The loss of Kobe Bryant for the season has created a myriad of issues for the Lakers to sort out.
As their top scorer and chief creator of offense, the team has struggled to generate sustained offense since his absence. Spacing has been mucked up and opposing teams are treating every perimeter player as a non-threat from the wing — even Steve Nash, though his injury has something to do with that for sure. And, while Kobe has had his issues defensively this season, as one of the few guards with good size, his unavailability has left the Lakers scrambling to find good match ups defensively, often cross-matching to try to create a workable scheme.
The biggest issue, however, may simply be that Kobe was a high minute player who found himself in nearly every one of the most used lineup the Lakers have deployed this season. Of the Lakers’ 12 most frequently used groupings, Kobe appeared in 11 of them as either the shooting guard, small forward, or pseudo point guard. Missing that versatility is one thing, but missing his presence — regardless of position played — is the most damning thing of all. It sounds simple and is obvious to say that out loud, but it’s really the most true thing that could be said about his injury.
Because whether Kobe was playing brilliantly or struggling, he was on the floor. Now that he’s not, the Lakers are in search mode to fill the minutes gap as much as they are trying to fill the void in production.
How the Lakers go about mixing and matching their personnel against the Spurs is one of the key story lines that needs to be figured out as the series advances. There are some obvious and not so obvious things to consider when figuring out who should play and how much. A few observations after game one:
- Steve Blake is the best defensive option against Tony Parker. Blake has solid lateral quickness and recovery speed, good length, and understands the team’s scheme. Blake has done a good job of funneling Parker into the spots on the floor the Lakers want him to operate from and then challenging shots even if playing from a trail position. Being able to accomplish this with relative consistency is a big part of making Parker’s life harder and Blake (not just in game one, but in the final meeting of the regular season) does this better than any other defender the Lakers have to throw at Parker.
- Steve Nash can do an effective job of guarding Danny Green. Green isn’t a primary weapon for the Spurs and does most of his damage as a shooter in spot up situations or when coming off screens. Nash isn’t strong in isolation, but he can recover well after helping and is good at chasing players around picks. Where Nash can do better is in finding Green in transition, but the Lakers weren’t hurt too much by that.
- The Lakers don’t have a very good option to put on Manu Ginobili, but Ron is probably the best of the bunch. Even though Ron has diminished foot speed, he’s a better option than Jamison (who has very poor lateral movement on the wing) or Earl Clark (who has struggled with wings of Ginobili’s herky-jerky style and all-court skill set). Darius Morris is another option, but Ginobili’s savvy will give the young Morris issues.
- The Lakers are best served by Dwight Howard guarding Tiago Splitter, but the Spurs caught on to that in game one and paired Bonner and Duncan for several minutes and made the Lakers choose between putting Pau or Dwight on Bonner. Mike D’Antoni stuck with Pau on Duncan (which I agree with), but that left Dwight walking a fine line of when he should help and when he should stick closer to Bonner (who is often floating around the arc).
- Earl Clark didn’t see much time in the first game, but that can likely be explained by the fact that he’s not the outside shooter Ron or Jamison are, nor is there a good option for him to defend consistently outside of Kawhi Leonard (or Bonner). Clark’s main utility is as a stretch PF who does a lot of damage as a cutter, but with the Spurs packing the paint to discourage the team’s post-ups, there are no cutting lanes to take advantage of. Understanding all this, Clark may either be relegated to more of a bench role or will need to come into the game sooner in place of Ron to match up with Leonard for as many minutes as he can. This moves Clark to more of a SF role, but with the Lakers needing to maximize Pau and Dwight together, there aren’t a lot of PF minutes left to claim once Jamison gets his burn.
It seems, then, that the Lakers are in a bit of pickle when it comes to who should play and when. Both team’s starters actually match up quite well and are built rather similarly. But when the bench players come in — especially Ginobili and to a lesser extent Bonner — the Lakers have trouble matching up with the players who would be the preferable options to guard those guys while still being able to attack them on the other side of the floor.
My recommendation would be to have Blake, Dwight, and Ron’s minutes mirror those of Parker, Splitter, and Ginobili as much as possible. Those are the Lakers’ best defensive match ups on those players and allow the team to operate within an effective scheme. I’d try to sneak some minutes with Clark on Leonard and also try to match up Jamison on Bonner as much as I could. Nash can effectively be paired with Blake whenever Green is in the game and can play as the lone PG on the floor if Cory Joseph or Gary Neal is running the point for the Spurs while Parker sits. I also could see trying to play Goudelock (over Morris and maybe even Meeks) if there’s every any stretch where neither Parker or Green is in the game.
None of this is that simple, however, and it can get further complicated by variables like foul trouble, who is/is not playing well, and the general flow of the game. As a head coach, you also don’t want to always be reactive to a situation, but instead want to try and force the hand of the opponent with your own substitution patterns and lineup choices.
That said, the Lakers are missing one of their most important players in Kobe. And, down the stretch of the season, he was playing over 40 minutes a night in helping the Lakers win games. Now that he’s out, those 40+ minutes need to be absorbed by other players. Some of them will naturally go to Nash, Blake, and Meeks. But the remaining will have to go to other players and making the right choices while finding the right personnel combinations will be hard to do.
But, it will also be necessary if the Lakers are to find a foothold in this series.