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No Lakers lineup is safe as Frank Vogel tries to figure out his strongest starting 5

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets - NBA China Games 2019
Lakers coach Frank Vogel knows familiarity is important, but he doesn’t hesitate to experiment with different lineup combinations when necessary.
(Getty Images)

Lakers coach Frank Vogel tries to keep an open mind about how he approaches his lineups.

The first three games of the season have given him plenty to think about as he considers what to do next — especially at the positions of center and point guard.

“Guys playing with the same guys night in and night out can gain some familiarity and continuity. … I think there’s benefit to that,” Vogel said. “But you have to be flexible, you have to be willing to adjust when the game calls for it.”

Vogel has started Danny Green, JaVale McGee and Avery Bradley with Anthony Davis and LeBron James in each of the first three games. McGee was the Lakers’ incumbent at center, and Green had been penciled in as an expected starter ever since the Lakers signed him this summer. Bradley earned the nod with outstanding defense in the preseason that impressed his defense-first head coach.

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The Lakers’ starting lineup relies on James as the primary ball handler. James is comfortable with that role, but there are benefits to having a second ball handler, like Alex Caruso or Quinn Cook, on the court.

“I don’t have to handle the ball throughout the initial action or throughout the whole possession with AC out there, when Quinn’s out there as well,” James said. “Allows me to play off the ball a little bit. I still handled it a lot but I don’t have to handle it as much, and I’m able to get to my spot and play a little bit more in the low post where I’m very dynamic down there. … And make the defense shift a lot.”

With veteran point guard Rajon Rondo still recovering from a mild calf strain, the Lakers have used Cook and Caruso to alleviate some of that play-making pressure on James.

There have been 42 two-man combinations the Lakers have used this season that have played at least 10 minutes together. The third and fourth best in terms of offensive rating have been James paired with Cook and James paired with Caruso.

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The four top pairs in terms of defensive rating all include Cook.

Lakers guard Alex Caruso drives to the basket during a win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
Lakers guard Alex Caruso drives to the basket during a win over the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
(Getty Images)

Cook has been the Lakers’ first option and Caruso is starting to become their closer. He started the second half of Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz, and entered during the third quarter on Sunday against Charlotte.

“At a point where I felt we could make a push and use a little spark, we threw him in there,” Vogel said. “And he produced. He played outstanding, particularly on the defensive end, but making plays offensively as well. He’s a great two-way player, and he’s creating good problems for me, because we’ve got a lot of other guys playing well too.”

Although McGee started the first three games, the Lakers also have used Dwight Howard and Davis at center. McGee had two rebounds in the opener against the Clippers, and four each in the next two games — about half of what he averaged last season.

“I feel like my rebounding has been atrocious,” McGee said. “But, I feel like we’ve definitely been getting better and better every game and I’m definitely getting more in the swing of things. The trip we had really kind of messed up the conditioning that we were in. But, yeah, we’re good.”

McGee was referring to the Lakers’ trip to China during which geopolitical tension disrupted basketball. Asked why the trip affected conditioning, he said, “We didn’t work out. That’s it.”

Howard has had more success rebounding, grabbing six in the opener, seven on Friday and 10 on Sunday. He also played more minutes than McGee in those games. Their teammates have appreciated Howard’s contributions and been impressed by the way McGee has responded.

“I feel like being selfish and worrying about certain aspects of things is a losing mindset,” McGee said. “And I’m not a loser so I don’t plan on having that mindset.”

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On Sunday, Howard produced a double-double with 16 points, making all eight of his field goal attempts.

“It’s very early,” Vogel said when asked if Howard’s performance warrants starting. “We’ll see a lot of different starting lineups throughout the year, but a performance like that certainly makes the case.”

UP NEXT

Vs. Memphis

When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330

Update: The Grizzlies are 1-2 with their only win coming in their most recent game. They beat Brooklyn in overtime Sunday despite 37 points from Kyrie Irving. Memphis rookie Ja Morant scored 30 points.


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