The 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers may take on a completely different identity than the Lakers of the previous two seasons. Their identity of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons was that of a defensive powerhouse, ending as the third and first ranked defenses in terms of defensive rating in those two seasons, respectively. After adding Russell Westbrook, losing Alex Caruso, and adding a variety of aging veterans with the limited cap flexibility they had on hand, the Lakers seem to be positioning themselves for a drastic swing into the offensive direction.
This article was written by Donny McHenry and originally published by Lakers Outsiders.
The core of that likely offensive identity could be the team’s fast breaks. With Russell Westbrook and LeBron James on the roster — two of the NBA’s most exciting and aggressive transition players — the Lakers could end up being one of the most enthralling and efficient transition teams in the NBA lending itself to a better offensive rating compared to last season’s (109.8 ORTG – 24th in the NBA).
With that being said, I wanted to think of the best lineups that Frank Vogel could use to really activate the transition abilities of Russ and LeBron. In addition, I’m thinking of how these lineups could maximize the whole team’s transition efficiency and volume. These lineups could really help the Lakers pad some leads while wearing down opposing teams early in games.
Without further ado, I ranked the five best lineups that Vogel and the Lakers could use to activate the full potential of their fast breaks.
5. Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Marc Gasol
The first lineup I’m going with represents a theme that many are expecting for the Lakers this season: a sacrifice on defense for better offense.
The addition of Westbrook immediately shows fans and analysts a vision of the Lakers with non-LeBron lineups that can actually score while The King gets some rest. What about Anthony Davis, though? One would assume that even though the Lakers have Westbrook, there will still be times where LeBron and Davis both sit on the bench. That’s where this lineup comes in.
Although this lineup will lack in front-court athleticism with Anthony and Gasol at the four and five, respectively, its ability to switch on defense will allow it to wreak havoc with some deflections that will let Westbrook get out on the break. Although Gasol is limited by his lack of speed and size, he is still great at being an irritant to ball-handlers entering the lane with his ability to swat at the ball. Bazemore, meanwhile, is a pro at this and will be able to help create some steals on ball-handlers that may get past Westbrook and THT. Carmelo also has shown above-average ability to be a switchable defender, evidenced by B-Ball Index’s chart below of the Lakers players and their Defensive Positional Versatility scores. You’ll also see Bazemore’s ability to create steals in the far right column.
Once they’re out on the break, the lineup has two efficient rim-attackers in Westbrook and THT with Bazemore and Anthony filling out the wings and corners for some kick-out threes. Also don’t forget Gasol’s ability to throw a great outlet pass, something we saw many times in last year’s regular season.
4. Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
Now, with my fifth-ranked fast-break lineup out of the way, let’s get to one with LeBron James involved.
Although Westbrook is probably faster and more athletic than LeBron at this stage of their careers, Westbrook had a poor Stable Transition Points-Per-Possession rating from B-Ball Index (chart below). This is from the efficiency (or lack thereof) that came from fast breaks led by Westbrook and LeBron as the former had an effective field-goal percentage of 53.7% on his transition shot attempts last season while the latter had an EFG% of 72.3%. Although the difference is drastic, it’s not surprising when you consider Westbrook’s reputation for being careless with the ball and LeBron’s reputation as — well — the opposite of that.
Because of that, there could be some non-Westbrook lineups that are far more efficient on fast breaks compared to the lineups where Westbrook is included (although as Tim a.k.a Cranjis McBasketball of B-Ball Index notes here, Russ will hopefully have an improvement on his transition stats this year alongside LeBron and the others).
This is one I could see working as LeBron and Dwight Howard get to reunite in the frontcourt as they did many times for bench lineups during the 2019-20 season. Although THT is starting to seem more and more of a shooting guard than a point guard as his career progresses, he can occupy the 1 in this lineup as LeBron would more than likely be handling the ball on fast breaks anyways.
Although the defensive skill from THT and Nunn leaves a little to be desired, LeBron will likely be guarding a stretch four on the weak side, causing havoc in the paint as a ball-handler or a pass enters the lane. Howard will also serve as a much better rim protector than say Gasol would. And, of course, this lineup gives time to rest for Davis and Westbrook.
The most interesting part of this lineup is Nunn’s ability to nail threes in transition, highlighted by Tom Zayas of the Lakers Exceptionalism podcast.
LeBron should be able to find Nunn even quicker than his Heat teammates find him in the videos above, hopefully leading to the sweet “swish” sound courtesy of Nunn’s shooting ability.
3. Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
Don’t worry. I swear I don’t hate Westbrook and Davis. They both will be included in the top two lineups below. However, as I previously said, it’s going to be random bench lineups where I see the Lakers’ fast breaks really getting activated. This is another one including Howard, THT, and LeBron, but this time with Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore at the two and three positions, respectively.
The idea with this lineup is more of the same as the previous one, except in this one we get Monk’s insane dunking ability. I really won’t say much more, just go ahead and enjoy this highlight video of all his dunks announced by the legendary Eric Collins.
2. Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
The final two lineups are ones that I could see closing games for Frank Vogel.
You have the obvious choice in the team’s closing center in Davis, with LeBron and Westbrook on the court as well. Time (specifically Father Time) will tell on whether or not Trevor Ariza has enough gas left in the tank to be a closing forward for the Lakers for 82 games and a playoff run. The role of a closing wing defender is right there for him for the taking, though, and someone of his length and defensive ability could prove fruitful for some get-out-and-run fast breaks as he could mask the defensive efficiencies of the two guards in this lineup.
I have enough confidence in the three, four, and five of this lineup to cause a lot of long possessions for other teams, eventually resulting in long defensive rebounds that would allow for LeBron, Nunn, and Westbrook to form a three-headed monster flying towards the other end.
1. Russell Westbrook, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
Many have wondered who will be starting and who will be closing alongside the Lakers’ “big three”. Honestly, for closing lineups, I foresee Vogel using one player who has had the hot hand while shooting during the game while the other will be whoever has been most reliable on defense in the game, or over the course of the past few games. With that being said, I could see the second-ranked lineup closing more games than this first one.
But in terms of fast breaks, I think this is the most potent lineup that Vogel could put out there to wear down opposing defenses.
I don’t need to go into detail again on why the five members of this lineup could cause a lot of exciting and efficient fast breaks. It’s all already been said. But what really gets me excited about this one is the potential wide-open three-pointers that could be had on fast breaks. If we get 2020 NBA Playoffs AD back (38.3% from three), there could be some real lethal shooting in this lineup with Bazemore (40.8% from three last season), Ellington (42.2% from three last season), and hell, even LeBron (36.5% from three last season – his best mark since the 2017-18 season).
No matter what lineup you like best from my list, or if you have some lineups in your own mind that you can’t wait to see get out there and run, I think all Lakers fans (and haters) can agree on the fact that this team is going to be relentless on defenses in transition. There’s no doubt in my mind that Vogel will find at least two-to-three lineups that he knows can spring a game open.