EL SEGUNDO — The Lakers are uncomfortably familiar with the best-laid plans, and exactly what they’re worth.
Their latest grand strategy of starting three former teammates alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis lasted all of 8½ minutes after the All-Star break, when D’Angelo Russell stepped on Donte DiVincenzo’s foot and twisted his right ankle.
Now, the Lakers’ latest starting lineup – meant to take them through the rest of the regular season and possibly beyond – might be on hold. Russell is doubtful for Sunday afternoon’s game in Dallas against the Mavericks, who recently retooled themselves with Kyrie Irving. The one big positive Coach Darvin Ham could offer was that Russell, a 2019 All-Star, has no “structural” damage in his ankle – though he trotted out of the arena Thursday night with a concerning limp.
But Ham also said Russell, 27, was attentive during Friday’s practice, as the Lakers prepared for their three-game trip against some challenging Western Conference clubs.
“Even though he’s not able to be physically active with the rest of the group, he’s out here listening as we’re talking about Dallas,” Ham said of Russell. “Doing some things on the court, he’s right there on the sidelines soaking it all in and continuing to learn our system, our terminology. So, it’s good, man. It’s a good vibe.”
If the Lakers are forced to use a 31st starting lineup Saturday, the silver lining is that they’ve gotten used to it. The team’s depth shined through in their 124-111 victory over short-handed Golden State on Thursday, with eight players scoring in double figures (including five off the bench). James and Davis combined for just 25 of those points – and while the Lakers will want to squeeze more production out of their stars, it’s reassuring that they don’t need to.
“Simply put, it says we’ve really improved our roster by leaps and bounds,” Ham said. “Those guys that we brought in, our guys that’s in the fold and have gotten minutes, are able to be aggressive and feel comfortable being aggressive.”
Ham cited the increasing comfort level of Rui Hachimura, who had 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting against the Warriors, as well as the outburst from Malik Beasley who had 25 points to lead the team. Jarred Vanderbilt didn’t have a dramatic stat line with four points, nine rebounds and two assists, but his hustle and defense have brought an element to the starting lineup it was missing.
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The back line is liable to be tested this week in Dallas. While Irving and MVP candidate Luka Doncic are backcourt players, they have a gift for maneuvering into the paint – or for finding open teammates in position by the rim with their passing. Vanderbilt figures to be one of the players tasked with guarding Doncic, who had a near-triple-double against the Lakers on Christmas Day.
“He’s a great player, he plays at his own pace,” Vanderbilt said. “So just try to corral him with length and physicality, and just not let him be comfortable. When he’s comfortable, he’s a great player. So just try to knock him off balance a little bit and make everything uncomfortable for him.”
In their last four games, all with their trade deadline acquisitions, the Lakers have carried a plus-6.3 net rating (seventh in the league in that span) and gone 3-1, largely against teams fighting for play-in spots above them. In the Mavericks, there’s a sense that they’ll test their mettle against one of the West’s best teams, replete with superstar talent.
“It’s going to be a good test for us on the road and we’ll see what our team really looks like,” Davis said Thursday night. “But I’m very confident in our team and in our group going into any game.”