There’s a reason why Los Angeles Lakers’ fans and pundits continue to call for Frank Vogel to change his starting lineup against the Houston Rockets. Without fans and home court, the Bubble Playoffs are all about matchups.
It might be a different story if the Lakers had a dominant offensive center like Shaquille O’Neal who could even the slate and make the Rockets pay for going small but that’s not JaVale McGee’s or Dwight Howard’s strength. Regardless of what Vogel contends, JaVale and Dwight are not the right matchups against a Rockets’ team that spreads the floor, plays five-out basketball, and transforms them into liabilities on offense and defense.
What’s frustrating for Lakers fans and pundits is Vogel’s continued refusal to bench JaVale McGee against the small ball Rockets despite the fact he has not played well either in the regular season seeding games or the playoffs. In the seeding games, he averaged 4.6 ppg and 5.1 rpg in 15.3 minutes with a -8.1 plus/minus and -23.8 net rating. Against Houston, he’s averaged 2.0 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 10.3 minutes with -1.5 plus/minus and -5.0 net rating.
Despite the critics, the poor performances, and the devastating stats, Vogel still claims McGee and Howard will be major factors against the Rockets. Here are four changes he could make to improve the Lakers’ starting lineup:
1. Kyle Kuzma replaces JaVale McGee.
Davis at the five and Karma at the four has been the Lakers’ favored closing lineup to finish games for most of the season so it makes sense to use this lineup to make sure the Lakers start each game and half with their best five. Replacing McGee with Kuzma would enable the Lakers to match up on defense with the Rockets’ five-out offense and conversely let them spread the floor and create spacing on offense for LeBron and AD to attack the rim.
2. Markieff Morris replaces JaVale McGee.
The beauty of starting Morris for McGee is the Lakers not only add a 3-point shooter and perimeter defender but Markieff can also play center, which allows Anthony Davis to remain at his preferred power forward position. Morris may not be the elite defensive rim protector McGee is but he brings an offensive versatility and defensive toughness to the center position that gives the Lakers a better matchup against the small ball crazy Rockets.
3. Rajon Rondo replaces JaVale McGee.
The most remarkable stat of Playoff Rondo’s last two games is that he did most of his damage alongside rather than without LeBron James. In fact, the Lakers’ top three 5-player lineups had Rajon and LeBron together. There’s a strong case based on those stats for Frank Vogel to consider starting Rondo next to James to optimize that relationship. Playoff Rondo starting could be the key to the Lakers winning the championship.
4. Alex Caruso replaces JaVale McGee.
The often overlooked and underappreciated combo guard Alex Caruso deserves to be in the discussion as his numbers confirm he is the Lakers’ best perimeter defender and has the team’s best defensive and net ratings. Starting Caruso would give the Lakers another fast and quick defender who does a great job staying in front of his man and has the ability to shoot fthe three, attack the rim, and make plays for teammates on offense.
Since Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel did not start JaVale McGee in the second half of Game 3, the big question is will he do the same for the start of Game 4, when he went small and started Markieff Morris instead? Frankly, that might be the most comfortable adjustment for Vogel to make since Morris plays excellent defense, allows the Lakers to dominate the boards, and can create spacing by stretching the floor for LeBron and AD.
Since Rajon Rondo is likely still on a some form of minutes restriction and Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso have well defined roles off the bench, my bet’s on Frank Vogel starting Markieff Morris in Game 4 like he did in Game 3.