Following their worst season in franchise history, the Los Angeles Lakers went all in this summer with multiple signings of big men they hope will shore up what can only be described as a Swiss cheese defense.
Can you blame them?
The rudderless Lakers, 27-55 under former coach Mike D’Antoni, avoided rebounding and overall defense as if it were root canal surgery. If Staples Center had been a freeway, we’d all have wanted to drive it because lanes were generally wide open.
Among such frontcourt players as Pau Gasol, Robert Sacre, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman, it seemed that only Hill relished mixing it up and fighting for rebounds. Gasol left for the Chicago Bulls while the erratic Kaman signed with the Portland Trailblazers.
The Lakers rewarded Hill’s best season as a professional with a two-year, $18 million contract extension. He set career highs in minutes (21), points (9.7), rebounds (7.4), and field goal percentage (54.9).
At 27, Hill is just entering his prime and is likely to see a substantial increase in minutes, both at power forward and center for the Lakers. If the season were to start today, Hill should get the starting nod at center.
In addition to holdover center Robert Sacre, Hill and second-year power forward Ryan Kelly, the Lakers drafted big man Julius Randle from Kentucky in the first round of the draft (seventh overall pick).
L.A. then signed former Memphis Grizzlies forward Ed Davis to a two-year deal for $2 million and later grabbed NBA veteran Carlos Boozer from the Chicago Bulls for just $3.25 million after he left via the NBA's amnesty provision.
And so the Lakers are now top-heavy at the power forward position heading into camp this fall. New head coach Byron Scott will need to find a way to dole out minutes to five big men who can all make significant contributions on both ends of the court.
Defense Should See Major Improvement With New Front Court
D’Antoni’s idea of defense was a good offense. Sure, the Lakers averaged 103 points a game last season, good enough for 11th in the league. But they also surrendered 109, making them the second-worst defensive outfit in the league, only slightly better than the equally inept Philadelphia 76ers.
Byron Scott is the antithesis of D’Antoni when it comes to defense. First and foremost, he preaches defense, while D'Antoni considered it a four-letter word. As a player, Scott was an excellent defender and that mindset has carried over into his coaching career.
The Cavs ranked in the bottom five in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of Scott’s three seasons. That’s not just bad. It’s unprecedented.
Yet, Schuhmann goes on to also write that "Scott had a No. 1 defense in New Jersey and top 10 defenses twice with the Hornets."
One could easily argue that, given the talent, Scott's teams play sound defense. Those defenseless Cavalier teams were very young and lacking any real talent. They also were missing LeBron James, who bolted for the Miami Heat just several days after Scott accepted the job in Cleveland.
Former New Orleans Hornets assistant coach Dave Miller worked under Scott and is an analyst in-studio at Time Warner Cable SportsNet. His take on Scott's strengths as a defensive-minded coach is resolute.
It shouldn’t be hard for the Lakers to improve their defense, especially with Boozer, Davis, Hill and Randle all clogging the middle and fighting for rebounds and loose balls. Good defense is part athleticism, part state-of-mind. Scott will instill the latter, the rest will be up to his players.
Starting Combinations - Who Comes Off the Bench?
We’re likely to see any number of combinations this fall in the Lakers frontcourt. Don't be surprised to occasionally see a trio of big men on the court at the same time. They all bring something different to the party.
Boozer has always been a power forward but could become a hybrid should Scott choose to pair him with the likes of Hill and Randle or Hill and Davis.
Boozer is an ironman, having started 749 of the 790 games he has played in the NBA. He averages 32 minutes a game and can be counted on for 15 points and eight rebounds almost routinely. Like Hill and Randle, Boozer will battle for rebounds on both ends of the court.
Boozer is 32 but says he is fit and could play for many years. Via Mark Medina of InsideSoCal.com, Boozer said "My body feels great. I’m looking forward toward getting back out there. I don’t know how long I’m going to play, maybe four, five, six more years, maybe seven. We'll see and go from there."
For his part, Davis, a national champion when he played at the University of North Carolina (2009), is not lacking in confidence. He told reporters at his introductory press conference, via Eric Pincus of the L.A. Times, that "I can play both positions, the four and the five. I bring athleticism, defend, run the floor, block shots, rebound—all the little things."
The 6’10”, 25-year-old Davis is a sleeper who could work his way into some starting minutes or at least see significant time coming off the bench. He averaged just 15 minutes a game the past two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies but was playing behind two legitimate All-Stars in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The 13th overall pick of the Toronto Raptors in 2010, Davis knows how to win. His University of North Carolina Tar Heels won the NCAA championship his freshman year in 2009.
Jordan Hill should be the starting center when the Lakers open their season. Though undersized at 6’10", Hill has played the position before and is strong enough to man up against most other centers in the league.
As their only true center, Robert Sacre would come off the bench to spell Hill. Hill could then either sit or slide over to the 4.
How best to utilize Julius Randle, the team’s first pick and seventh overall? With a game that resembles a very young Lamar Odom, the 6’9”, 250-pound Randle is a legitimate offensive glass-eater who plays with a high motor.
Scott likes what he sees of his 19-year-old rookie, via Pincus:
The young kid is very gifted. Offensively, he can rebound the ball, he can score in the post, he's probably got 15-foot range. He handles the ball extremely well for a big man. I look at him as Zach Randolph but more athletic. I think in a few years he's going to be a monster, once he really learns what the NBA is all about.
Surplus at Forward Leaves Scott with Options
Scott will have other options, including the use of a faster unit that places a wing—Nick Young, Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry or even Ryan Kelly—at the 3.
Small forwards like Young, Henry and Johnson can flat-out fly, but none of them are strong enough to contest bigger forwards on the boards. This is when good coaching comes into play.
Scott is still sorting out what he has and may be doing that for quite some time. If the Lakers play against an up-tempo opponent, he might still employ a big frontcourt. But guards Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will need to be effective at slowing down the initial pace.
It will be up to the veteran Scott to know which frontcourt players make the most sense in a particular situation. If nothing else, he will have options.
Who Should Start in the Front Court for the Lakers?
The Lakers of 2014-15 are not bound for NBA Championship glory, but they should be interesting to watch. They have youth, athleticism, length and, under Scott, a defensive mindset.
Management has loaded up on big men in an obvious attempt to improve their defense and move away from D’Antoni's run-and-gun philosophy on offense.
Barring major injuries, the team has sufficient firepower in the backcourt with a seemingly healthy Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin, Steve Nash and rookie Jordan Clarkson. Their overall play will shape that of the frontcourt.
These Lakers are not going to win many foot races. But a renewed commitment to strong defense and a deliberate half-court offense will see a plethora of big men help usher in a new Lakers era in Tinseltown.