Lakers starting lineup changes: Why LeBron James switched to point guard and D’Angelo Russell moved to bench

The Lakers have now made two significant starting lineup changes 30 games into the season.

Ahead of Los Angeles’ Dec. 23 visit to the Thunder, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that D’Angelo Russell would move to the bench after starting each of the first 28 games he appeared in. Earlier in the season, the Lakers notably moved Austin Reaves back into their second unit.

LA’s most recent lineup change was a response to a four-game skid. The result was a jumbo-sized starting unit and an impressive nine-point road win over the Thunder that suggests this most change might be a permanent one.

Here’s why the Lakers made the lineup change and what it means moving forward.

MORE: Here are the 10 players who should start in the 2023 NBA All-Star Game

Lakers starting lineup changes

Ahead of its visit to Oklahoma City, it was announced that LA would employ the following starting lineup:

  • LeBron James, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Anthony Davis

Prince, who is listed at 6-6, is the shortest player in the above unit, which has an average height of 6 feet and 7.8 inches. Moving Russell to the bench also establishes a definitive playmaking pecking order, with James fully assuming point guard duties.

The returns were encouraging — not only because the Lakers won but also because of how they defeated the Thunder.

WATCH: Follow LeBron James and the Lakers all season long on Sling TV

LeBron James’ return to point guard

Throughout his 21 seasons in the NBA, James has always been a pass-first player with elite court vision. A true point forward in every sense of the word, James is a point guard with a 6-foot-9 frame.

During the 2019-20 season, James made the switch full-time, lining up at point guard on a nightly basis for the Lakers. As a result, he averaged a career-high 10.2 assists to lead the league, leading the Lakers to the West’s No. 1 seed and the 2020 NBA title.

That change remained in place until the Lakers’ move to acquire Russell Westbrook from the Wizards in 2021. Over the last few seasons, James reverted into a frontcourt role, playing point forward and spending extended time at the center position in small lineups.

Returning to the point guard role against the Thunder, James delivered one of his best performances of his 21st NBA season, delivering big moments down the stretch.

LeBron James stats vs. Thunder

  • 40 points (season-high)
  • 7 rebounds
  • 7 assists
  • 2 steals
  • 2 blocks
  • 3 turnovers
  • 13-of-20 (65.0 percent) field goal shooting
  • 5-of-5 (100.0 percent) 3-point shooting
  • 9-of-9 (100.0 percent) free throw shooting

D’Angelo Russell bolsters Lakers’ second unit

In his second stint with the Lakers, Russell had started in all but one game — Game 4 of the 2023 Western Conference Finals. After being moved to the bench for a second time, Russell did not miss a beat.

Against the Thunder, Russell saw a season-low 17 minutes of action but was extremely impactful, scoring 15 points (on 5-of-9 shooting) and dishing out three assists while committing just one turnover.

It wasn’t just Russell, either. Rui Hachimura led the second unit with 21 points (on 8-of-14 shooting) and six rebounds while Reaves, who moved to the bench 10 games into the season, finished with 11 points (on 4-of-8 shooting) and a game-high nine assists in 28 minutes of action.

The Lakers’ second unit outscored that of the Thunder 47-26, with LA’s three key reserves combining to shoot 54.8 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from 3-point range.

With The Athletic’s Shams Charania reporting that Gabe Vincent is “strongly considering” knee surgery that would sideline him for 6-to-8 weeks, Russell is stepping into a void that calls for more point guard play in the second unit, giving it another playmaker alongside Reaves.

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Why Lakers changed their starting lineup

After losing four consecutive games, Los Angeles was in search of answers to remedy its issues. According to head coach Darvin Ham, a lineup change was a commitment to being impactful on the defensive end of the floor.

“Until we figure out the pieces, at the end of the day you have to have something to hang your hat on, and we chose to lean into the defensive side of the ball,” Ham said of the new lineup ahead of the game.

The lineup that started against OKC has shared the floor for 10 minutes throughout two games this season. In a small sample size, the five-man unit has posted an offensive rating of 109.1 and a defensive rating of 100.0, per Stats.

As the Lakers look to contend as a follow-up to their run to the 2023 Western Conference Finals, doubling down on the defensive end could be the clearest path to establishing an identity.

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