The Lakers remain one of the elite teams in the league. Among the chief reasons for this fact is the wealth of talent they possess at the top of their roster. With a core of Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Odom, and Artest the Lakers possess 5 of the better players in the league at their respective positions (yes, I include Artest here as his defense is still elite level and defense is half the game). And, even though I’m a firm believer in intangibles like chemistry and leadership, talent is still the foundation for every championship roster.
When you look at that list of players, however, you see duplication of skill set and position:
- Kobe is the starting shooting guard, but his next natural position is small forward.
- Artest is the starting small forward, but has been used as a small ball power forward in recent seasons.
- Pau Gasol is the starting power forward but moonlights as the back up (and sometimes starting) center.
- Lamar Odom is the back up power forward but could lay claim to being one of the best 10 players at that position in the league and has played extremely well whenever he’s asked to start.
When put in these terms, you see 4 of the Lakers best five players and most of their minutes are spent playing 3 positions on the floor (SG, SF, and PF). In terms of allocation of resources and optimization of minutes, this isn’t a formula that is ideal. Sure, the talent level is what you’d want but finding the appropriate number of minutes for these players while maximizing the talent on the floor can be a challenge.
When you throw in Andrew Bynum, the equation gets even muddier. Bynum is, by all accounts, a top 3 player at his position in the entire league. He’s one of the last “true” centers in the game and possesses an already advanced skill set that he’s still improving on. He needs court time to flourish; the Lakers want him on the court to help them win games. However, when he’s on the court, one of the other Lakers’ best players is almost certainly on the bench.
Thus, the question must be asked: are the Lakers properly constructed to maximize their ability to win a title?
This is a complex question that needs to be addressed from several angles.
First off, the Lakers are only one year removed from winning the championship with this exact core of players. This is obviously a formula that works. If you look at the world champion Mavericks, you see that they too built their team around versatile size that could match up with the Lakers and other contenders around the league. (Chandler and Marion were off-season additions and Haywood was re-signed that same off-season. When you add in Dirk, you have a four man big man rotation that was surely put together with beating the Lakers in mind.) It’s irresponsible to ignore these facts if you’re talking about the Lakers’ roster and whether or not they can win with the group they currently have.
However, the fact remains that the Lakers still have an issue with resource allocation. They’re built around the skill set of Kobe Bryant and the presence of 3 versatile, skilled big men. But it’s becoming clearer that those three big men (either by design or through bias) can’t play together and that Kobe’s game is evolving into more of a big man’s game in the body of a shooting guard. This leaves the Lakers few rotation choices and ultimately finds them having to make decisions on who of their best players play, rather than simply making sure their best players take the floor together. When you add in the overlapping skill set issues alluded to above, you have another tangential issue that is inescapable.
What complicates the Lakers’ issues further is the fact that the Lakers often get substandard production from at least one position on the court (point guard) and none of their best players are natural candidates to play this position. The Lakers, then, not only end up without their best 5 players on the court at the same time but also end up playing one of their weaker players due to the positional need of having a point guard on the floor. Essentially, they’re falling short on both sides of this equation.
This brings us back to square one.
The Lakers have a closing window of time to compete for a championship. The age and accumulated minutes of their best player(s) make this an undisputed fact. They have a core of championship quality players that have been to the mountain top before (and are good enough to get there again) but a group of role players that may not be up to the challenge as they have been in years past. Furthermore, that core group of players includes positional and skill overlap that leads to line up inefficiencies and, thus, not as good a team playing at any given moment as is possible. Meanwhile, the group of role players includes guys that bring intangibles to the table that every championship team needs.
If you’re the Lakers, do you ride with this group as it is now to give them another shot at the ring that eluded them this past summer? Or, do you make a trade to balance out the roster; a trade that creates more efficient line up possibilities – even if that trade lessens the overall talent on the team?
I’m on the record as a supporter of approach number one but there is validity in approach number two.
Make no mistake, though, the window is closing. Next season (whenever it starts) and the year after that mark the Lakers best chance of winning with a core built around Kobe Bryant. The answers to these questions of roster construction will play a crucial part in whether or not the Lakers win. And while their may not be a correct answer, we all have an opinion. What’s yours?