One of Luke Walton's tasks during the final six weeks of the season resembles that of a baseball manager in search of a ninth-inning specialist: The Lakers coach is looking for a closer to replace fourth-quarter sniper Lou Williams, who was traded to the Houston Rockets last week.
Point guard D'Angelo Russell could be up to the task. He's averaging 23.3 points in the three games since Williams left and made a pair of three-pointers in the final minute of Tuesday night's 109-104 loss to Charlotte, trimming a seven-point deficit to three with 13 seconds left.
Veteran shooting guard Nick Young could have the long-range marksmanship and mettle. He's the team's most accurate three-point shooter at 40.7% and made a game-winning three-pointer with five seconds left to beat Oklahoma City on Nov. 22.
Jordan Clarkson, with his 13.9-point and 2.7-assist averages, best fits Williams' profile of an explosive guard who comes off the bench and creates scoring opportunities with his outside shot or penetration.
Of course, with these young and often overmatched Lakers getting blown out by several superior opponents, Walton hopes to be in enough games at the end to determine his best late-game options.
"I like to organically let it happen as far as the way the game's going, who's having a good game," Walton said. "On a lot of teams, it's pretty obvious who that is. But with us, I'm not gonna force it, to make one guy do it.
"One, I want to see who's playing well that night, and two, to make big shots, you've got to want to take big shots. It's one thing for the coach to draw up a play and say you have to shoot it, and it's another thing to see who wants to grab that ball and take that shot when you're down by two with a minute to go."
There was no question who that player was for the first four months. Williams, despite starting one of 58 games, led the team with an 18.6-point average and was among the NBA's leading fourth-quarter scorers at 7.7 points. He also had a knack for drawing contact and capitalized on his 88.4% free-throw accuracy.
"It's obviously more difficult without Lou," Walton said. "He's a veteran, he knows how to get to the free-throw line and how to hit those big shots. But I look at it as a great opportunity, because the only way you learn how to do something is to get out there and experience it, and most likely fail.
"And you realize that if you do fail, it's fine, it just means you have to work on it and get more comfortable in those situations. It's a challenge, but it's fun to watch those guys trying to get to that next level, and I think we'll get there."
The roles of Russell and Young haven't really changed — they've been starters all season — but with Williams gone and Brandon Ingram moving into the starting lineup in early February, Clarkson is now the primary ballhandler and scorer on the second unit.
"With most players, the more responsibility you give them, they start playing better all over the court," Walton said of Clarkson. "I think he's elevated his defensive game. He's been trying to play-make and get guys involved more. I think he's done a nice job of trying to pick up some of the slack without Lou."
Clarkson, 24, is trying to put the lessons he learned from Williams to use.
"He was always out there going hard, but at the same time, he played at his own pace," Clarkson said of Williams. "He never let the defense speed him up. He got what he wanted every time offensively, and that's what I learned from him the most, just taking what the defense gives you.
"I'm not going to go out there and try to force things. I'm gonna be aggressive, and if the play happens, it happens."
Walton said Clarkson "has done a great job of stepping up his game" in Williams' absence. Clarkson has averaged 16.3 points and 3.3 assists in his last three games, both upticks from his season averages. But Walton doesn't want Clarkson to feel any pressure to fill Williams' late-game scoring void.
"What we've asked the players to recognize is, with losing Lou, we have to step up as a team, but don't do that individually, do it as a group," Walton said. "Don't try to come out and score 30 as a way to make up for the points we're missing with Lou.
"And I think Jordan has done a nice job of being aggressive to score, but also trusting his teammates and knowing that the coaching staff wants to see what he can do out of a playmaking position."