Dave McMenaminESPN Staff WriterClose
- Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
- Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Whenever the Los Angeles Lakers get LeBron James and Rajon Rondo back healthy, Kyle Kuzma wants to see the team implement a strategy it hasn’t yet used this season: a “death lineup.”
“Honestly think our small-ball unit can be really good,” Kuzma said at shootaround Wednesday ahead of the Lakers’ game against the Detroit Pistons. “I think we can have a death lineup, whether that’s Rondo and Lonzo [Ball] on the floor at the same time and me and [Brandon Ingram] and Bron, or substituting guys.
“I think as we get better defensively and get more continuity, that small-ball lineup is going to be huge for us, especially in the playoffs when everybody’s going to be going small.”
The Golden State Warriors were the originators of the “death lineup” during the 2014-15 season, playing Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes at the same time in lieu of a traditional center. Later, Golden State upgraded from Barnes to Kevin Durant, with the group taking on the “Hamptons Five” nickname.
The Lakers will have to wait to see that type of lineup come to fruition. James is sidelined indefinitely with a strained left groin and will not travel with the team to Salt Lake City on Thursday, Lakers coach Luke Walton said. James will be re-evaluated Friday in Los Angeles.
Walton did not rule out the possibility of James traveling to Utah on his own Friday for the Jazz game, however.
Meanwhile, Rondo will miss at least another two to three weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right ring finger on his shooting hand.
Kuzma said the Lakers haven’t even practiced that much with the small-ball lineup he envisions.
“Rondo’s always on the second unit,” Kuzma said. “He’s always leading that team. We never really get to it in games because those guys kind of flip-flop. From a small-ball standpoint, we go to it when we’re kind of desperate. I think that can be an advantage when we can go to it regularly.”
Kuzma said his defensive development will allow the Lakers to play that lineup, as he’ll be relied upon to guard bigger players in order to reap the benefits of having so many fluid offensive players on the court together.
“I think that definitely starts with me,” said Kuzma, who added that he would play the 4 and James would play the 5 in the group he described. “The beginning of the year to now, I’m probably a way different defender than I was. I think that was one of the biggest reasons holding us back from it, from me guarding bigger guys, switching or whatnot. I think it’s going to be a big thing as the season progresses and we use it more.”
From suspensions to injuries, the Lakers season has been anything but consistent. Yet, at 22-19, the Lakers have the eighth-best record in the Western Conference at the halfway point of the regular season and are only 2½ games behind the LA Clippers, the West’s No. 4 team.
Walton was asked to assess his team with 41 games down and 41 more to go.
“We know that when we’re at our best, we’re a really good team,” he said. “We’re a team that can hang our hat on playing defense and getting stops. We’re good when we get out and run. LeBron James is really good. And there’s still a ton of unknown.
“Really, there’s probably more unknown than there is known, just because of the amount of injuries we’ve gone through and the different lineups, even with the suspensions of trying to get the continuity of who plays, what matchups are playing well together. … I think it’s exciting that we’re where we’re at and we still have so much room to grow.”
If Walton was told in training camp that his team would have this record in early January, what would he have said?
“I would have said we are what we’re supposed to be,” Walton replied. “And I’m very pleased with where we’re at right now. I think our record is probably a little better than I thought it would have been earlier, pre-LeBron getting hurt. And now, where it’s at, we’ve got some work to do and we know that.
“To me that’s exciting, that opportunity of, ‘Hey, we’re in this dogfight and we’ve had great moments and we’ve had awful moments.’ Like we’ve said, we’ve got a lot to learn about ourselves still and that we’ve got a lot of room for growth and I think our team will accept that challenge and opportunity and we’ll have a good end of the season.”