Swapping Starters

Darius Soriano —  December 16, 2011

With many still focusing on the deal that wasn’t, then the one that was, and now waiting for the one that might be, it’s easy to forget about the guys that are actually here. This isn’t to say new players won’t be brought in – the Lakers have until the end of the day to use the trade exception from the Sasha Vujacic trade and have a year to use the TPE obtained in the Odom trade – and it’d be foolish to think Mitch isn’t still working the phones trying to fill out the rest of the roster. But with the season rapidly approaching, the emphasis on what the team looks like now should move front and center while wistful thoughts of what it could be recede to the background.

Plus, trading or signing players aren’t the only ways to change a roster around. Deciding who plays, how much, and when is also pretty important. And while fans wait for roster upheaval, the coaches are looking at ways to maximize the players currently on the team.

With that in mind, reports have surfaced that  Metta World Peace will move to the bench in favor of Matt Barnes running with the starting group. This is no small news as MWP has been a fixture in the starting line up nearly his entire career, though his move to a reserve role could be beneficial to the Lakers.

He’ll have more responsibility as a “leader” on the 2nd unit and will not have to share the ball as much with high usage, high need players like Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum. Relegating Artest to the corner to shoot spot up jumpers or giving him the occasional post touch doesn’t maximize the skill set of a player who over the span of his career has been a pretty dangerous offensive player. As he’s aged his effectiveness has waned, but the complexities of the Triangle and his struggles with fully grasping all the read and react actions certainly aided his decline offensively.

This isn’t to say the rosiest outcome is the only possibility. Giving MWP more free rein in the second unit could very well bring out some of the offensive traits that had Lakers’ fans concerned when he was originally acquired. The ball stopping, suspect shot taking wing player that Sacramento and Houston weren’t sad to see leave. I’m optimistic this won’t be the case as MWP has grown as a player in the past two seasons in LA – saying and doing the right thing more often than not.

Peace’s move, though, is only one half of this equation. Barnes will now find himself running with the first group and this should benefit his game and the Lakers. Barnes is more a natural low usage player who excels off the ball as a cutter and in going to the glass on offense. His instincts are to move into open space, and that quality will serve the first unit well when Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum draw the lion’s share of the defensive attention in half court sets.

Where Barnes will make an even bigger impact is in his ability to run the floor. Per Synergy Sports, 18% of Barnes’ shots came in transition (compared to only 11% for MWP), where he made 66% of his baskets. We all remember how often Barnes would receive a pass streaking ahead of the defense and with Brown emphasizing early offense and “attacking the shot clock”, Barnes can thrive as a lane filler looking for easy baskets. It remains to be seen if the rest of the starting group – who seem more comfortable playing a slow down game – will fully take advantage of dimension Barnes will add, but with the coaches preaching a sped up pace I’m cautiously optimistic they will.

The area where this swap may not go as well is on defense. MWP remains a top level defender. Per Synergy, he was the one of the elite wing stoppers in the NBA, allowing .62 points per play in isolation (26th in the league) and .80 points per play in spot up situations (2oth). Despite his slowing feet, MWP still has tremendous defensive instincts, poking the ball with regularity and showing great ability to close on shooters in a timely manner. And while Barnes is no slouch on D, his numbers aren’t close to MWP’s in these categories.

Whether this defensive drop off proves to be too large to compensate for other benefits on offense and on the backboards remains to be seen. But I do envision a net positive here. MWP should find a greater comfort zone playing on the 2nd unit (as well as operating in a scheme that’s more natural to him), and Barnes should fit in well with a group that doesn’t need another play maker, but rather someone that can better play off those that do have those skills.

Darius Soriano

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