would allow Randle to pick up some time alongside a more traditional center in Brook Lopez, then spend the majority of the rest of the game at center when Lopez rests, which is actually imperative to the team’s success.
The Lakers currently have three five-man units that have a positive net rating and have played a minimum of 20 minutes together this season (minus the bizarro starting five featuring Corey Brewer in the first game against the Phoenix Suns, which has to be omitted because the Suns were in total disarray.
Of the three qualifying units, there is one thing in common: Randle is the center. He is the engine that makes the Lakers go, and as of right now, the team is essentially playing with one hand behind their back by limiting his minutes.
Randle has had conditioning issues in the past and it’s possible that he loses his effectiveness if pushed to play upwards of 30 minutes a night, but it’s a gamble worth taking.
With free agency looming, it’s time to find out if the new version of Randle can handle a larger workload so the team can decide if he is indeed the invaluable piece that the advanced stats suggest he is.
If the Lakers determine that he isn’t, then it’s best to make that call prior to the trade deadline, where another team may give up an asset for Randle. Moreover, Los Angeles can clear his salary from next summer’s ledger.
All that being said, unleashing Randle may also be the Lakers’ best shot at ending their current slide and getting back into the win column. For a team facing a brutal December schedule, that should be all the motivation they need to make a move.
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