Crowded Up Front

Zephid —  November 29, 2012

Over the past few games, the Lakers play has been extraordinarily up and down.  Seemingly shifting overnight from blowouts to getting blown out, the Lakers play has been nothing if not inconsistent.  Part of this surely has to be blamed on the firing of Mike Brown after 5 games, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, and thus the introduction of a completely new offensive system.  This change has come with the re-surfacing of many old questions, many specifically centered around whether the Lakers have the personnel to maximize this system, particularly the Lakers can find a way to make their frontcourt rotation work.

The following is an exercise to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each of our four front court bigs: Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, and Antawn Jamison (talk of playing Jamison at the 3 is strictly forbidden).  In order to truly maximize this team’s potential, finding a balanced way to utilize each of these players properly will be key.

Pau has certainly had a very inconsistent season.  Basically becoming this year’s Lamar Odom, Pau is now regularly derided for his poor performances (by me included), and has had many of his good performances swept away as things that “should” happen. He is currently sporting career lows in points, field goal percentage, and PER, even lower than his rookie year.  Having to share the front court and thus low post time with Dwight Howard certainly hasn’t helped, but Gasol has been able to work with guys like Odom and Bynum in the past to great, championship-level success.  However, both Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni have yet to figure out a way get that same production out of Pau.  Maybe he’s over the hill; maybe his bout with tendinitis is truly what’s hurting his game.  Either way, things are not going well for Gasol.

Gasol is clearly weakened on defense by his knees; he doesn’t have the lateral movement he used to, so recovering on pick and rolls and recovering on guys who face up, make a move, and pull-up for jumpers has been hard on him.  Playing at the 4 alongside Howard has forced Gasol to guard smaller, quicker guys like Zach Randolph and David West, against whom he has had little success.

On offense, Gasol has mostly been relegated to a mid-range jumper shooter, because teams are sagging into Dwight’s lap and following Kobe off picks, leaving Gasol wide open at 18-20 feet.  When Gasol has hit from that range, the team has been unstoppable.  The problem is Gasol has not been hitting from that range, to the tune of 40% from 16-23 feet.  He has struggled basically from all ranges except at the rim, where he is shooting nearly a career high.

Gasol must play closer to the rim: His lateral movement isn’t quick enough to guard quick 4’s, and his outside shot isn’t falling, so he needs to start creating from the post.

Jordan Hill was one of the league leaders in offensive rebound percentage and had the 3rd highest PER on the team up until a couple of games ago, when Mike D’Antoni took over and Jordan Hill basically entered the dog house.  Hill’s skill set is one predicated on effort and energy, and in a system where spacing and putting the ball in the basket is at a premium, Hill’s talents have gone under-utilized.  What Hill lacks is an ability to create his own shot, and he feeds off other players bringing unbalance to the court to take advantage of offensive rebound opportunities.  Bringing him out on pick and rolls hasn’t helped, as his love of 20 footers is clearly unrequited, and his abilities as a roll-man are not as developed as a guy like Dwight’s.

Hill must play closer to the rim with a shot creator whom he can play off of: Pulling Hill away from rim has hurt his value, which is crashing the boards, and he can’t be expected to create his own shot with the 2nd unit.

Antawn Jamison has also had a tumultuous season, going from barely an NBA player to a Sixth Man of the Year candidate seemingly over night (a poor performance against Indiana, notwithstanding).  While his offense has not been up to par, his defense has been a pleasant surprise.  Once touted as the worst defensive player in the league, he has stood his ground against guys like Zach Randolph and David West, which is no small feat.  Jamison sports some of the weirdest post moves in the league, but they are amazingly effective.  He is also one of the few Lakers who can create his own shot consistently, while also being a great off-ball cutter to create easy baskets.  To take advantage of these, however, he needs to play at the 4 and not be forced to stay on the perimeter.  He has been at his best when he has attacked the basket instead of settling for threes.

Jamison must be played at the 4, and be utilized as a shot creator and facilitator of the offense.

And of course, there’s Dwight Howard; the superman, the superstar, the future of our team.  His physical skills are dominating; his presence, undeniable.  His recovery from back surgery, however, has led many of us to speculate that we’ve only seen 80% of Dwight, even though that 80% has been quite good.  Dwight, however, has disappeared in too many games, too often being ignored on the post in favor of Kobe-Pau PNRs. For one of the most devastating pick-and-roll roll men in the league, it is a travesty that Howard has not been used to set the picks in these sets.  He is also effective in the post, but he needs space to use his physical gifts to get past his man in order to score on his own.

Dwight must be used in pick and rolls as the pick-setter, and he needs to be surrounded by shooters when the primary option on offense.

Following these four themes, a few things seems clear.

1.) Pau and Dwight should be switching roles on offense.  Pau has been the pick-setter, Dwight has been the post guy in 90% of the PNRs the Lakers have run this season.  Pau has been terrible from mid-range, and not using Dwight in the pick and roll has neutered so much of his effectiveness that he has disappeared for long stretches in games on offense.  So, why not switch the two?  Why not bring Dwight out to set the pick, and allow Pau to operate closer to the basket?  If the ball doesn’t go to Dwight, it can swing around to the weak side for a Pau post-up, allowing one of the best post operators in the league to facilitate from a position closer to the basket.

2.) Jamison and Hill need each other.  Jamison has been horrible from three point land this season.  He is currently shooting 26% from three, and being relegated to the perimeter has destroyed his effectiveness.  When Jamison has attacked from the 4 position, he has been able to consistently beat his man and get into the paint for easy scores on his crazy scoop shots, or kicked out to shooters. Hill, on the other hand, needs someone with him who can create shots for offensive rebound opportunities.  While he will hopefully see better results when Nash returns, putting Hill in with Jamison can allow Jamison to be the shot creator, and Hill can be there to follow the shot.  Jamison has shown himself to be an adequate defender at the 4, and Hill’s defensive energy and recovery in the PNR is the 2nd best on the team to Dwight.

3.) Jamison should never ever ever ever ever ever ever play at the 3.  If Jamison is at the 3, that means that 2 of Pau, Dwight, and Hill are in the game.  Each of these players need to play close to the rim and needs spacing to operate most effectively.  Jamison, sadly, does not provide spacing, at all.  Plus, having two other bigs in the game cuts off all of Jamison’s ability to attack the basket from the perimeter by clogging the lane, removing the strongest part of his game.  On the flip side, if 2 of Pau, Dwight, and Hill are in the game, they need to be surround by 3 excellent shooters to space the floor properly, and right now that isn’t happening with Jamison at the 3.

4.) Dwight should be the guy who plays with the bench, not Pau.  The 4th quarter unit of Dwight, Jamison, MWP, Meeks, and Duhon crushed it in both Dallas and served to make the game competitive against Memphis.  With Dwight attacking in the post, MWP, Meeks, and Duhon were able to get several wide open threes, bringing it within 4 against Memphis.  Meanwhile, Pau’s tendinitis gives good reason to play Pau less minutes.

5.) Steve Nash really will make everything better.  What are the problems? Pau isn’t getting touches close to the basket.  Dwight isn’t being used as a roll man in PNR.  Jordan Hill needs someone to set him up on offense.  Jamison needs to be getting the ball in a position to attack.  All of them need spacing on the perimeter to operate most effectively.  Steve Nash does all of these things, and well.  While it seems like every time he seems near to returning, it gets pushed back, if having a weaker November means having a stronger May, I think the Lakers will take it.

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