The Los Angeles Lakers are just five games into their regular season and already, questions are mounting about playing time for the L.A. frontcourt.
Given the need to preserve Pau Gasol's legs for a possible stretch run, it makes sense to find a workable combination involving the three primary bigs—Gasol, Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill. Gasol was hampered by tendinitis last year and had his knees scoped over the summer, so it's imperative the Lakers identify the right bigs to both play with him and limit his minutes.
The idea of bringing Wesley Johnson in for small-ball opportunities certainly makes sense. There is, however, the very real case of chemistry, especially with Gasol, a team co-captain who is often its most pragmatic anchor.
Last season, D’Antoni found himself in an untenable situation, coming late to the game and trying to find balance between a new superstar center in Dwight Howard and a longtime leader in Gasol. There was also the matter of the coach's aversion to big lineups. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep the Howard and Gasol on the floor together.
The problem is a bit of a traffic jam—it’s fundamentally an issue of big versus small. Welcome to another year in D’Antoni’s system.
Kaman, the newly arrived big man, was supposed to make Gasol's life easier. In order to do that, however, he needs to be on the floor. Arash Markazi from ESPN Los Angeles explores the patience issue, as Kaman explains his frustrations:
It’s not easy, but I want to be patient with Coach because he’s a good guy and he’s been straight with me...We’ve talked and he’s said, ‘Hey, I want to get you in there more, but I’m trying to do everything.’ It’s hard to make everybody happy and do your job and win. There’s a lot going on there for him.
Kaman came in off the bench Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, primarily spelling Gasol at center. Kaman had 10 points and seven boards in 17 minutes, but the Lakers were absolutely shelled, 123-104.
Gasol enjoys playing alongside Kaman. In the same article, the man from Barcelona mentions how Kaman’s salmonella issue threw a wrench into the stew:
It would have been interesting if he didn’t get sick for that week...That would have changed things and we probably would have kept playing and he would have started, but he got sick. I’d also like to see Jordan get more minutes too because Jordan is working his butt off. He’s really hustling. We don’t always have to play with a 4 who’s small.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Gasol wants to work with both Kaman and Hill. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem—there’s plenty of minutes to spread among three players at the center and power forward positions.
At issue is D’Antoni’s fondness for spreading the floor, using athletic players at the 4 who can leak out to the perimeter and drain three-pointers. Here's a look at the four primary rotation players at the position.
One of the obvious questions when the Lakers acquired Kaman this summer was what his role would be in the Lakers frontcourt. Kaman has traditionally been a center in the league, though he does have the ability to step out and hit mid-range jumpers. He's not exactly a classic stretch 4, however. It was a bit surprising then, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN, when D'Antoni raised the possibility before the season started of pairing Gasol and Kaman:
I think they're very complementary to each other in the sense of of both of them can play 15-feet and in, both of them can post up, both of them can move the ball real well.
If that's the case, why isn't it happening? Ideally, Kaman should start at the power forward position and slide over to center when Gasol takes his first breather. At that point, Hill should come in at the 4.
Hill is all about raw energy and flat-out hustle. His strengths are operating around the basket. He's got good length and athleticism, with the ability to crash the boards, block out and occasionally toss one in from the paint. Per Darius Soriano at Forum Blue and Gold:
Yes, Hill has become a closer of sorts who comes in late and impacts the game down the stretch to either keep a game close or help the team win. But, it's safe to say he should probably get more minutes in other parts of the game to try and make sure the ends of the game aren't as close.
Against the Mavericks, D'Antoni had Hill start the second half in place of Shawne Williams. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding mentioned, however, Hill has been slowed by a bone bruise in his right knee.
Enter the small-ball scenario. Currently, Johnson, a former lottery pick out of Syracuse, has been coming off the bench for Williams and providing a much-needed spark. His shooting has been lacking, going 16-of-47 through five games, but he did score nine points and added seven boards and three blocks in Sunday night's win against the Atlanta Hawks.
Williams has started all five games so far this season, He played well for D'Antoni in New York for one season, as a tough undersized 4 with a decent outside stroke. He's had a rough path in the NBA but has been given another chance. He's just 3-of-10 from beyond the arc this season, but his coach has stuck with him as the starting power forward. Still, he's only averaging 13.6 minutes per game.
The problem with pairing Williams and Johnson is someone gets squeezed—Kaman and Hill are forced to settle for scraps, primarily relieving Gasol as part of a three-pronged center rotation. You can split the two positions pretty easily between four guys. Five slices of the pie chart becomes a lot more dicey.
Johnson’s an intriguing choice in the power forward slot, but at 215 pounds, he won't be able to bang with other bigs over the course of a season. He's better suited at the small forward, switching occasionally over to the 4, depending on matchups and opportunities.
Somebody’s got to be the odd person out of course. Simply looking at the numbers, it could be Williams. Then again, he had a slow start with the Knicks a few years back. According to Mark Medina at the Los Angeles Daily News, D’Antoni’s not giving up on so fast, however.
“If we would evaluate the team play by stats then yeah,” D’Antoni said. “But we don’t do that because we’re trying to connect. Everything has a purpose."
A long season stretches ahead. Mess around too long, however, and you can lose out on the most important part the campaign—that which comes when the clock resets and the playoffs begin.
A lot of last year’s pressure and distraction is off this year's Laker team. Still, the challenges are present, including the question of Kaman’s happiness. He’s known for a quirky personality but is pledging patience. As he said about D'Antoni in the above Markazi piece: “I don’t want to make it harder for him than it already is."
That's gracious coming from Kaman, especially considering how difficult managing these four already must be for the head coach. The search for answers in D'Antoni's system continues.