Position-less Basketball of Tomorrow is Lakers' Today

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

As the key play in the final seconds of the game begins to unfold in front of them, Isaiah Thomas and Brook Lopez are standing in front of the Lakers’ bench with their teammates behind them.

Thomas and Lopez stand there late Saturday night in Sacramento, conspicuous by their diametrically opposed sizes of 5-foot-9 and 7-foot-0, but also because their bright gold uniforms are in plain view. They aren’t wearing warmups. It’s almost as if they know that according to conventional basketball wisdom, they belong on the floor for the key of the game. Thomas is so close to the action that his right foot is actually across the sideline and on the court.

They don’t have their warmups on because they have been so recently in the game. And their talents offer plenty of value, which is why Lopez is paid what he is paid and why Thomas finished where he finished in the NBA MVP voting just last year. Yet what the Lakers have chosen to put on the court, needing a defensive stop against the Kings with 11.7 seconds left with a 111-108 lead, is a statement about teamwork–all the way down to working as a team in their common stature.

Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram are all 6-foot-9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart are both 6-5 with their own long limbs. Whatever offensive set the Kings run, the Lakers are fully ready to switch assignments as quickly and seamlessly as possible to prevent suffering a disadvantage–particularly the three 6-9 Lakers who line up against the Kings’ three top scoring threats.

Randle raises his arm to direct traffic as the play begins. He wants to make sure that Kuzma, the power forward if you were to assign traditional positions to this group, switches with Randle, the de facto center, and stays with Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is listed as a 6-6 shooting guard.

Bogdanovic tries to shake Kuzma at the three-point arc but is stifled by Kuzma’s strong closeout. Bogdanovic then tries a hesitation dribble and drive into the paint, which only results in him falling to the floor after failing to score over Kuzma’s raised arms.

The Lakers hold, and Kuzma can’t resist a celebratory fist pump. It’s yet another victory for them…and for the growth of the Lakers’ modern, position-less basketball.

The Lakers have beaten massive odds to post the NBA’s 11th-best defensive rating this season.

It simply isn’t easy to get young players to understand and execute the details and anticipation that comprise solid team defense. Just look at the Lakers’ league-worst defensive rating last season as a red-flag reference point.

But the game gets less confusing if you don’t have to execute as many assignments or rotations, when you can just pick up the open guy. Randle has still had to be present mentally in knowing how to handle the vast array of guys he might have to switch to and guard, but he has been pulling it off impressively this season.

Simple rim protection matters less the more opposing players can flat-out shoot–which is the deal in today’s NBA. The one-on-one post-up became a lower percentage shot, so offenses have ushered those post players out of the way to let others have cleaner lanes to drive for layups or shoot threes.

Remember Roy Hibbert? Signed to be the big man to shore up the Lakers’ defense in 2015, Hibbert just turned 31 a couple months ago. He’s actually two full years younger than LeBron James.

But the 7-1 Hibbert is already out of the league, the consummate example of how firmly position-less basketball has taken hold of the NBA–and a reminder of how the Lakers weren’t ready to accept it before.

That’s not my natural position. It is [Lonzo's] natural position, and it comes really, really easy for him.

Brandon Ingram

Even when the Lakers took the gamble on speed-ball advocate Mike D’Antoni as head coach in 2012, they hedged that bet by signing slow center Chris Kaman as a free agent in 2013. Even after Luke Walton was hired as head coach in 2016 to try again and modernize the team, the Lakers signed another slow free-agent center in Timofey Mozgov that same summer.

Today, a basketball parent might not necessarily hope his or her kid stops growing at 6-foot-6, but it’s nothing like it used to be when a guy would earn pro-basketball job security with every half-inch he grew close to 7 feet.

Lopez has still been a part of the three most-used Lakers units this season. But it’s the fifth-most-used group–one without Lopez–that has stood out as by far the most effective one…primarily because that’s the group that has been death to opposing offenses.

It’s the same Randle-centered lineup as the one that closed the victory in Sacramento–except with 6-6 Lonzo Ball instead of Hart.

Ball was resting his knee in Sacramento and has been out with injuries much of the season. But the so-switchable crew of Ball/Caldwell-Pope/Ingram/Kuzma/Randle would project to outscore the opposition by 14.8 points in a game this season. (By comparison, the more-used group with the same three perimeter players but Larry Nance Jr. and Lopez inside would project to be outscored by 4.5 points.)

Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk off the floor during a timeout

Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk off the floor during a timeout

Of course it’s still possible for niche players to contribute, as Lopez and Thomas and even young center Ivica Zubac are doing right now. It’s more that the Lakers are finally at a point where they aren’t just hoping to play a certain way.

They are a certain way.

The backbone of the team is versatility.

You can see it in the way so many players’ developing skills overlap with each other’s–with the most common trait besides athleticism being a willingness to pass.

It hasn’t been Ball’s unselfish play changing the culture. Walton’s culture was building before Ball arrived this season.

Ball helps dramatically when healthy, but the best way to understand it is how Ingram put it when talking about trying to fill in for Ball at point guard this season:

“That’s not my natural position,” Ingram said. “It is his natural position, and it comes really, really easy for him.”

Ingram and Ball celebrate after a home victory

Ingram and Ball celebrate after a home victory

But Ingram couldn’t help but add a bit of further context:

“I’ve always been an underrated passer,” he said.

So many Lakers are looking now like they’ve always been underrated as passers.

That’s because they’ve bought into the culture and are determined to prove that they can pass, too.

Kuzma has made his mark as a natural scorer, but he has made major strides as a passer in his rookie season. Randle has continued the major growth he showed last season as a passer but is learning to identify double-teams.

Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass basketball website tracks players’ percentile league rank for their position in how often they get assists in the context of how high their usage rates are. Ball is predictably high in the 82nd percentile, even when measured against other point guards. Yet Ingram is in the 78th percentile of wing players; Randle is in the 76th percentile of big men.

And when everyone respects the premise, everyone holds the others accountable.

After Kuzma missed a dunk off Randle’s setup as Randle sought the 10 assists that would give him a triple-double Friday against Dallas, Randle reset the halfcourt offense to get the ball in the post—where he is best as a passer with the defenders in more predictable, static places. Then Randle zipped a pass from the right block to the left side for Kuzma to step into a three-pointer and redeem that missed assist.

The whole team had a heck of a laugh about it, because it’s cool to be a good passer on this squad.

It’s cool to try to do what the guy next to you can do instead of just accepting that you can’t.

As nice of a victory as it was Saturday in Sacramento, these hardly qualify as glory days in the Kings-Lakers rivalry.

Those were back in the Lakers’ three-peat era of 2000-02.

In 2002 D’Antoni was coaching Benetton Treviso in Italy, having not yet arrived in Phoenix for Steve Nash to run a go-go offense. Steve Kerr was still a player, logging a single season in Portland and nearing retirement, 12 full years away from jump-starting position-less basketball in his first head-coaching job with the Golden State Warriors.

It’s worth recalling those Kings and Lakers teams that went the distance in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, because it clarifies that it wasn’t just D’Antoni or Kerr or the consummate position-less player James who has led this revolution.

The Kings had Chris Webber and Vlade Divac camping out at the high post to do creative, read-and-react things that only smaller men were supposed to do. Lakers owner Jerry Buss’ youngest son, Jesse, obviously was loyal to the Lakers, but he couldn’t deny the admiration that grew for Sacramento’s unique style of offense.

“Bigs who could shoot, handle and facilitate? Man…” Buss said.

Now the Lakers’ scouting director who helped bring Ball, Kuzma, Hart, Ingram, Randle and all the Lakers’ youth to town, Buss knows a seed was planted back then about the power of multifaceted players. Remember also that besides Lakers president Magic Johnson being the rare big point guard in his day, Webber’s teammate at the University of Michigan was Rob Pelinka, now the Lakers’ general manager.

Luke Walton during his rookie season with the Lakers in 2003

Luke Walton during his rookie season with the Lakers in 2003

Meanwhile, Lakers associate head coach Brian Shaw played on that ’02 Lakers team against the Kings. Walton was drafted to join the Lakers the following year.

Even though those Lakers are viewed as either Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant’s teams, Phil Jackson’s triangle offense encouraged players to fill different spots on the floor to create flexibility in the attack.

“That’s why Kobe could always go down into the post,” Walton said.

The triangle was actually a precursor to position-less ball–and helped both Kerr, who played in Jackson’s triangle in Chicago, and Walton become open-minded about how to utilize personnel in their coaching careers.

With Walton has his assistant coach, Kerr and the Warriors won the 2015 NBA title–unleashing 6-7 Draymond Green as a triple-double-ready, sometimes-center, defensive maven in a harmonic team culture where Green was encouraged to handle the ball and shoot threes to be more like talented teammates Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala.

The Lakers still have work to do before they can compete for a title. But bear in mind that around a year ago Walton, trying to make something out of nothing with the position-less concept, started a lineup of Ingram and Metta World Peace at guard with a frontcourt of Randle, Mozgov and Luol Deng.

So much has happened since then.

What the Lakers have now isn’t just better talent and more legitimate versatility.

It’s flourishing teamwork…in a true spirit of equality.

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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