Second Verse, Same as the First

Darius Soriano —  September 30, 2009


Golden State Warriors vs Los Angeles Lakers

The other day, I read an interesting piece over at Silver Screen and Roll about what players the Lakers should deploy as their second unit.  It focussed mostly on the Lakers’ backcourt rotation and who should play behind Kobe and Fish to allow the team to perform its best at all times.  You should check it out if you have a minute.  Anyways, that post and Kurt’s recent portrait of how Artest will fit into the Triangle got me thinking about roles, minutes, rotations, and style of play.  It got me thinking about how this team will play over the course of a full 48 minutes and what we can expect on a nightly basis from the starters and the bench.  And it had me wondering, how much will next years team look (and play) like the one that just won the title?

First, let’s look back at last season.  When the season started, the contrast in style between our first and second units was stark.  Our starting group of Fish, Kobe, RadMan/Walton, Gasol, and Bynum were a traditional half court team.  Yes, they got out and ran when the opportunity presented itself.  And yes, they strayed away from running the Triangle as consistently as past teams coached by Phil Jackson.  But, for the most part, this first unit played in the half court and with a controlled, deliberate style.  I understand that when you look at the pace that the team played at last season (5th fastest in the league) that this doesn’t quite add up.  But in reality, our pace was increased because we often took the first “good shot that presented itself – think Fisher or Kobe pujits, P&R’s on the secondary break, one-pass-then-shoot jumpers, post-lane sprints by our bigs, etc.  But when we really evaluate the Lakers’ first unit, they ran their sets, pounded the ball inside, and played the pick and roll with Kobe and Gasol/Bynum.  Ultimately, this unit’s goal was to punish teams with their ability to play efficient half court basketball.

Then, after about four or five minutes of this style of play, the Lakers would bring in Odom, Farmar, and Ariza and everything would change.  On almost every single possession, the Lakers would push the ball.  Farmar would get the outlet pass and get the ball upcourt as quickly as possible.  Odom would snatch defensive rebounds and proceed to quickly change ends in the hopes of creating an easy basket.  Ariza would pressure ball handlers, force steals, and fill lanes looking for a lob from Jordan or an easy tip in off a missed attempt in transition.  The pace only ratcheted up more when Sasha would replace Kobe and the Lakers would have an entire unit looking to run at every opportunity.  This contrast in styles was one of the main reasons our second unit was so successful when the season started.   I often compared it to the NFL when a team would use a big, bruising running back to soften up defenses and then replace him with a change-of-pace speedster to catch the opposition off guard and put them on their heels.  When teams played us, they not only lacked the depth to tangle with a team that went ten deep, but they also didn’t know how to deal with a team as diverse as ours.  I mean, how do you prepare for this type of schizophrenia from a team?  The fact is, teams really couldn’t prepare and fans saw leads balloon and our bench universally hailed as one of the best in the league.

As the season wore on though, this diversity dissipated.  Farmar got hurt and Fish played more minutes.  Bynum also went down and Odom became a starter.   Then, Walton ceded his starting position to Trevor.  Gradually, the quickness and frenetic pace of our second unit got blended with our starting group and our bench became a snail of its former self.  Gone was the lineup based on speed and agility and put in its place was a more steady and controlled group (Walton, Powell, Mbenga) that looked like a watered down version of our first unit.  They became a more half court team where post ups of Luke, stagger screens for Sasha, and pick and pops for Powell were the complements around the all around games of Gasol (playing huge minutes) and Kobe (still not getting the type of rest many thought would come with a team this deep).  When Farmar finally returned, the second unit tried to return to its running ways, but the transformation to a slower unit was almost entirely complete.  Ultimately we saw Jordan struggle with a hodge-podge lineup where Ariza and Odom were replaced with Walton and Powell and the uptempo style that was so effective earlier in the season was no more.  (On a side note, this is around the same time that Jordan started questioning his “role”.  Soon, the Lakers would also trade for Ammo and WOW.  Then the playoffs would start and any semblance of what our second unit used to be was scrapped for the methodical nature of the second season.  But I digress.)

Now let’s look at this upcoming season.  Regular commenter Stephen makes a great point about the potential style of next year’s team in the comments about integrating Artest into the Triangle:

The reason is Ron and the Triangle pretty much have to work well as the team’s quick-strike fast break attack has taken a major hit.  Ariza was a key ingredient to the break and this yr’s team has no speed on the wing w/Artest,Walton or Morrison.  This year’s Lakers are going to have to do a lot of half-court grinding it out type games. Of course the team is well equiped to do just that.

Think about the ten players that are most likely to play significant minutes every night.  Fisher, Kobe, Artest, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, Walton, Farmar, Brown, and Sasha.  Of those ten players, only Farmar and Sasha are players that consistently like to play at a fast pace (more on them later).  And even though Brown is a player that is capable of making some WOW plays, he has played his best ball when he got significant minutes with the starting group and he could play a half court game where he got open shots off the movement and motion of the offense.  And while Gasol and Bynum are players that like to run the floor and are athletic enough to beat their man down the court as they quickly change ends, they are still best suited setting up in the half court and punishing opponents with their ability to post up, pass, and get offensive rebounds.  This same sentiment holds true for Odom.  Yes, he is fantastic at initiating the fast break after securing the defensive rebound – and next season I expect he’ll still do plenty of this.  But, I also know that Lamar has been at his very best (for the Lakers) as an active body in the half court where he can be rewarded by playing with gifted passers and Bigs that actually require attention from defenses by cutting to open spaces, getting offensive rebounds, and (when working to get his own) penetrating against the slower PF’s that are matched up with him.

So when evaluating the pace and style of the next seasons’ second unit, I anticpate a higher priority to be placed on slowing down the tempo and executing the offense.  I expect for the second team to play a very similar style to the first unit and to punish teams with execution.  And Farmar and Sasha will either adjust or ride the bench.  I actually think this style of play will benefit both players as (last season) they were allowed to free lance too much (Farmar) or did not get enough minutes with players that create shots for them (Sasha) and it led to forced looks in transition and the firing up of shots that weren’t in the best interests of the offense.  When it comes to Farmar, I do think he can excel playing a controlled half court game.  We saw this in last year’s playoffs against Houston in the game that Fisher was suspended.  Farmar did a very good job of running our sets and gettting open jumpshots through the motions of our sets.  He shot the ball with confidence and it crossed over to the other aspects of his game (defense, overall decision making, focus).  As for Sasha, who really knows?  I think he’s capable of having a bounce back year and I also think that despite the presence of Artest (and Ron’s ability to play minutes as the Kobe of the second unit), that Sasha will be needed for extended stretches and we will need him to produce.  Can he do it?  If you know the answer to that, please pass along tomorrow’s lottery numbers to me as well.

Again, look at the Lakers’ roster and, specifically, the players that will likely make up our second team: Brown/Farmar, Sasha, Luke/Artest, Odom, Bynum.  At any given time, Farmar and Sasha are likely to be playing with Odom, Artest and/or Luke, and Bynum.  Besides Odom, none of those players are fast break players and all of them play better in the half court than they do in transition.  I think the coaches recognize this, will adjust their mindset accordingly, and it will be reflected in the philosophy and approach of how this team plays.  As Stephen stated, this team is well equipped to play a grind it out style.  This goes for our first team and our second team.   Only time will tell if this comes to fruition, but I think we can expect a more consistent approach to how we’re going to play on offense this upcoming season from unit to unit.  Basically, I think we’ll see a similar style from the first and second units.  Part of this is our personnel and part of this is the grooming of our young players (I’m looking at you Farmar and Brown) to perform roles that we’ll need in upcoming seasons.  But this is just a hypothesis as I look at the current make up of the team.  What do you think?


Darius Soriano

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