With the beginning of training camp some six weeks away, the starting lineup for the Los Angeles Lakers appears to be set for next season. Barring a major surprise, Timofey Mozgov will be the center flanked by forwards Julius Randle and Luol Deng and guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. The first line of reserves off the bench is likely to be Tarik Black for Mozgov, Larry Nance, Jr. for Randle, Brandon Ingram for Deng, and either Jose Calderon or Marcelo Huertas taking over for Russell.
The one position that could result in a surprise is the backup shooting guard. Currently, the only other player on the roster at that position is Lou Williams. Nick Young has played the second spot in the past, but assuming he is still on the squad, which is unlikely, he has played small forward almost exclusively the past few years. The conservative choice to spell Clarkson is Williams, but sometimes the obvious choice is not the best one.
One of the biggest dilemmas facing the coaching staff is how to find enough minutes for Ingram. The Lakers did not make Deng the highest paid player on the roster to sit on the bench. But they did not pick Ingram with the number two selection in the draft to sit on the bench, either.
The best way to ensure that Deng and Ingram both play around thirty minutes a game is for Ingram to back up Deng at small forward and Clarkson at shooting guard. While some might find it unthinkable that a player who is 6’9″ with a 7’3″ wingspan could play guard, that kind of thinking led some a generation ago to argue that 6’9″ Magic Johnson could never be a point guard. There are already rumors that rookie phenom 6’10” Ben Simmons may play point guard for Philadelphia this season, as the NBA game continues to evolve.
Before dismissing the idea of Ingram relieving Clarkson, is 6’1″ Williams any more suitable to be the backup shooting guard? Today’s top off-ball guards include Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thompson all of whom are 6’7”. The truth is, Clarkson is undersized to play the position at 6’5,” so what chance does Williams have on the defensive end?
Williams does not offer consistent play on offense, either. He is a high volume, low percentage scorer as evidenced by his eleven-year career stats which include a below average shooting percentage of .413 overall, and .342 from three-point range which is at best “fair.” From time to time he will have a big scoring night which gets everyone excited, but many nights he struggles to put the ball in the basket at all and has to rely on getting to the free throw line to score. Last season, the Lakers put the ball in Williams’ hands with the game on the line multiple times and he did not once deliver.
These days, small forwards and shooting guards are all “wing” players who are almost interchangeable. Butler and DeRozan can easily slide over to play small forward just as players like 6’8″ Kawhi Leonard and 6’9″ Paul George can play shooting guard when needed. Last season Kobe Bryant, a life-long shooting guard, moved to forward when the team had no good options at that position. Further, the player who spells Clarkson will be paired in the backcourt with Huertas or Calderon, neither of whom is known for his defensive prowess. Ingram would be a better fit.
In short, the Lakers should use Ingram, not Williams, to back up Clarkson at shooting guard. That would allow Ingram and Deng to play together, and both would get the minutes they deserve.
If the Lakers decide to slide Deng to power forward from time to time Ingram can remain at small forward and perhaps in that situation Williams will get the nod at the “2”. But even then, the better choice might be for Anthony Brown, who played at guard alongside Russell in the Summer League this year, to get a shot at the role. At 6’7″ and with long arms, he is a far better defender than Williams, but Brown knows he will have to start hitting his outside shots consistently to earn this spot, something he has not yet done in his brief career.
The Lakers have built a squad that is not only young, but it is also versatile. Let’s hope Luke Walton and his staff think outside the box and show the kind of creativity which has been lacking from the Lakers the past few years. A good start would be for Ingram to play both wing positions off the bench in support of Deng and Clarkson.