Making Sense of LA Lakers' Front-Line Rotation

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Making Sense of LA Lakers' Front-Line Rotation
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers have a revolving door of front-line players, and it’ll be interesting to figure out how the team will utilize them.

New head coach Byron Scott will have a lot of depth at power forward, which could end up being a good problem. Scott can play a pair of them at the same time or use a traditional lineup featuring a center. Determining the roles and minutes for each of his interior players won't necessarily be an easy task.

Here are the names of the Lakers’ power forwards and centers heading into the 2014-15 season:

Lakers Front Line
Player Age
Carlos Boozer 32
Ed Davis 25
Jordan Hill 27
Ryan Kelly 23
Julius Randle 19
Robert Sacre 25

Basketball-Reference.com

Where does that now leave the Lakers?

 

Starters

Based on Scott’s track record, it seems like a good bet to assume the Lakers will start two traditional big men. He’s always relied on either a pair of power forwards or a tandem featuring a center.

Interestingly enough, Los Angeles accumulated interior players before even agreeing to terms with Scott, which isn’t an accident or coincidence. InsideSoCal's Mark Medina explains: “They then wanted to fill out their roster this month during free agency to allow the personnel to dictate which coaching style they would prefer.” 

Tom Lynn/Associated Press

Because we know the Lakers will play “big,” we can project who will start based on talent and fit. The first domino is Hill. He can play as a power forward or center because of his strength and length.

At 6’10’’, Hill is a strong rebounder as evidenced by his 11.7 career boards per 36 minutes. In addition, he can be trusted around the elbows and farther out on the court to facilitate for his teammates with screens and ball movement, but Hill’s not much of threat beyond the paint. He should be confined offensively to the basket area, where he's always a threat to catch and finish.

Defensively, Hill is perhaps the best interior option on the roster. He’s not a great pick-and-roll defender, but he does enough to thwart opponents. Synergy Sports tells us roll men in the pick-and-roll convert 42.2 percent of their shots when Hill defends the roll man.

Hill typically sits back and waits for the point guard to come to him, which gives the big man an open jumper. If the roll man catches and heads straight to the basket, it’s quite often a layup. However, that’s hardly an easy task. However, opponents have a knack for missing shots around the rim when Hill is involved. He does just enough to force them into misfiring.

According to SportVU player tracking, opponents convert 50.6 percent of their shots when Hill contests them. That’s not exactly in the realm of celebrated defender Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers (41.4 percent), but Hill’s help defense should allow the Lakers to be competent defensively.

Considering Hill’s contributions will come in the form of help defense and a few garbage-type buckets, whoever plays alongside him will likely have to be a superior offensive player.

Someone who can shoot from mid-range and possibly even create a little off the bounce will fit well next to Hill because it’ll remove some of the congestion in the paint. Defenders hate leaving players that can hurt them offensively, and that might give the Lakers a bit of scoring punch if their power forward can create some offense.

The answer here might depend on the time of the season when we look at the team. I believe both Randle and the newly acquired Boozer are qualified for this job, but Boozer has a bit of a leg up.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

NBA.com tells us he made 39.2 percent of his mid-range shots with the Chicago Bulls last season, a figure that’s similar to the 42.2 percent jump-shooting assassin LaMarcus Aldridge made last year with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Boozer also has a good post game as well as the ability to take one hard dribble towards the basket and finish. Furthermore, if defenders converge on him, Boozer can make a quick pass to the open man provided he’s in his line of sight near the rim.

On top of all of these facets, the Lakers will especially appreciate Boozer’s rebounding prowess. Boozer averaged 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last year, and there’s no reason to think he won’t come close to that production during the 2014-15 campaign.

With that said, Boozer’s spot in the starting lineup might be temporary. There are questions about Randle, and those will only be answered once he starts playing.

His jump shot needs work, and until it’s automatic, he’ll be a bit of a liability next to Hill. Granted, that might not last.

“I think he's going to be able to consistently hit a 16-, 17-foot jumper,” said an Atlantic Division executive to David Aldridge over at NBA.com in May. “I think there's a good chance he's going to be an average NBA 3-point shooter.”

That probably won’t happen in his rookie year, but Randle could improve enough simply from a confidence perspective, which will force defenses into playing him on the perimeter. His jumper might be suspect, but his ball-handling might help make up for it.

Randle will get to places off the bounce that perhaps he won’t be able to get to with his low-post game against bigger defenders. Thus, it’s probably safe to say he will score some, but he will have to do so in a crowded paint until his jump shot improves.

Luckily for the Lakers, Randle is hardly a one-trick pony.

“I just think my versatility separates me from a lot of people,” Randle said in June, according to Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins. On top of the ball-handling and post-up game, he might just be a stud rebounder in the NBA.

Randle averaged 3.5 offensive rebounds in his lone collegiate season at Kentucky, and that should translate to the pro level. Thus, Randle will get some second-chance opportunities and should also help control the boards much like Boozer will for the Lakers.

The biggest question about Randle is his defense. And by question, we’re asking how bad it will be. In April, Celtics Blog’s Kevin O’Connor broke down Randle's defense and assessed he has very little off-ball awareness and is a poor rim protector.

It’s worth noting these things stood out in college. NBA teams are like sharks; the moment they smell blood they pounce. They will attack Randle and force him to make rotations time and time again. His inability to do so will likely get him routinely exposed, which will result in the opposition scoring at a fairly high rate.

As a result Boozer should start at power forward. That might sound comical to some given he’s been much maligned for his defense during his career. In February, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Rick Morrissey offered this point: “And Boozer could be a better defender by defending.”

Morrissey isn’t a comedian, I gather, which speaks to how bad Boozer is on defense. See for yourself:

He’s usually in the right spots, except he doesn’t do much at the point of attack. It’s a big part of why he had one of the worst defensive real plus-minus ratings last season (-0.03). He’s unreliable on defense, which is why Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau glued him to the bench during fourth quarters in favor of Taj Gibson.

Boozer was clearly irked by his coach’s strategy and shared as much, according to Morrissey: “He coaches, so he decides that. But, honestly, he’s been doing that a lot since I’ve been here, not putting me [in the game] in the fourth quarter. Sometimes we win. More times than not, we don’t. But that’s his choice.’’

It’s easy to view Boozer as a punching bag given his deficiencies on defense and unwillingness to acknowledge them. However, he’s a seasoned vet who actually grasps defense on some basic level, no matter how late he may be in his rotations.

Randle hasn’t yet been through the fire and struggled with defending basic sets while at Kentucky. That should improve with time and repetition, but I doubt he’ll come out of the gate ready to contribute defensively.

 

The Reserves

Randle will probably headline the reserve group. [same graph] I can see him getting 15-20 minutes per game in a support role for Boozer.

I've outlined his defensive shortcomings, and that will prevent him from earning more playing time unless he’s pressed into carrying an additional workload due to foul trouble or injuries.

The second player off the bench should and will be Davis who was released by the Memphis Grizzlies during the offseason. Although he’s a natural power forward, it’s probably best to have him go up against backup centers.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

At 6’10’’ and 225 pounds, Davis will be undersized for the position, but he’ll likely have a quickness advantage against opponents. That’s important because the majority of his offense consists of him catching and finishing quickly because defenses mostly ignore him.

Indeed, 70.3 percent of his field goals were assisted last season, per NBA.com. Davis simply can’t create shots. He needs help from his teammates, and he should be able to get some scores especially when the man tasked with defending him is slow and has trouble recovering back to Davis.

That’s very important because he’s not a good finisher. Davis either misses his shot or gets it blocked when defenders challenge him. Luckily, he’s quick off his feet and can go right back up with the ball if he secures the offensive rebound, and Davis will do just that.

He’s averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes for his career. Given the mediocre offensive talent, it makes sense to relegate him to the second unit as a center where he should get a few easy scoring opportunities.

Defensively, it should be more of the same. Davis does a good job of containing the ball-handler and running back to his man. However, he has issues closing out to his man if he gets the ball. If his primary assignment is a jump shooter, Davis is fine most of the time because he races back and contests.

He gets himself into trouble when his opponent has just a tad bit of ball-handling skills. Because Davis closes out hard, a dribbling big man can easily blow by him for a score directly at the basket.

That could be damning at power forward, but very few centers can make that type of play. Thus, Davis should be fine in this setting against pivot men. It’s worth noting small-ball units might throw things a bit off track. Opposing teams can downsize and throw out a power forward at the center spot, which could result in some difficult matchups for Davis.

That will likely be an issue, but if he’s playing just around 20 minutes per game, that should limit the damage. Scott could always use Sacre in this spot, but it seems doubtful. The Lakers have struggled with their defensive rotations whenever Sacre’s been on the floor.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

The communication simply isn’t there. He might stay too long with the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll or choose to pick up the least threatening offensive player whenever two opponents become open.

Sacre is often out of place, and Los Angeles suffers for it. Offensively, he’s even more dependent than Davis on others to create scoring chances. NBA.com tells us 81.8 percent of Sacre’s made field goals were assisted during the 2013-14 campaign.

As a result, I’m inclined to believe he’ll play a little less than 10 minutes per game whenever he does get into contests.

That leaves us with one last interior player: Kelly.

He offers a different dimension to the Lakers because of his three-point shooting, but he’s not quite yet a serviceable rotation player. His long-range shooting is certainly appreciated, but Kelly only made 33.8 percent of his treys last season. That’s decent, but it doesn’t alter or bend defensive schemes all that much.

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Opponents aren’t all that concerned about him because he doesn’t do much in terms of creating scoring plays. He’s a standstill shooter more than anything, which means teams simply need to recover back to him and contest his shot.

He won’t put the ball on the deck and hurt you much as evidenced by the fact 71.3 percent of his shots were assisted last season. Kelly needs help, and even with it, he only converted 42.3 percent of his shots last year.

His offense won’t help him get any court time, and the same is true for his defense. Kelly’s not much of an individual or team defender. His defensive real plus-minus rating (-1.02) was ranked 73rd among power forwards because he wasn’t always in the right spots.

Also, opposing big men enjoyed seeing Kelly defending them because they could simply back him down on the low block and shoot right over the top. Kelly is subpar both offensively and defensively, which will earn him maybe five minutes per contest.

Scott will almost exclusively go to him in emergency situations like fouls, injuries, suspensions or trades to name a few.

I’m intrigued to see how this front line does against some of the deepest interior groups in the league. On paper, the Lakers’ big guys look like they could help the team look respectable, and the 2014-15 campaign will let us know just what exactly it is they are.

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