Slow Ya' Roll: Los Angeles Lakers "Death Lineup"
The “Death Lineup” for the Golden State Warriors was a lineup born out of desperation in the heat of battle, and it was successful, paving the way to a championship in 2015. The Warriors, who were down 2-1 in the NBA finals, made the choice to start Andre Iguodala in place of Andrew Bogut, meaning that they were playing without a center. They used this small-ball lineup to run Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson off the floor, as they killed the Warriors in games two and three. The Warriors then won three straight games while using this “Death Lineup," and Andre Iguodala won finals MVP.
The Warriors then were unable to replicate that success in the 2016 finals, even when using the “Death Lineup," and lost in seven games to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That loss forced the Warriors to take drastic measures and replace a staple of the vaunted “Death Lineup.” That piece that was replaced was Harrison Barnes, who signed with the Dallas Mavericks after the Golden State Warriors agreed to terms with Kevin Durant. The “Death Lineup” was all-of-a-sudden much more deadly, and perhaps unbeatable.
The Warriors used their new version of the “Death Lineup," dubbed the “Hamptons 5” by The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami, to dismantle the Cleveland Cavaliers in the next two championships. They set the league ablaze with their ability to play positionless basketball and using their small-ball lineup. Other teams in the league tried to replicate that style of basketball their own way, and the team that came the closest was the 2017/18 Houston Rockets, who used PJ Tucker as a small-ball center to play alongside Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and Eric Gordon. This lineup was called the “Tuckwagon”, and it was very effective. They tried to fight fire with fire, and they nearly beat the Warriors, but they lost in seven games. The common thing in these two lineups is the small-ball center, Draymond Green and PJ Tucker.
Draymond often acts as the point-guard in the Warriors’ offense, and initiates the offense a surprisingly high amount, given the other offensive playmakers on the roster. PJ Tucker is primarily a defensive player, but also has the ability to shoot the three much better than Draymond. Draymond is a better defender and passer than Tucker though, which makes him the better overall player.
There were numerous similarities between the two devastating lineups, and they both proved to be effective in their own way, with the Warriors ultimately being more effective.
The point I am trying to make is, to have a “Death Lineup," or to have a lineup with a name like the “Hamptons 5” or “Tuckwagon," you have to earn it. That moniker cannot just be handed out before the lineup has played a single minute of NBA basketball together.
Now, a new competitor has entered the fray in the Western Conference, and would like you to think it has a lineup worthy of the "Death Lineup" moniker. That team is the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Los Angeles Lakers made the splashiest, perhaps most important, move of the offseason. They signed LeBron James to a four-year contract. He signed with the Lakers to work with the young players they already have, as well as with several veterans on one-year deals. The young players that the Lakers and their fans are excited about are Lonzo ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. The dream, according to various Laker fans is to have LeBron James play small-ball center alongside all those young players, creating a “Death Lineup” of their own, or at least what they are calling it.
Those four young players, no matter how high their upside might be, have combined to achieve no real sustained success in the NBA. Not at least compared to the Warriors or Rockets. Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart were all rookies last season, and Brandon Ingram was in his second season. LeBron James has many accomplishments, the likes of which are well known, but he is entering his 16th season. When the Warriors and the Rockets used their small-ball lineups, the lineups were full of experience and accolades, whereas the Lakers lack both.
Now, if the Laker’s death lineup was formed at the same time as the Warriors’ or Rockets, this would be a different conversation, but they were not, in fact the players that Laker fans envision being a key part of this lineup were not even in the league yet. That all being said, this is the second edition of Slow ya’ roll.
Now, just like in the first edition, this is based on the unrealistic expectations of LeBron fans, but this time there is a new wrinkle. With the last edition, we were dealing with Cleveland fans, who at their core know their teams are bad and are unaccustomed to long-periods of success. With Laker fans, not only are we dealing with LeBron fans that have now climbed aboard the Laker bandwagon as the next stop on their quest to attempt to be on the right side of history as well as being the most irrational fans in the league, but we are also dealing with Laker fans, who are once again yearning for the days of Laker exceptionalism that existed until Kobe Bryant retired in 2016.
Last season, Cleveland Cavaliers fans were overcome with hope and excitement after beating the Boston Celtics in their first game after getting a brand-new team at the trade deadline. Fans and media members alike were clamoring about the new-look Cavaliers and some even made the egregious take that the 2018 Cavaliers could beat the Warriors, some dared to say that they could sweep the Warriors.
Well, that turned out great for Cavaliers fans. Now, Cavalier fans are Laker fans, as LeBron fans are stuck to no team, just to one player, and the hot takes about his new Laker teammates are egregious.
The most notable and egregious one being that the 2018/19 Lakers will be significantly better than the 2018/19 Warriors because Josh Hart was the Summer League MVP and LeBron James knows the secrets to beating the Warriors. The predictions have begun to fly that the Lakers plan on unleashing a small-ball lineup with LeBron James playing center, and some fans/media members have dared call a lineup like that a death lineup.
The idea that Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, and LeBron James together form a lineup that rivals what the Warriors have is laughable.
We can look at this from a straight-up perspective, without looking at any numbers first. Is Lonzo Ball better than Stephen Curry? If you are a rational, informed sports fan with any semblance of brain activity, the answer is clearly no. Stephen Curry is a two-time NBA MVP, and is the best three point shooter in the history of the game, whereas Lonzo Ball is a second-year player who can’t consistently hit shots.
Is Josh Hart a better player than Klay Thompson? Again, if you are a rational, informed sports fan who has any semblance of brain activity, the answer is clearly no. Thompson is one of the best two-way players in the game, as well as being the second-best three point shooter of all time, behind his teammate Stephen Curry. Josh Hart averaged less than eight points per game on 46.9% shooting and less than 40% shooting from three. Klay Thompson is also two inches taller, for what that’s worth.
Is Kyle Kuzma better than Andre Iguodala? No, he might be a better shooter, but what Iguodala lacks in shooting he makes up for in perimeter defense. Is Brandon Ingram better than Kevin Durant? Again, no. Right now, Ingram is basically a younger, worse, shorter version of Kevin Durant. Durant was better than Ingram at the same point of his career, and is significantly better now, which isn’t up for debate.
Now, in this small ball lineup, Draymond and LeBron would play center, and while Draymond is a better defensive player, LeBron is a better offensive player, so I’ll give the edge to LeBron here.
So, for those of you keeping score, in that battle of small-ball lineups, the Warriors are better at four of the five positions on the court, and not a little better, significantly better. You could have never seen basketball being played before, turn on a game between those two lineups, and very easily be like “Oh, yeah those guys wearing blue are a lot better than the guys in yellow.”
Now, in the battle of the small-ball lineups, the Warriors clearly win. The thing is, by the time the playoffs roll around, the Warriors might not even need to use their “Hamptons 5” lineup. They signed DeMarcus Cousins, the best offensive center in the game, this offseason, so they can just play him and force you to play a big man as well. If you are forced to play a big man, that opens up the perimeter for Golden State’s shooters, and if you stay small, you allow DeMarcus to just feast on whoever is playing center, even if that happens to be LeBron James.
So, that “Death Lineup” for the Lakers isn’t really looking like a real “Death Lineup”, it looks more like a “Wow, I just got killed by a real 'Death Lineup', lineup.”
Without looking at any significant statistics like +/-, net rating, offensive/defensive efficiency, or true shooting percentage, you can easily see that the Lakers “Death Lineup” really does not match up well against the Warriors.
That being said, there are more reasons that Laker fans need to take a few deep breaths, step back, and reevaluate the situation.
First of all, the hype around Josh Hart right now is a little ridiculous. He played for the Lakers’ summer league team and won MVP, and looked rather impressive when he played. The thing is that when playing in the summer league, you are only competing against rookies, undrafted players, other second-year players, and men who will never play a minute of NBA basketball. So, the level of competition is watered down, not nearly what it is like against a normal NBA team, much less the Golden State Warriors. Also, only one former Summer League MVP went on to become a star, and that was Damian Lillard back in 2012, when he as a co-MVP. The other MVPs are Josh Selby, Jonas Valanciunas, Glen Rice Jr., Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, and Lonzo Ball. So....while being the Summer League MVP looks good right now, it really doesn’t mean anything in terms of NBA success.
Secondly, the West is still incredibly top heavy, and loaded with great teams. The Warriors are obviously the reigning champions. The Houston Rockets just won 65 games. The Jazz were incredible down the stretch. The Thunder got rid of Carmelo Anthony. The Spurs added DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard (who was a non-factor last season). The Nuggets have the potential to be a great offensive team. The Timberwolves have Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. The Trail Blazers have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Pelicans have a very solid, fast team around an MVP caliber player in Anthony Davis.
The Lakers added LeBron James and a bunch of NBA veterans who are not shooters. They added JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley. The idea being that the front office wants to surround LeBron with playmakers instead of shooters, you know, kind of like a worse version of what last season’s Cavaliers looked like before the trade deadline. That is quite literally the opposite of the blueprint LeBron has given for success, which is to surround him with knockdown shooters to open the driving lane for him. Anyways, those teams I mentioned above plus the Lakers equals 10 teams. There are 15 teams in the West, someone could come from the bottom to surprise us (like the Suns), oh, and only eight of those 15 make the playoffs.
In all likelihood, will the Lakers make the playoffs? Yeah, most likely, but still, there are a lot of really good teams in the West. There are many more good teams than in the East, and there are more god teams that could be great.
The Lakers, regardless of which lineup they use, are not better than these teams in the West: Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Jazz. The rest are up for grabs, and I am hesitant to say that the Lakers are significantly better than the other teams, even if they are.
So, back to the point, are the 2018/19 Lakers going to be better than the Warriors? No.
Is their “Death Lineup” even worthy of the title it has been given? No.
Is their “Oh man, our lineup just got killed by a real ‘Death Lineup’, lineup” good enough or better than the “Hamptons 5," “Tuckwagon," or new 5 all-star lineup for the Warriors or Rockets? No.
Do LeBron fans and Laker fans collectively need to come together, take a couple deep breaths and relax? Yes.
Do LeBron and Laker fans need to Slow their roll? Absolutely.
There is no way that the Los Angeles Lakers are on the same level, or better than the Golden State Warriors in the 2018/19 NBA season. Sorry to break it to you. Let’s just agree to be realistic NBA fans at this point, no more falling for “Hoodie Melo” videos or believing that random teams can beat the Warriors. Let’s just call it like it is, the Golden State Warriors are better than your favorite NBA team and will win the championship.
In the meantime, LeBron fans and Laker fans, y’all need to slow ya’ roll.