What impact will suspensions for Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo of the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul have?
As expected, the NBA levied suspensions Sunday in the wake of the altercation during Saturday night’s Rockets win that started with Ingram pushing James Harden and saw both Paul and Rondo throw punches after Paul felt Rondo spit on him intentionally.
How will Houston and L.A. replace their suspended players and what kind of difference might that make over the next few games? Let’s take a look.
Bad timing for Lakers
While there’s never a good time to lose two starters to suspensions, this is a particularly bad one for the Lakers. Besides depriving them of necessary time to build cohesion after the addition of LeBron James (and Rondo) this offseason, it also comes at a point when the Lakers are facing a number of teams that also could be in the mix for playoff positioning in the Western Conference.
The Lakers’ first nine games are all against West opponents, and six of the nine are against 2018 playoff teams. Over the next four games, the Lakers will primarily face other teams in a similar range in terms of preseason projections. They play home and away against the San Antonio Spurs and also host the Denver Nuggets.
If the West ends up anything like last season, when just three games separated the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers from the Nuggets, who missed the playoffs, every game will count. The Lakers already were likely to start slowly as they figured out how to play together, and these suspensions could put them in an even bigger hole early in the season.
Opportunity for Ball
The Lakers don’t have to look far for Rondo’s replacement in the starting five: Lonzo Ball, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017 who started 50 of his 52 games as a rookie, before coming off the bench behind Rondo in this season’s first two tilts.
Ball sat out part of the preseason following summer knee surgery, but he told reporters after Saturday’s game that he’s now 100 percent and ready to go. Ball played 26 minutes against the Rockets, seeing extended action alongside Rondo and then sliding back to point guard after the ejection.
Because of his restrictions during training camp, Ball’s opportunities to play with the Lakers’ new starting five have been limited. His only start came in the preseason finale, when most of the Lakers’ starters rested, including James. So this will be an opportunity for Ball to prove he can be as effective alongside the rest of the starting five as Rondo — averaging 13 points and 10.5 assists through two games — has been.
How will Lakers fill other minutes?
Even if Ball is indeed 100 percent, the Lakers won’t want to play him 40 minutes a night so early in the season. That means a decision for Luke Walton on how to play when Ball rests. The other traditional point guard on the roster is Alex Caruso, who’s on a two-way contract. But James is an option as a point forward.
Ingram occasionally filled that role last season when Ball was injured. According to analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats, Ingram played 267 minutes last season without a point guard on the court. The Lakers’ offense was effective in that span, scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions — far better than their overall 104.2 offensive rating, which dropped to 101.2 with Caruso at point guard.
On the wing, Walton has plenty of options. Starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has played just 45 minutes through the first two games, and Michael Beasley got a DNP-CD Saturday after playing two minutes in the opener.
Rockets equipped to replace Paul
Though losses in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals are the lingering memory of Houston playing without Paul, that performance against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors wasn’t reflective of how the Rockets fared in Paul’s absence against lesser competition. Houston went 15-9 in the 24 games Paul missed during the 2017-18 regular season, including a 10-4 stretch after Paul suffered a knee contusion on opening night.
The Rockets will likely rely more heavily on newcomer Michael Carter-Williams after he saw just two minutes of action against the Lakers. However, for the most part, Houston will alternate playmaking duties between James Harden and Eric Gordon. Using them as de facto point guards will open up more minutes on the wing. And the final four minutes of Saturday’s game marked the first time during the regular season that Mike D’Antoni has used Carmelo Anthony as a small forward alongside frontcourt starters PJ Tucker and Clint Capela.
The Rockets do have a quick turnaround before Sunday’s game against the LA Clippers, completing a back-to-back with both games in the same building. After that, however, they’ll have two days off before returning home to host the Utah Jazz in a matchup that could have implications in terms of West playoff seeding.