The Lakers’ Dilemma at Center

Darius Soriano —  December 24, 2012

You can never have too many capable big men. You just can’t. Even in a league where teams are skewing small with their lineups, having players who can play in the paint and effectively score baskets close to the rim while limiting the opponent from doing the same is a commodity every team would like to have more of.

The Lakers, however, seem to be testing this theory and are seeing first hand how having multiple players that do their best work close to the rim can, in fact, be an issue.

In Dwight Howard the Lakers have the NBA’s best big man (at least when healthy). In Pau Gasol, they have one of (if not the) most skilled big men in the league. And, in Jordan Hill they have a blue collar reserve who rebounds on both ends and defends the rim well. All three of these players deserve minutes and all three should be a part of the Lakers’ rotation. The only problem is that in Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick and roll attack, all three of these men are Centers. So, the issue becomes how do you find time to play all three over the course of the game when there are only 48 minutes available at the Center position?

The answer, at least initially, is that one of them wouldn’t play. Last week, after the Lakers defeated the Bobcats, Mike D’Antoni said that Hill would be “out of the rotation” for the foreseeable future. He didn’t need to go into his reasoning (and said that it was “to no fault” of Hill) as common sense tells us that with Gasol back and ready to play, there simply wouldn’t be enough minutes for Hill to play. Hill is a fine player, but he’s not as good as the players in front of him on the depth chart and that means he’s the odd man out. It’s not necessarily fair, but life (and minute allocations in the NBA) often aren’t.

A funny thing happened in the Lakers’ next game against the Warriors, however. Dwight Howard was saddled with foul trouble and Pau Gasol simply couldn’t play every single minute that was left on the table at the five with Dwight stuck to the bench. That left D’Antoni a single option. He called Hill’s number and looked on as the reserve big man did what he’s done for most of the games he’s been in a Laker uniform. Hill hustled on both ends, grabbed rebounds (especially offensive ones), and flashed an ever improving offensive game. The results were Hill scoring 14 points and grabbing 8 rebounds in 21 minutes of action with him spurring on the Lakers’ 2nd half comeback via his energy and commitment to dirty work.

Moving forward, a game like Hill’s versus the Warriors only causes more questions. He’s clearly one of the Lakers’ best eight players. This isn’t a knock on any of these guys, but if we ask the question of who deserves minutes between Hill and any one of the Ebanks, Morris, and Duhon trio the answer is going to be Hill.┬áBut Hill is playing in a jam packed front court rotation while those other three represent the best options on a think and injury depleted wing. It’s a numbers game and Hill is losing.

Most teams would love to have some of the Lakers’ issues, this one included. Too many capable big men is a luxury, but also presents a dilemma in sorting out minutes and roles.

Down the line we will see if D’Antoni makes more tweaks to his system and to player’s roles to accommodate a player like Hill. There will surely be games that Ron spends more time at PF and that will necessitate filling in the gaps at either PF or C with another player. Maybe that player will be Hill. The Gasol/Hill combo has also proven to be effective this season, so maybe we will get more lineups with that duo up front in certain games. The Dwight/Hill combo hasn’t been as successful, but if they find a synergy together, that could be explored as well.

In the end, however, it seems that something will need to be worked out. Hill has been professional and when his number is called he has been ready to play. His per 36 minute and advanced statistics from this year mirror last season’s when he finally saw consistent minutes in the rotation. He has shown he can make a difference when in the lineup, not only through his effort but through his production. Finding him minutes may be a dilemma, but it’s one that should be solved.

Darius Soriano

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