Looking At Lineups: Which Lakers Bigs Should Be Playing

Darius Soriano —  April 25, 2011

It’s a common held belief that the Lakers biggest strength is that they have three top level big men that they can deploy in any combination that opponents struggle to match up with. I’ve long been a member of that school of thought and still hold the belief that if the Lakers are to claim their third championship in as many years it’s their big men that will do a lot of the heavy lifting. That said, this is also a problem of sorts for the Lakers. You see, only two of these three bigs can play at any given time and that means that one of the Lakers best players will always be on the bench watching instead of helping the team win. Granted this is a great problem and one that every team in the league would love to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In any given game the coaches have to make hard choices as to who plays and who sits; choices that can affect the outcome in any given game.

Looking at the Lakers/Hornets series, we’re now at the point where questioning those choices is fair game.

First, let me say that there isn’t a coach I respect more than Phil Jackson. He’s a championship coach 11 times over and his ability to coax the best out of the great players he’s had at his disposal is second to none. The old phrase “he’s forgotten more basketball than I’ll ever know” certainly applies here and I’d be foolish to suggest that I have some sort of magic elixir that he’s not thought of. That said, the Lakers are tied 2-2 in a series in which they have more talent – especially in the front court – and some of that is related to the fact the Lakers big men have under-performed. With that being the case, it’s certainly fair to ask whether or not the Lakers are playing the right combination of big men and if there should be a shift in who plays, how much they play, and when they play.

Using NBA.com’s Stat’s Cube, there are some interesting numbers that need to be explored further. Consider the following defensive statistics:

  • When Andrew Bynum is on the court, the Hornets post an offensive efficiency of 97.86. When he is off the court, that number jumps to 116.24. That’s a net difference of 18.38 less points scored per 100 possessions when Bynum is on the court vs. when he sits.
  • For Gasol, those same numbers are 104.87 (on) and 101.37 (off). Odom’s numbers are 108.06 (on) and 98.76 (off).

What these numbers tell us is that Andrew Bynum is the Lakers best defensive big and it isn’t even close. His numbers are so great that he positively affects the other Laker big men just by sharing the court with them. Now consider the following offensive numbers:

  • When Bynum is on the court, the Lakers post an offensive efficiency of 105.59. When he’s off the court, that number goes up to 110.88.
  • For Gasol those numbers are 108.01 (on) and 105.69 (off). Odom’s numbers are 106.84 (on) and 108.27 (off).

Based off these numbers, it’s also fair to say that the Laker lineups that don’t include Bynum perform better offensively. They score over 5 points more per 100 possessions and both Odom and Gasol have better on court numbers than Bynum does.

Essentially, this is the trade off that the Lakers face every single game. Bynum is a key defensive performer but Gasol and Lamar are part of line ups that score better. Intrinsically, this makes sense. Sure Bynum has been the Lakers’ best post up threat and has been beastly when isolated on the low block. That said, both Odom and Gasol offer more diverse offensive games, showing a greater ability to run the Laker offense and set up teammates within the flow of the Triangle.

All that said, when you look at the statistics and the line ups a bit closer, it’s easier to identify who the weak link in the front court has been so far this series. The answer to that question is….Lamar Odom.

Lamar Odom is the only member of the big man trio to boast a negative efficiency differential when he’s on the court – the Hornets score 1.22 points more per 100 possessions when Odom is playing. Said another way, when Odom is on the court, the Lakers are a worse team so far this series. In converse, Bynum has the best efficiency differential (+7.73) and Gasol is no slouch either (+3.14). Over at Basketball Value, this is spelled out even clearer. The Lakers top two line ups in terms of minutes played are their starting line up (73.4 minutes) and the line up where Odom replaces Bynum (33.23 minutes). The Lakers starting line up has an efficiency differential of +11.52 while the lineup that swaps Bynum for Odom has a differential of -15.19.

It’s this last stat that is most damning as this is the lineup that Phil Jackson uses to close out games. Granted, these are small sample sizes, but the swing in differential is so big it can’t be ignored. Sure, both line ups score about the same (about 110 points/100 possessions) but the difference in defensive effectiveness is off the charts as the unit with Bynum has a defensive efficiency of 98.5 while the line up that swaps ‘Drew for LO has a rating of 124.6.

In the end, the solution here is pretty clear. Lamar Odom – as much as I love him – needs to either play drastically better or needs to be substituted in favor of Andrew Bynum much less. This isn’t to say that Odom shouldn’t play at all, but it does mean that he shouldn’t be paired with Gasol nearly as much and definitely shouldn’t be closing out games next to him. The other side to that coin is that Bynum definitely should be closing against this Hornets team. Sure, the Lakers perform slightly worse on offense with Bynum in the game but the improvement on defense is too large to be pushed to the side. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter if Bynum closes next to Gasol (though that is preferred) or Odom, as long as he closes. This may all change if the Lakers advance and face a different team but against the Hornets, it’s what the numbers (and my eyes) are telling me.

Darius Soriano

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