Why LA Lakers Best Bet Is to Start Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman Together
No NBA team has ever complained about having too many seven-footers. Piecing together a rotation in which those seven-footers coexist effectively is a different question altogether.
It's a difficult one, too, especially for a coach who privileges speed and shooting over size—and for a team that struggled to make the most of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol last season. The central challenge for the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers isn't just about replacing Howard. It's about putting his replacement in a position to succeed alongside Gasol.
That replacement of course is 31-year-old center Chris Kaman. Though Kaman only has one All-Star appearance (in 2010) to show for his 10-year career, his ability to fill Howard's shoes shouldn't be measured in accolades alone.
What Kaman lacks in dominance, he makes up for with the specific skills he brings to head coach Mike D'Antoni's system, and you can take D'Antoni's word for it according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina: “I don’t traditionally love two bigs together. They have nice chemistry and they’re skilled.”
For his part, Kaman isn't just skilled in an abstract sense—he has the makings of a cohort who fits nicely into the Lakers' program. Point guard Steve Nash is already taking notice, and his body of iconic work makes him a pretty good judge of these things (per ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne):
We knew Pau was great with the ball. But I thought Chris was terrific tonight with the ball and setting picks and moving so we didn't get stagnant. I was pleasantly surprised. I would say it exceeded my expectations.
Will Lakers fans be in store for similar sentiments?
The preseason sample size has been too small and inconsequential to make any lasting judgements, but this much is certain. In principle, this big-man tandem just might work.
In many respects, Kaman is a middle-class man's Gasol. They both understand the game. They're both willing passers, sometimes to a fault. And they're both capable shooters. Their dynamic, well-rounded games are already translating into the kind of high-low opportunities you'd like to see when two legitimate bigs are on the floor at the same time.
Moreover, their effectiveness from the high-post gives D'Antoni options he sorely missed last season. Dominant as Dwight Howard may be around the basket, it's no secret he yields diminishing returns with every step he takes away from it.
Kaman is a qualitatively different story, even if also a qualitatively less sexy one.
He earned himself a five-year, $52.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers back in 2006, after just his third pro season. Having proven himself a capable double-double threat, the double-figured annual paycheck made pretty good sense. That he now finds himself making just under $3.2 million on a one-year pact with the Lakers says more about the new NBA marketplace than it does Kaman.
The 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds he averaged last season had more to do with playing just 20.7 minutes a game than it did with diminished ability.
Last time Kaman received minutes commensurate with that ability (34.3 in 2009-10), he put up 18.5 points and 9.3 points per contest. Injuries and trade intrigue in the two subsequent seasons caused a downturn in that production, a fact that's led onlookers like ESPNDallas.com's Jeff Caplan to speculate Kaman was either "injury prone or unlucky."
Even so, he's remained more reliable than most his size, at least when he's on the floor. If D'Antoni's principally concerned with putting his best talent on the floor, Kaman has to be part of that equation.
More importantly, Los Angeles can't afford to leave the extra size out of that equation. Kaman certainly isn't a Howard-caliber shot-blocker (notwithstanding the 2.8 he somehow averaged during the 2007-08 campaign), but the Lakers can't afford to be choosy here. They need all hands on deck swatting away the interior shots sure to proliferate on account of a porous perimeter defense.
To be sure, there are real concerns about Kaman (and Gasol's) ability to do some important things on the defensive end—like guarding the pick-and-roll.
But again, this club's options are limited. Though it could look into acquiring a somewhat affordable defensive specialist to patrol the paint, it would almost certainly trade off with pooling the kind of offensive assets D'Antoni prefers. Such is the offense-defense double-bind for a team that's looking to produce an awful lot of offense.
If Lakers fans learned anything last season, though, it's that nothing's perfect. Even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry. Maybe the backup plans will work out better after all.
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