LA Lakers Still Need to Play Small Ball Next Season

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LA Lakers Still Need to Play Small Ball Next Season
Danny Johnston/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers played a ton of small ball last season and were the NBA’s second-fastest team. Neither trait did them very good.

But next season, a less-injured roster appears even more suited to play fast and small, and new coach Byron Scott should consider continuing on with the same strategy deployed by his predecessor, Mike D'Antoni.

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

Last year, injuries ravaged through Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar and several other Lakers, leaving D’Antoni no other choice but to play small and with tempo.

As the 2013-14 season dragged on, Wesley Johnson spent more time at power forward, and three of the team’s four main guards (Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall, Kent Bazemore and Nick Young) all spent time on the floor together for various stretches. They were the worst rebounding team in basketball but attempted the second-most three-pointers.

Next year, with Bryant and Nash back, Jeremy Lin in the fold, a gang of fresh-faced power forwards and no true center/rim-protecting presence to be found, the Lakers would be wise to embrace unorthodox, small lineups that create mismatches, allow the team to race up and down the court and put Los Angeles in a position to win by outscoring the opponent.

John Locher/Associated Press

Defense is sort of a hopeless dream for this particular unit. The frontcourt features Julius Randle, Ryan Kelly, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Robert Sacre. Of that group, the best defender is probably Hill, with everyone else ranking from below average to atrociously embarrassing.

Randle is a rookie, so it’s tough to gauge just how effective he’ll be on defense, but he was selected in the lottery because of untapped offensive skills. Kelly is a stretch 4 whose positive impact will only come when Los Angeles has possession. Boozer and Davis are solid rebounders who can do a bit of scoring, too.

The team’s real strength lies in its backcourt, where Nash, Lin, Bryant and Young all play. With his bigs clearly offense-first players, Scott should take advantage of the roster’s identity by putting as many guards on the floor at the same time as possible.

As Scott recently told Mike Trudell of Lakers.com in a wide-ranging interview, the Lakers have clear positional flexibility to go small:

[Randle, Boozer and Hill] can play together, because we're going to be small no matter what without a true center. Now, there aren’t many true centers in the whole league. But Julius will get plenty of chances to play a lot of minutes. We know he’s a rookie and needs to develop, and a lot of that will come in training camp and in practice. I think he’ll do just that. …

I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He's shown signs, but I think the kid is so talented, I'm really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now, obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that's on him. Or I could also put Kobe at that spot and put Steve next to Jeremy in the backcourt. There’s some flexibility there. But I've always been intrigued with Wesley, and I thought Xavier was excellent until he got hurt last year. But when you include Kobe and Swaggy, the wing is probably our strongest position.

The Lakers will be undersized no matter what, so it only makes sense for them to make the best of it. Experiment with Nash and Lin together, utilizing two point guards who can pass, penetrate, run a fast break and space the floor.

It's far from determined how often the aging Nash will play next season, but he's one of the best shooters in league history, while Lin’s three-point shot has improved each season he’s been in the league, topping out at 35.8 percent on four attempts per game last year with the Houston Rockets.

Bryant has played in the backcourt his entire career, but he’ll be 36 years old and coming off two serious injuries to his legs next season. Maybe the wiser move is putting him at small forward, which limits the amount of ground he needs to cover on defense. He won’t have to fight through as many screens on or off the ball, and in most situations he’ll be able to act as a mobile help defender.

On offense, with some combination of Lin, Nash, Young and maybe even rookie point guard Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt, Bryant will have the ball in his hands less often, which at this stage is a good thing. He can be better used more often as a scorer in transition, launching threes and driving past off-balance defenders.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Lakers are not fit to compete in the Western Conference, but playing traditional lineups cuts their 1 percent chance at a playoff berth down to zero. 

Even though there's a real possibility racing up and down the floor and turning every game into a track meet could wear down Los Angeles' older talent, it's also the only way this team will be competitive next season. They'll be entertaining, and points will be scored by both sides instead of one. It'll be a tough year for the Lakers, but unleashing small ball will, at the very least, maximize their ability and make them a more legitimate opponent. 

 

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina. 

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