Lineup Change Brings Versatility, But Also More Questions

Darius Soriano —  December 20, 2012

One of the key developments from Tuesday’s win over the Bobcats was that Mike D’Antoni went all-in with his move of MWP to power forward. What at first looked to be a temporary move to off-set Pau Gasol’s absence from the lineup has now (seemingly) become permanent strategy.

If we flashback to June of this year, playing Ron at power forward was something I thought should happen. Here’s (some of) what I said at the time:

Once upon a time, Ron was one of the best two way players in the league and while his decreased athleticism has made him less effective, he’s still got all the facets of his game. He has a good handle, can create off the dribble for himself or teammates, is a decent shooter from the outside, and can post up and finish in the paint. Defensively, we know that Ron can still play well even though his foot speed isn’t quite what it was when he first came to the Lakers. But, overall, these are skills that could translate well to playing some PF if the Lakers decide they want to go small…

…Simply by having Ron space the floor against traditional PF’s the Lakers could open up their offense more. His ability to knock down open shots or drive past slower closeouts could also boost his effectiveness as a play maker. He still shows good instincts when moving into open space, bodying up his man, and in chasing loose balls, which would aid him when rebounding on both sides of the ball. Defensively he has the foot speed to keep up with most PF’s and has the strength to battle anyone in the post. In the past two seasons the Lakers have switched Ron onto Blake Griffin and Kevin Love on key possessions late in games to get the stops they sought. He held his own against both players and they happen to be two of the better players at that position.

As the league moves forward there will be a greater emphasis on lineup versatility. We’re seeing it right now in the Finals with LeBron and Durant both staples of traditional and small lineups their teams deploy. And while Ron isn’t in those players class as elite talents, his skill set is varied enough and his tenacity more than enough that a part time role as a PF could be worth exploring more in the future.

Well, the future is here. Ron is the Lakers’ back up PF and with tectonic plates of this lineup shift comes a myriad of aftershocks that will be felt across the landscape of the Lakers’ roster.

Below are some of my initial thoughts on what this move means:

*The Lakers’ roster is now woefully unbalanced. Ron’s move means that he joins Pau, Dwight, Jamison, Hill, Earl Clark and Sacre as players who could be classified as either power forwards or centers in D’Antoni’s system. Ron’s move away from the wing means that the only “small forward” on the roster is Devin Ebanks and the only shooting guards are Kobe and Jodie Meeks. At point guard, the Lakers have Nash, Steve Blake, Darius Morris, and Chris Duhon. When looking at that list of players, the wing positions are extremely shallow while the PG, PF, and C positions are overloaded. There simply aren’t enough minutes for the all the Lakers’ big men to play and once Nash and Blake are healthy, there won’t be enough minute at point guard either. At this point, the only way to re-balance the roster is to either make a trade or to shift players (like Ron or Jamison) back to small forward in order to lessen the burden on the wings. Because if that doesn’t happen…

*Kobe and Meeks are about to play a ton of minutes. This has already been true so, in one respect, this wouldn’t be a change from recent trends. However, with Ebanks’ utility as a contributor limited, coach D’Antoni has already hinted that Jodie Meeks will start at SG with Kobe sliding up to Ron’s old position. This creates an entirely new set of questions that will need to be answered over time.

First, who plays back up SG if Meeks starts? Ebanks is not a SG (this has been proven pretty well over the past two seasons) so he doesn’t seem like a good candidate. Darius Morris has okay size, but he’s not ideal either. Darius Johnson-Odom is a natural shooting guard, but he’s also a rookie and seems better suited to a D-League assignment in order to get experience, not playing key minutes for the big team. How this gets sorted out will be key because playing Kobe and Meeks together for long stretches (something that Nash coming back doesn’t really change) means the wing depth will be severely tested in a way that, as of now, would seemingly produce poor results.

Who guards the elite small forwards if Ron is on the bench to start games? Ever since Ron has joined the team he’s taken the more difficult defensive wing assignment whether he’s been a shooting guard or a small forward. But if Meeks starts instead of Ron, Kobe will no longer have the option of playing the lesser wing. Instead, defensive assignments will be dictated more by position. Does that mean Kobe has to guard Durant? Carmelo? LeBron? What about non-superstar, but still quality SF’s like Nic Batum, Kirilenko, Rudy Gay, Gerald Wallace, or Caron Butler. Will he have to guard the better offensive option regardless of position (James Harden when the Rockets visit, for example)? Playing bigger players each night while still carrying a heavy offensive load and playing heavy minutes is a concern here.

*Does Ron playing PF make Pau the new Bynum? Under Phil Jackson, the Lakers often played Odom with one either Gasol or Bynum to form the foundation of their most effective lineups. To close games, Gasol would slide up to center and Odom would play in Bynum’s place. This lineup created versatility on both ends of the floor and was the key front court tandem that helped win back to back titles. As mentioned in the cited post from June, Ron offers many of the same qualities that Odom did as a PF in terms of offensive and defensive versatility. Against the Bobcats, Ron closed the game playing defense against a perimeter oriented big man and spacing the floor offensively. This left Pau on the bench while Dwight manned the pivot.

In the future, will we see more of this? Will Pau only occasionally close games? Can the Lakers afford to have one of their best 4 players on the bench down the stretch of close games? The answers to these questions aren’t yet known but Pau has already expressed his desire to be in the game late when the score is tight. Furthermore, the Lakers’ potential ceiling was always built around the idea that all four of the Lakers big players would be able to thrive on the floor together. Getting the most out of them is important not only when lineups are staggered, but when they all play together. How D’Antoni manages this will be very important as the season progresses.

*What happens to Jamison and Hill? After the Bobcats game D’Antoni said “to no fault of their own” both players would be out of the rotation for now. From a practical standpoint, this makes some sense. Jamison is a reserve PF who is best as a floor spacer. Jordan Hill, though a good PF in Mike Brown’s system, is a C in D’Antoni’s spread attack. Ron has taken Jamison’s spot and with Pau back, he’s the natural fit as a five-man when Dwight is on the bench. With only 96 minutes of game time to split between PF and C, a three man rotation is easiest to deploy and that leaves Hill and Jamison out in the cold.

That said, both players bring useful qualities to a shallow Lakers’ roster. Hill’s rebounding and ability to hedge/recover are valuable to a team that sees countless P&R’s ran at them every game. Jamison’s ability to score points in bunches have already helped the Lakers win more than one game this season. They’re also two of the Lakers best 10 players and removing them from the rotation entirely weakens a team that doesn’t have a lot of useful depth. There’s no easy answer here. I think both players will be needed over the course of the rest of the season. Will they be ready when called upon? Is there a risk of losing them to disinterest and dissatisfaction? Both have proven to be professionals and hard workers for the Lakers. I’d think that remains true regardless of circumstances. That said, it must be disappointing to be demoted in the manner that they have been.

Ultimately, I like having Ron play more PF. I think it helps the Lakers in a variety of ways by diversifying what they can do on both sides of the ball. The fact that Ron is having a resurgent season makes it so the Lakers are playing to some of their strengths in ways that they weren’t earlier in the year. That said, it’s clear this change exposes other stress points on the team that weren’t necessarily there before. Getting Nash back will help in some ways, but not all of them. And we’ll know more about this team over the course of the next month when everyone is healthy enough to play.

Hopefully, in that stretch, we get some answers to these lingering questions.


Darius Soriano

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