The Los Angeles Lakers visited the Mile High City Wednesday night—another opportunity for coach Mike D’Antoni to throw players against the wall, waiting for something to stick.
The matchup was notable on both sides for absences and revolving doors. The Lakers are still without Kobe Bryant, whose timetable for a return remains unsure. They’re also without the services of the league’s oldest active player—Steve Nash, out for at least two weeks with recurring back issues.
On the Denver side of things, Brian Shaw was facing the Lakers for the first time as a head coach. Shaw replaced the much-beloved George Karl this season. On the floor, the Nuggets are without starting center JaVale McGee due to a left leg stress fracture. Also, Danilo Gallinari continues to rehab from a left ACL knee injury.
The Lakers came into Denver on a back-to-back, having beaten the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night. For a Lakers team that has tossed an astounding number of starting lineups onto the court this season, it’s a question of what’s working and what isn’t. No team has had more starting lineups—six, matched only by the Bucks. None of the Lakers starting lineups have a winning record so far.
Emerging Stability for the Bigs?
Pau Gasol is one of two Lakers to start every game so far this season. This isn’t surprising—D’Antoni knew early on that his only set positions were Gasol and Nash. Obviously, the latter part of the question went right out the window.
Gasol hasn’t been the dominant force many were hoping for during Bryant’s absence. There’s reason for hope, however—he’s averaging a quiet double-double this season and stepped up his activity against the Nuggets, finishing on 12-of-27 for 25 points, along with 12 boards. That’s a lot of shot attempts, but he’s clearly the No. 1 option at this point and is also showing that he’s starting to get his shooting legs underneath him.
After being underused in the first several games, Jordan Hill is now starting at power forward. He had 18 points and 15 boards against Denver, even while being in foul trouble most of the way. This comes after 21 points and 11 boards against the Pelicans Tuesday night. Wednesday night was his second start of the season.
Chris Kaman was the third wheel, scoring eight points in a little over 18 backup minutes. Kaman has started three games this season.
So where’s the stability? It’s really more of a move away from small ball, utilizing the team’s frontcourt size. Shawne Williams started the first five games as an undersized power forward, and the results were less than encouraging. Wesley Johnson has also been used sporadically at the 4. D’Antoni’s emerging willingness to go big runs counter to his usual preference and could be an encouraging sign.
The Swing Question
Wednesday night, Johnson started at his natural small forward position where he can use his athleticism and a 7’1” wingspan. Johnson also started against the Pelicans on Tuesday, but as a shooting guard. Here is where the volatility in D’Antoni’s system continues. So far this season, there has been a continual shifting back and forth between guards and forwards.
Nick Young, an unapologetic gunner, started the first six games of the season at the small forward position. Since then, he’s been coming off the bench. Young is normally known as a 2-guard. He’s had his moments so far, but they haven’t been particularly consistent—he’s 9-of-31 beyond the arc to date. Still, he’s chucked enough biscuits at the bucket to hold down the team’s fourth-leading scorer slot at just under 12 points per game.
Xavier Henry, who’s been playing hard and picking up head wounds in the process, has started twice at the small forward position and has also put in time at the 2-guard.
Jodie Meeks has also done double-duty, depending on positional matchups, scoring 12 points per game from both the shooting guard and small forward spots. Meeks, known as a sharpshooter, has been active from outside, hitting 21 of 45 shots.
The 2 and 3 slots seem to be an obvious place for continued experimentation. Johnson looks to be a solid option as a starting small forward, shifting over to the 4 for small-ball lineups. There will be less room once Bryant returns.
Now is the time to see who can pick up the pieces—Young, Meeks or Henry.
Point Guard by Committee
Nash’s woes have been well-documented this season, and there’s really no point belaboring the fact. His body seems to be breaking down, and the prospect of that turning around seems increasingly iffy.
Steve Blake is the only other Laker to start all 10 games, first as the 2-guard and, more recently, at the point. Blake has been a steadying influence on the team and has a hot streak going from long distance—he’s 24-of-49 and also has a solid 6.1 assists per game.
Jordan Farmar, meanwhile, was supposed to be the perfect fit in D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll system. So far, the results have been mixed. Farmar’s one of the quicker guards in the league, but he hasn’t yet started a game, and his shooting percentage has been lackluster—34-of-86 overall and 9-of-29 from outside the arc.
Given the result against New Orleans, there was some hope that Blake, Meeks, Johnson, Hill and Gasol could trigger a winning run, considering they won their first game starting together. They now drop to .500 as starters, no better than any other Lakers starting lineup.
The Lakers now head back to Staples Center and will face Memphis on Friday night. The Gasol brothers will go one-on-one once again, and it’s a safe bet that D’Antoni will continue to call Hill’s number on the strength of his past couple of performances.
Or, is it? That is perhaps the only sure thing with the Lakers so far this season—that nothing is a given.