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: