With a combined 10 titles, 15 all-star selections and numerous all-NBA nominations, the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting five is without question the most lethal lineup in the NBA.
But when the second unit is called upon to supplant the starters, you might as well have your stress ball in-hand.
On Friday’s Christmas Day collapse, L.A.’s bench was the subject of scrutiny yet again— and for good reason. The Cavalier reserves outscored those of the Lakers, 31-17, including 19-2 in the first half. Truth be told, L.A.’s bench has been outscored 184-96 in five losses this season.
The Lakers’ bench, however, is not their problem. Instead, L.A.’s problem is the inability to find a viable medium between a near-flawless starting five and a subpar supporting cast.
For one, it is simply unrealistic to expect the bench mob to produce the same results as the current starters, especially when you replace two superstars (Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol), a lockdown defender (Ron Artest), a potential all-star (Andrew Bynum) and a gritty veteran (Derek Fisher) with a bunch of unproven players who, aside from Lamar Odom, are no less expendable than the truth is to a politician.
Naturally, there is going to be a considerable decline in production.
So how can Phil Jackson employ a more balanced attack rather than the “all in” approach he has used thus far?
It starts with benching Andrew Bynum, who has taken a major backseat to Pau Gasol since the Spaniard returned from a hamstring injury that sidelined him at the start of the season.
For whatever reason . Intimidation? Lack of touches? Not enough room to operate? Bynum has proven to be much less comfortable with Gasol on the floor.
While his numbers are indicative of this—the 22-year-old’s averages have dropped almost five points and four rebounds in wake of Gasol’s return—Bynum’s passive play and overall lack of involvement on both sides of the ball are more mind-boggling than his drop-off in stats.
By delegating him to the bench, Bynum becomes the second unit’s primary low-post option, a role in which he flourished while Gasol was out for the first 11 games, when he posted 20 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots per game. Furthermore, Bynum's presence will open up the floor for Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and even Sasha Vujacic if and when Bynum commands a double-team.
So with whom do you replace Bynum?
I’m glad you asked. Lamar Odom.
In theory, L.O. is your prototypical sixth man. He can play power forward or point forward, which creates matchup problems for most opponents, and he makes plays for both himself and for his teammates equally well.
But in reality, Odom has struggled as the Lakers’ sixth man. Since being designated back to the bench now that Gasol has resumed his starting role, Odom’s minutes have expectantly decreased, causing a shift in his MO.
Instead of allowing the game to come to him and playing within the offense like he was accustomed to doing as a starter—when he nearly averaged a double-double—Odom has been caught between trying to do too much on some nights and not doing enough on others since coming off the bench.
By reinserting him into the starting lineup, Odom provides the Lakers with more spacing in the triangle offense, a three-point threat (at least compared to Bynum) that will make opposing defenses second-guess sending a double-team to Bryant and Gasol, a player who can go coast-to-coast on any given possession and a defender who is effective both on the perimeter and in the paint.
Sure, the Lakers have won 16 of their last 18 games on their way to a Western Conference-best 23-5 record, but they are just 3-4 against the West’s top eight teams. And unless they can discover an equilibrium from beginning to end, starters to subs, the Lakers may win some battles, but they certainly won’t win the war.
Josh Hoffman is a college junior working to become a sports journalist. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter here .