The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled so far this season, and the truth is there have been a lot of questions about the formation of the team—not only how well the defense is able (or unable) to work together, but whether or not the right guys (namely Pau Gasol) are in the starting lineup.
Nobody is trying to say that Antawn Jamison is a better basketball player than Gasol, but there is a pretty solid argument for starting Jamison alongside Dwight Howard and bringing Gasol off the bench.
First of all, in looking at the lineups the Lakers have used thus far, the top-four units have favored a Gasol-Howard power-forward-center combination. The question is whether or not that combination is the right one to have on the floor.
Just looking at Gasol's stats when Howard is on and off the floor (via NBA.com) makes a case for running them with separate units. With Howard on the bench, Gasol is shooting 46 percent from the floor, compared to just 41 percent when he's playing with Howard.
When playing alongside Jordan Hill or Antawn Jamison, Gasol receives the ball in the paint and at the rim more often. In this situation, defenses have to give him more leeway when he's just outside the paint because there's a higher likelihood that he'll make a move to the rim.
That's in stark contrast to when Howard is clogging up the lane.
On Howard's side of the equation, he's not as good without Gasol, but he's still scoring at the rim (shooting 66 percent in the restricted zone, as opposed to 70 percent with Gasol), even though he's a bit worse when he's further out in the paint (or outside of the paint—where he never should be).
Let's go a little bit deeper and look at the exact lineup combinations the Lakers have succeeded and failed with in the first 18 games of the season as far as the power-forward-center combination goes.
According to 82games.com, Los Angeles features the Gasol-Howard combo in six of its 20 most common lineups. Combining their time, the two have played together for just under 400 minutes with those six squads. And the lineups show moderate success with a combined plus-minus of plus-24. Not great, but not terrible, either.
In comparison, the Jamison-Howard duo has been on the floor for just over 62 minutes this season, registering a plus-minus of plus-12. The Jamison-Gasol big-man tandem is up to plus-21 over the course of 36 minutes.
The Howard-Hill twosome has been relatively unsuccessful. They've registered a minus-31 in 50 minutes together this season.
However, the Gasol-Hill pairing has been excellent, good for plus-59 over 63 minutes. Looking at that, it seems to make sense that the Lakers should bring Gasol off the bench with Hill, while Howard and Jamison take the starting spots, right?
That's not exactly what I would advocate here.
In late-game situations, Los Angeles is going to have to trot out its five best players, and that includes a frontcourt of Gasol next to Howard. You don't want to rely on a Hill or Jamison combination while Gasol watches from the bench.
Instead, I'd say continue to start them together—just stagger the lineups a bit more. Give Howard and Gasol about six or seven minutes together in the first quarter, and then sub Gasol out for Hill. At that point, swap the guys in and out for each other, utilizing a heavy rotation of the Hill-Gasol, Jamison-Howard or Jamison-Gasol combinations, the three that seem to work best together.
Then, once the game gets down to about eight minutes left, put Gasol back in alongside Howard.
There's a combination of the two guys that's going to work eventually, and a lot of that's going to come when Gasol is healthy and Steve Nash comes back.
However, bringing Gasol off the bench is definitely not the answer at this point.