The Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in the unenviable position of facing a ‘must win’ first round playoff game this Thursday because Frank Vogel has stubbornly ignored the team’s glaring need to make major lineup changes.
Before you shake your head and declare it’s just one game, remember this is no longer the regular season or even the regular playoffs. The bubble has changed everything and like the NBA signs say, it’s a ‘Whole New Game.’ There is no home court. There are no fans to cheer the home team to rally. There is not even a season to continue after a five month hiatus. There’s just the bubble and games played in its strangely sterile virtual atmosphere.
After last night’s devastating loss to the upstart Portland Trail Blazers, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel faces a potential career defining decision what to do to fix his team’s daunting offensive woes before it’s too late. Standing pat and waiting for law of averages to catch up and the Lakers’ shots to start falling is no longer a viable option. Waiting for that would be like hoping for the Covid-19 pandemic to miraculously disappear.
The sad reality is the Lakers aren’t going to suddenly start playing like the team they were five months ago when they downed the Clippers and Bucks in front of thousands of enthusiastic cheering Lakers’ fans in Staples Center. The wheels that were starting to come off then and are wobbling badly now are not going to magically repair themselves. They need to be replaced with new wheels and a game plan based on today rather than a fools’ gold past.
JaVale McGee’s not going to start playing like before the All-Star break. Danny Green’s not going to find the fountain of youth and be able to defend any more. KCP’s not going to start hitting his shots like five months ago. Frank Vogel needs to understand he now has a different team and is facing a totally different situation and the only way for the Lakers to have a chance to win the championship in this bubble is for him to make major changes.
The changes the Lakers need have been painfully obvious since the restart. Vogel needs to bench McGee and start Davis at five and Kuzma at the four and replace Green and KCP with Caruso and Waiters as the starting guards. The Lakers need to surround LeBron and AD with shooters who can spread the floor, stretch the defense, and open up lanes to attack the rim. Playing two bigs plays simply allows opposing teams to slow down LeBron and AD.
The Lakers no longer have the luxury to be loyal and give players time to get their games together. They cannot risk going down two games to none to a team with a superstar guard who can rain deep threes like Damian Lillard. Starting James, Davis, Kuzma, Caruso, and Waiters will give the team improved speed and quickness on defense and their two superstars the spacing they need for better scoring and playmaking opportunities.
Going small was the blueprint the #6 seed New Orleans Pelicans used to sweep the favored #3 seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs and it’s the formula Frank Vogel needs to adapt right now. One of the architects of the Pelicans’ stunning upset of the Blazers two years ago was none other than Rajon Rondo, whom Vogel should look to run the second unit when LeBron James rests and Anthony Davis takes over.
The Lakers need to narrow their rotation starting Thursday night. Besides starters James, Davis, Kuzma, Caruso, and Waiters, Vogel should go with an eight player rotation with Rondo, Morris, and Howard being the reserves. Should we need more shooting, Cook should be given a chance. Should somebody get into foul trouble, Green, Caldwell-Pope, or McGee could fill in but only on a short leash since they have not played well in the bubble.
We’ll find out Thursday night if Vogel has the smarts or courage to make these changes but he should know LA is not Indiana or Orlando and his job as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers won’t survive a first round exit.