The Los Angeles Lakers have quite a few tough calls to make in the future as they attempt to undergo a quick transition from bottom-feeding pushover to legitimate contender, but the present isn't exactly devoid of nail-biting decisions either.
A battle is brewing at point guard, with Kendall Marshall in one corner and Jordan Farmar in the other.
Marshall began his career with the Lakers in sensational style, but he's fallen back to earth in Icarian fashion over the last few weeks. After the lefty went scoreless four times in a five-game stretch, it was quite clear he no longer had a stranglehold over the starting spot.
Now he doesn't even have a grip on it.
"He (Farmar) could start. We’ll talk about it," Mike D’Antoni said during a press conference following the loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, as relayed by Mike Medina of InsideSocial.com. "I like him playing 25-30 minutes whether he starts or not. Then whoever plays well will finish the game. We’ll talk about it and see if he needs to start."
Too bad that's not the right decision.
It's not exactly a bad one, as this argument can swing in either direction with relative ease. But given the perceived intent of the remaining portion of the 2013-14 campaign, starting Marshall is more of a positive than letting him come off the bench to spell Farmar.
Marshall Is a Legitimate Talent
Let's not be so quick to throw Marshall's talent aside just because of a bad shooting stretch. Granted, the UNC product has connected on only 17.6 percent of his shots from the field over the last seven Lakers contests, and he's averaging only two points per game during the same span.
Clearly, he's in a scoring slump. There's no point in denying that.
But even with defenders slacking off him to jump passing lanes and prevent drives to the hoop, the southpaw is dishing out 8.3 assists per contest. And he's doing that in spite of shrinking playing time. Per 36 minutes, Marshall is posting 13.3 dimes.
If the Lakers have learned anything during the 2013-14 season, it's that Marshall is a bona fide talent at point guard, if for no reason other than his passing. Even when he's going to struggle with his shot—think about the earlier version of Rajon Rondo and the current version of Ricky Rubio—he can still dish out enough passes with pinpoint accuracy that he retains his valuable nature.
The offense has been better with him on the court than when he's on the bench, even when accounting for the recent slump.
As J.M. Poulard writes for Bleacher Report, "What’s more, Marshall puts pressure on defenses with his great decisiveness. He quickly concludes whether to pass or shoot, instead of simply endlessly dribbling the ball. Marshall’s willingness to keep things moving promotes passing and cutting with his comrades."
This isn't to say that Marshall is the better talent of the two point guards in question, just that he's a legitimate NBA-caliber player. That's necessary to establish, because if he were only a replacement-level point guard, the whole argument would be rendered moot.
Through the first 33 games of his stint with the Lakers, the former Tar Heel is averaging 8.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 9.5 assists per outing. He's also shooting 42.1 percent from the field and a scorching 44.8 percent when he lets fly from downtown, which is largely the result of intelligent shooting decisions and a hot streak earlier in his campaign.
Defense has been a struggle—a major one, in fact—but Marshall's 45.9 assist percentage, per Basketball-Reference, would leave him trailing only Chris Paul throughout the entire NBA if he'd played enough games to qualify for the leaderboard.
Basically, it's not like throwing Marshall out as a starter is tantamount to giving the other team an automatic advantage at point guard.
Farmar Is More of a Known Commodity
Which player do we know more about?
Option No. 1 is Farmar, who is 27 years old and has spent seven seasons in the NBA, five of which came while wearing a purple-and-gold jersey. Option No. 2 is Marshall, who is 22 years old and is currently in the midst of his sophomore season.
Especially because he's spent only 33 games in a Lakers uniform, Marshall is the clear underdog in this discussion.
Farmar's game has changed for the better since he left the Lakers for the New Jersey Nets prior to the 2010-11 campaign. He's become a more consistent distributor, a better shooter from beyond the arc and a player who seems more capable of leading an offense than ever before.
If you think he's the man who should lead the charge at point guard in the future, that's a perfectly valid opinion. Farmar has proven that he's able to do exactly that.
"I think he's definitely a more mature point guard and player," Pau Gasol told ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin at the very beginning of March. "He's got great poise. Too bad that he had the hamstring issues this season, that it didn't really give him a lot of continuity, because I think it would have been great if he would have been able to stay healthy."
OK, but how much better can he get? Where is the continued improvement going to come from?
Farmar may be a different player from his first go-round with the Lakers, but he's still more of a known commodity than Marshall. After all, the second-year floor general is essentially an enigma at the position, as everyone is still trying to figure out his ceiling.
It's clear that Marshall isn't going to be great defender, nor does he have much talent when it comes to putting the ball in the basket. But the latter flaw could be remedied over the years, as he's only 22 years old and still has plenty of time left to develop.
Ryan Ward argued for the lefty during a debate-style piece on LakersNation.com:
Over the past few games, Marshall has begun to struggle with many different parts of his game, but he was bound to hit a wall at some point as most players do. Although he has struggled lately, Marshall still has a lot of potential to be a starter in this league.
The only thing that I can see derailing his progress is the Lakers drafting a point guard in the upcoming 2014 NBA Draft. Taking a point guard with a high pick is a possibility with Dante Exum potentially being in the team’s crosshairs.
Bringing Dante Exum into the equation changes everything, but that's not the crux of this argument. We're only looking at Farmar and Marshall for the rest of the season, and Marshall's upside should make this choice a bit simpler.
After all, what do the Lakers have to play for?
Following their loss to the Pelicans, they're the not-so-proud owners of a 21-40 record, one that leaves them dead last in the Western Conference. The playoffs aren't even a remote possibility at this point, but the opposite end of the spectrum looms large.
Only four teams in the Eastern Conference have a lower winning percentage, and it's not entirely unlikely that both the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic could move ahead of the Lake Show by the end of the season.
Losing—much as Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the front office might hate to admit it—is advantageous. And that makes Farmar's current superiority irrelevant.
This season should be used for purposes of evaluation, whether we're talking about Kent Bazemore, Robert Sacre, MarShon Brooks, Jodie Meeks or Marshall.
Play the guy with upside as much as possible.
Might as Well Get to See Marshall's Off-Ball Skills
When playing for the Lakers, starting point guards have much different roles than the backups. And that's especially true right now, as the first-string floor general has to play alongside two ball-dominant players who have Gasol and Bazemore stitched across the back of their jerseys.
Small-sample-size warnings apply, but take a look at the usage rates of both point guards who have started and served as a backup for the Lakers during the 2013-14 season:
|Usage Rate Discrepancy|
|Player||USG% as Starter||USG% as Backup|
Maybe that's just a coincidence, but it also seems to make sense given the construction of the lineup.
When a point guard is playing alongside Gasol, who controls the offensive flow out of the post and from the elbows, he isn't able to handle the rock as often. The same goes for playing with Bazemore, who is capable of creating off the bounce and enjoys doing so.
As a result, off-ball excellence is important.
Coming off the bench, that doesn't matter as much. The floor general, whether it's Farmar or Marshall, is asked to take control of the point-producing efforts for much longer stretches.
During his second year in the Association, Marshall has been significantly stronger with the ball in his hands than running around screens and spotting up as an off-ball guard. That would make him a better fit for the second unit, but again, that's not important.
It's more crucial to test him in a situation that's uncomfortable and foreign to him. Maybe development ensues, or maybe the Lakers get a clearer indication of his limitations, giving them insight as to how he can be used in the future.
After all, Kobe Bryant's eventual return will force an even larger dichotomy between the two roles. The Lakers need to figure out whether Marshall can coexist with a ball-dominant 2-guard before the games actually start counting next season.
Essentially, endorsing Marshall as the man who should be starting right now is not the equivalent of calling him the starting point guard of the future. That role has yet to be determined, but the Lakers would be doing themselves a favor if they began the evaluation process with plenty of time to spare.
Starting Marshall lets them do exactly that.