One the main themes of Mike Brown’s first season roaming the Lakers’ sidelines is his quest for a workable rotation. As recently as last Tuesday he said that he’s still “in search mode” for a rotation; for personnel groupings that fit together and give the team an advantage.
For many of us, this search has been frustrating. Like searching for a lost remote control or your car keys. You know they’re around here somewhere, you just have to find them. But every second that passes without the solution wears on you…
So Mike Brown has searched. He’s changed his starting small forward three times. He’s tugged and plugged players in and out of the rotation with DNP-CD’s one night followed up by 10 minute stretches the following. In the heat of a game he’ll call up a player from the pine and send him to the scorer’s table only to wave him back to his seated position because the action has turned and he feels the substitution no longer needed. What’s resulted is heavy minutes for key players and herky-jerky minutes for his reserves. A few role players see consistent minutes, others go game to game with their status changing more often than a teenager’s Facebook page.
And while there are legitimate reasons for how the rotations have been handled, the time to settle is now. The playoffs are fast approaching and the search must end with some sort of set rotation moving forward.
In researching the lineups that Brown has used all season, both before and after the trade deadline, some trends have popped up that can be used as a guide for success moving forward.
The starters are very good together
Since the acquisition of Ramon Sessions he’s played 105 minutes with the group that now starts (him, Kobe, Ron, Pau, and Bynum). In those 105 minutes the team is +26 and has posted an offensive efficiency of 105.9 and a defensive efficiency of 95.4. For comparison’s sake, before Sessions was on board and Fisher started the starters played 492 minutes together was +67 and had an OEff of 100.9 and a DEff of 95.1. What this tells me is that the starters now are playing about the same level of defense as before (which is very good – though trending down lately) but have seen a big offensive boost with Sessions playing. This isn’t a surprise, of course, but seeing a 10.5 efficiency differential is evidence that this group needs major minutes together not only because it produces but because these numbers should only improve with better chemistry and understanding of each other’s games.
Some bad lineups have gotten too many minutes
Before the trade deadline, the top two Lakers lineups were the starters: Fisher, Kobe, Ron, Pau, and Bynum (492 minutes) and a lineup that swapped out Ron for Matt Barnes but kept the rest of the starters intact (305 minutes). That second lineup is one that wasn’t nearly as strong on defense (DEff of 101.6) but performed on offense at almost the exact same efficiency level (100.0) as the starters. Without extrapolating too much here, this showed that for whatever reason Barnes’ style simply didn’t mesh as well as Ron’s when mixed in with a lineup where Fisher was the PG and led to a cumulative plus/minus of -9 and a negative efficiency differential of 1.6. In case you were wondering, this is bad. The third most used lineup (130 minutes) was Blake swapping with Fisher while the rest of the starting group stayed intact. This group posted a negative efficiency differential of 4.4 and is a cumulative -8 for the season.
So, if you’re scoring at home, that’s 435 minutes (or about one-sixth of the season so far) dedicated to lineups that are a combined -17 on the year. Again, not good. And while Fisher is now out of the equation (so, no more worries about mixing him with Barnes), Blake is still here and he could still be plugged in with the starting group. This should be avoided at all costs. Not only has it been proven that this lineup does poorly but when judged against the group that actually starts, the numbers speak for themselves. In other words, if you’re a member of the “Sessions should go back to the bench” group, this is bad news for you.
A lineup that needs more minutes
As I stated above, a lineup that got a lot of minutes was swapping Ron for Barnes with the rest of the starters still in. This lineup was a net negative and that may be influencing Brown’s decision making now because he’s rarely gone to that lineup since Sessions has been the starter (only 19 minutes).
This, however, looks to be bad strategy. While the sample size is incredibly small (again, only 19 minutes), the group of Sessions, Kobe, Barnes, Pau, and Bynum is +15 in those minutes while posting an OEff of 123.0 and a DEff of 80.9. Over a larger sample it’s doubtful this group would perform as well as it has in their limited stints so far but the raw numbers are eye opening.
One thing that should be noted here is that Sessions and Barnes have outstanding chemistry and their games really do compliment each others. Sessions floor vision and ability to occupy multiple defenders when attacking in either the P&R or in isolation and Barnes’ knack for running the floor and making smart cuts into the teeth of the defense or into open space around the perimeter make for excellent passes and good finishes. And when you combine these aspects of their games and put them into a lineup with the Lakers three best players, attention shifts to others and these two can work well without being the focus of a ramped up defense.
The Kobe/Pau and role players group
Another lineup that has worked very well together that’s seen quality minutes is Blake, Kobe, Barnes, Murphy, and Pau. Over their 78 minutes together they’re a +24 and have an OEff of 108.9 and a DEff of 95.3. Just like with Sessions, Barnes has a strong chemistry with Blake and their connection often leads to the same types of baskets where Barnes is rewarded for running the floor and making smart cuts behind a ball watching defender.
The other key to this lineup is Murphy’s ability to space the floor which give both Kobe and (more importantly) Pau more room to roam on the low block without a secondary big man defender around to bother his shot. Previously I was of the mind that McRoberts’ ability to cut off the ball would work best with Pau’s passing acumen but it now seems that was misguided. As was shown against the Warriors, Pau is still quite the skilled low post player but he needs room to operate down there. Murphy’s floor spacing provides that better than McRoberts’ off ball movement in a similar way that Odom’s positioning as an offensive initiator (where he’d often clear to the weak side corner or wing after making the initial pass in the Triangle) freed up Gasol to work in isolation on the low block.
This is a formula (Kobe and Pau, plus role players) that’s been the foundation for the recent championship teams. If you look at Blake playing Fisher’s role, Barnes playing Ariza/Ron’s, and Murphy spacing the floor ala Odom, then the picture becomes clearer as to why this unit is successful. Kobe and Pau still have tremendous chemistry and the ability to read the defense in the same way. It’s not far fetched to think this lineup should also see some minutes moving forward.
The point now is to find the groupings that work best and to maximize the minutes of those lineups. Other lineups also show promise and within the context of Brown’s 8 or 9 man rotation (depending on which, or if both, back up bigs play) there are other combinations that can provide the Lakers the boost they need to build and extend leads or cut into deficits. We have evidence that some of these groupings do work already and that some decidedly don’t. Ultimately, though, the time for searching is nearing an end as the playoffs draw near; here’s hoping that Mike Brown agrees.
*Statistical support for this story from NBA.com.