Coach Luke Walton has been given the greatest gift any coach could ask for: the chance to coach the best player in the world, LeBron James. However, he also has the difficult task of trying to reach suddenly high expectations by assimilating the players around him including a promising young core and some wily new veteran additions into a cohesive rotation. How he breaks the Los Angeles Lakers minutes down from matchup to matchup will be critical in their hopes to get back to winning ways this year and develop the young guys for the future. I will forecast the Lakers minutes breakdown for every significant player on the team.
Upcoming Lakers Minutes Per Game Breakdown
LeBron to Lead the Way
Lebron James has played an astronomical 38.8 minutes per game (mpg) in his career. This is especially mind-boggling considering he’s never suffered a serious injury. While he played 36.9 minutes last year for all 82 games, one would certainly expect him to sit out a few games this year. He is playing in the stacked Western Conference, where there will be fewer cupcake opponents like he often faced in his first 15 seasons in the Eastern Conference. Thus, he will likely be needed in the fourth quarter more often. While the Lakers don’t want to overwork him, he has earned the right due to his pedigree and injury history to essentially play as much as he wants. I am anticipating King James to play a similar amount at 37 mpg over 75 games.
Ingram with Large Improvement Potential
After LeBron, there is currently no clear-cut number two guy. It may be a different player each night depending on who gets hot, but the best bet is third-year player Brandon Ingram. He showed quantum leaps in just about every stat category last year, including tying for the team lead in points per game at 16.1. The most promising improvement was finishing at and around the basket rather than getting bumped off his spot like when he was a slender rookie. At 33.5 mpg last year, that number is expected to remain more of the same. I’m penciling Ingram in for 33 mpg.
Ball’s Minutes More in Question
Ingram wasn’t actually the leading mpg player last year. That title belongs to fellow number two overall draft pick Lonzo Ball at 34.2 mpg. This came without a significant backup point guard on the roster (sorry Tyler Ennis). Ball has shown the ability to do just about everything but shoot, but most surprisingly he was extremely effective on the defensive end, ranking third in ESPN’s defensive real-plus-minus among all point guards at +2.31. With the arrival of similar-playing and very capable Rajon Rondo, I would expect the minutes to decrease somewhat for Ball this year, setting them at roughly 30 mpg.
Center Given Low Value
The Lakers have shown an apathetic stance toward the center position, devoting the least salary to that position of any team in the entire league. The day one starter looks to be JaVale McGee. While he’s infamous for “Shaqtin-a-fool,” McGee had some prominent games in the NBA Finals, showing an ability to finish around the rim and contest shots. He will get many chances to throw down alley-oops this year, as he has three great passers from whom to catch lobs. With the Lakers not needing to play a true center if the matchups call for it, McGee will play around 21 mpg.
Shooting Guard up for Grabs
The last starting spot of the shooting guard is very much up in the air heading into the season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looked to have the leg up before Josh Hart dominated in Summer League towards MVP honors. My feeling is that even if KCP starts to begin the season, Hart will work his way into the everyday starter. Both are capable scorers and solid defenders, but Hart’s natural basketball IQ and defensive intensity to me give him the ultimate edge for the job.
After Hart getting 23.2 mpg and Caldwell-Pope 33.2 mpg last year, I’d expect those numbers to draw closer together this season. With the two of them arguably being the best two three-point shooters on the team that will play meaningful minutes (you’ll get your chance Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk), it may come down to whichever one gets hot on a particular night. I have Hart at 27 mpg and KCP at 26 mpg.
Kuzma as Sixth Man
Perhaps the Lakers’ biggest surprise last year was the emergence of rookie Kyle Kuzma, who also tied for leading the team in scoring. His willingness to take shots down the stretch and make a lot of them impressed many as a first-year player. With the addition of James, Kuzma is probably not going to start with a logjam at the forward position. However, he could potentially be the dark-horse sixth man of the year candidate if the Lakers elect to play him down the stretch. This could be in a “Death Lineup” of their own by playing LeBron at the center spot to have their five best players on the floor. With it being a crowded landscape at the forward position, however, I’d expect Kuzma’s 31.2 mpg last year to drop slightly, and I am putting him down for 29 mpg this year.
Rondo Could Threaten as Starter
A guy who some believe will start is a more proven version of Ball himself, Rajon Rondo. In his career, he has never had a great outside shot but has made up for that by being an assists machine and relentless defender. It will be curious to see if the Lakers can play both Rondo and Ball together. Neither has shown to be a consistent three-point shooter and LeBron typically enjoys a spaced out floor. With all three being top 10 in the league in assists per game last season, if they’re on the court at the same time it could be quite the passing show. I foresee Rondo playing more minutes in some games and sparingly in others, averaging 24 mpg. In the playoffs though, should the Lakers avoid significant injuries and make them in the loaded West, watch out for “Playoff Rondo” to rack up the minutes.
Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley have fascinating roles on the team. They have the career pedigrees and personalities where they seem like they’ll expect to play a lot, but on one-year deals and with some promising young guys ahead of them, there just isn’t a ton to go around. Stephenson can bring a unique energy on racking up hustle plays and occasionally be showing off his underrated playmaking ability, while Beasley is an effective scorer off the bench who can easily take his man to the basket while having a serviceable mid-range game. Stephenson averaged 22.6 mpg and Beasley 22.3 mpg on their respective teams last year. I anticipate them each to play 16 mpg, though an occasional DNP-Coach’s Decision may not be out of the question.
Rookie Draft Picks
The Lakers are hoping their recent success late in drafts carries over with Mortiz Wagner and Svi Mykailiuk. Wagner may see some time due to the position being scarce on the team, though I would not expect it to be much based on the ability to play small ball with LeBron. In Summer League, Wagner showed solid gritty rebounding and talkative leadership along with the ability to step outside and hit shots, and I have him down for 18 mpg.
Svi Mykhailiuk showed flashes of brilliance with his shot prowess and on-ball defense in Summer League. He may see some time on nights when the Lakers are struggling with the shooting. If he gets hot for an extended stretch he could ultimately overtake a spot in the rotation. Though for now, I have him at 14 minutes per game. I also expect some healthy DNP’s for both rookies depending on matchups or how they’re playing.
After the mentioned eleven I wouldn’t expect the remaining players to see consistent minutes. While the last spots could potentially shuffle around based on how training camp turns out, Ivica Zubac and Alex Caruso would be the next likely to jump in if injuries ensue.
Note these estimated minutes add up to roughly 58 minutes when there are only 48 in the actual game. However, injuries and potential trades can/will affect projected minutes. There is no sense in constricting it to as if all would be available for every game.
These are educated guesses based on historical minutes and the current makeup as well as the future direction of the team. It will be interesting to see how Walton mixes the roster amid the expectations that now come with LeBron’s arrival. Since his newly joined teams, historically, have started out slow. When times get tough will Walton value winning with veteran leadership over potential learning experiences for the young core? Only time will tell, but basketball fans will tune in to see how LeBron and his new team take shape.
LOS ANGELES, USA – NOVEMBER 06 : Head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers Luke Walton gestures during a NBA game between Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns at Staples Center in Los Angeles, USA on November 06, 2016. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)