3 players who could break into Lakers starting lineup

Jarred Vanderbilt, Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Jarred Vanderbilt, Los Angeles Lakers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
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Jarred Vanderbilt (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Jarred Vanderbilt (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Lakers brought back key members of the core and added several future contributors in free agency. The starting five is relatively set, but these players could make Darvin Ham think twice. 

It’s impossible to overstate the strangeness of the Los Angeles Lakers 2022-23 season. It was a tale of two halves: before the trade deadline, and after the trade deadline. The tales of with Russell Westbrook and without Russell Westbrook.

Los Angeles pulled off one of the most impressive deadline hauls in recent memory. Rob Pelinka’s track record in the GM seat has been spotty at best, but credit where credit is due: the Lakers were the biggest winners of February, transforming Westbrook and spare parts into a robust collection of role players.

With D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley all joining the squad after the deadline, there was more room for LeBron James and Anthony Davis to operate offensively. The defense improved, players like Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura blossomed, and the Lakers went from basement-dwellers to Western Conference finalists.

Now LeBron James is officially back for Year 21. The Lakers lost a few key parts in free agency, but added a few more. The lineup that led them to the conference finals and transformed them into one of the NBA’s best teams over the final third of the season remains largely intact.

That said, the starting five is subject to change. Ham’s first unit fluctuated a lot last season. The Lakers ran plenty of two-guard looks after the deadline with D’Lo and Dennis Schroder. There were also plenty of starting reps in the regular season for Jarred Vanderbilt, who was then benched in the playoffs.

So, that’s where we’ll start.

No. 3 player who could break into Lakers starting lineup: Jarred Vanderbilt

Jarred Vanderbilt started 24 of 26 regular season appearances with LA after the trade deadline. He was a starter in Utah all season, too. He simply couldn’t hang deep into the playoffs, which always brings me back to this Mike Malone quote: “Specialists don’t play in the playoffs.”

It’s fair to describe Vanderbilt as something of a defensive specialist. He tries harder than just about anybody. He ferociously competes for rebounds, he takes every isolation possession personally, and he will gladly put his body on the line to draw a charge or dive for a loose ball. He’s a perpetual force of chaos. Good chaos.

Last season, Vanderbilt was materially better than Rui Hachimura. The Lakers’ defense thrived with Vanderbilt on the court next to Anthony Davis, a mega-watt rim protector who empowers Vanderbilt’s activity and risk-taking on the perimeter. The offense has never been great, but Vando hit more 3s than ever before last season (32.2 percent on 1.2 attempts per game). He’s making an effort.

The Lakers have enough playmaking juice to support Vanderbilt’s limited skill set in the regular season. He’s a springy athlete who can cut inside for finishes at the rim and he will inhale offensive rebounds. On defense, he’s genuinely great. Unfortunately, it becomes far too easy to scheme Vanderbilt off the floor offensively once the playoffs arrive.

It wouldn’t be shocking if the 2023-24 season follows a similar pattern as the 2022-23 season. Vanderbilt emerges as the better regular-season option, while Rui Hachimura supplants him in the playoffs as the superior offensive weapon. The Lakers paid Hachimura a pretty penny and will likely commit to him as the frontcourt starter next to AD, but Vanderbilt with a chip on his shoulder should be a force to be reckoned with.