DENVER — The revolving door toward the Lakers’ starting lineup took another turn. But this time, Lakers coach Luke Walton did not target the usual suspects in demoting a veteran for the sake of developing his younger players.
When the Lakers (20-46) play the Denver Nuggets (31-35) on Monday at Pepsi Center, third-year guard Jordan Clarkson will start at point guard while second-year guard D’Angelo Russell will come off the bench.
“It’s cool,” Russell said before the game. “It’s not a negative thing.”
That’s because Walton told both Russell and Clarkson had nothing to do with their play. While Russell has averaged 20.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 5.4 assists in eight games since the All-Star break, Clarkson has averaged 19.3 points on 46.4 percent shooting and 3.6 assists during the same stretch. Though Walton called Clarkson’s career-high 30 points and eight assists on Sunday against Philadelphia “pretty damn good,” Walton stressed other factors influenced his latest decision.
“Just to see what it looks like when he’s out there running the point guard position against starting groups and what not,” Walton said. “That type of experience and that type of film breakdown with us will be valuable.”
Walton also seemed intrigued to see how Russell and Clarkson would handle their role change.
“That’s part of everything. We’re always interested in seeing how everyone responds to different situations and adversity and challenges, however you want to put it,” Walton said. “Part of our evaluation is always seeing how players respond to different opportunities.”
Clarkson declined to speak before the game, though he has publicly supported Walton’s decision to bring him off the bench after starting for all of his second season. Meanwhile, Russell admitted he just has to “respond to it the right way” before highlighting Walton’s preference to experiment with lineups with 16 games remaining.
Walton also has featured rookie center Ivica Zubac and newly acquired guard David Nwaba, while sitting veterans Nick Young, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. In other words, the reasons differ than when Russell lost his starting spot 20 games into his rookie season amid former Lakers coach Byron Scott expressing displeasure with Russell’s consistency, work habits and attitude.
“I don’t want to compare it and talk about that,” Russell said. “That’s irrelevant. But it’s a way different feel as far as you know there’s a reason behind it.”
Part of Walton’s reasoning stemmed from Russell still having somewhat of a similar role. He said that Russell will still remain the primary ball handler and will play around 30 minutes tonight. And Walton stressed his lineup experimentation will remain fluid, though it remains unclear if that will happen game-to-game.
“I still expect him to come out and play the way he has been by being aggressive, playmaking and scoring,” Walton said of Russell. “It won’t be that much different of an overall game. But not in the first starting group.”
Russell sounded on board with that idea, but he also highlighted a few wants of his own.
Before describing his play late in games as “up and down,” Russell still held out hope he would remain on the floor in crunch time.
“I just want to finish the games, honestly. I may not play the whole game. But if I finish the game, I know I’m growing and getting something from that,” Russell said. “Trying to make as many winning plays throughout the game, especially the last six minutes of a game. If I can make those winning plays and get in a consistent formality of doing that, close games are when you really get better.”
During the rare moments Russell and Clarkson have played together, Walton noted “it hasn’t been great for whatever reasons.” Though Russell called himself a “basketball player” instead of a “shooting guard” or “point guard,” he brought up the possibility of Walton featuring him and Clarkson in different roles. While Clarkson would assume ball-handling duties, Russell could slide to shooting guard.
“Just to see how we can play like that,” said Russell, who said he hasn’t practiced with Clarkson this season because they are on different units. “Usually when we play the previous times, it’s me having the ball and him being the shooting guard or off the ball. I want to see how it is switched around and see how it goes.”
The Lakers will also see how Walton’s new lineup change goes, something he said became more difficult to do than his other lineup switches.
“It was tough because D’Angelo has been playing pretty darn well for us,” Walton said. “He’s obviously one of the young guys that is a big part of the future. We want to keep his confidence high.”