The Lakers coming in: The big news of the day isn’t necessarily about Kobe — who will play tonight and hasn’t experienced any set backs after his 28 minute night on Sunday — but rather what the team is doing around him in the starting lineup. Mike D’Antoni announced today that he is shifting his starters, swapping out Robert Sacre and Wesley Johnson for Shawne Williams and Jodie Meeks. The change can be viewed through the prism of matching up with the Suns who start a stretch PF (Channing Frye) and a smaller backcourt duo, but I’ve a feeling if this group can perform well it may be more of a long-term change.
Mike D’Antoni has long valued offensive spacing as a pillar of his attack, and inserting Williams and Meeks is one of the only way to accomplish that with the current roster at his disposal. And while there are defensive ramifications for removing Johnson and Sacre, the hope is that the drop off to what Williams and Meeks provide in the paint and on the wing combined with the (hopefully) better offensive production will equal a net positive. I, for one, think that will be the case, but we shall see.
Overall, though, I think what this move is really about is putting as much shooting around Kobe and Pau as possible to give them the space they need to operate in the areas of the floor they like — typically 18 feet and in. While Kobe said he was happy in his ability to get into the paint after Sunday’s loss, he and Pau are both best working areas of the floor from the elbow down the mid and low-post and in order for those spots to be cleared, you need spacing on the perimeter. Moving Meeks (who has really be excellent from deep this year) and Williams (who at least offers the idea of spacing through where he plays on the court) gets at that idea quickly and succinctly.
The Suns coming in: Phoenix is one of the surprises of the early part of the year. Many picked them to be one of the worst teams out West, but they come in with a more than respectable 11-9 record, good for 8th in the competitive west. One of the reasons the Suns boast the record they do is because of the quality depth they have amassed across their roster. They play 8 players at least 20 minutes and rotate in up to 3 other players who can soak up at least 10 minutes a night. Beyond the depth, though, is the fact that there is a fair amount of versatility within these players and that allows for different lineups to be deployed to good success.
The backbone of this versatility starts in the backcourt where the dynamic combo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe wreak havoc on opponents on both ends of the floor. Offensively, this duo can do it all, with both having the ability to play on or off the ball while still providing an all-court game that can threaten the defense. The duo represent the team’s top two scorers and combine for 36 of the teams 101 points nightly. Defensively, both have good quickness and athleticism to guard either guard spot (though Bledsoe’s strength translates to better D on shooting guards) and both can apply strong ball pressure to disrupt the initiation of opponent’s offense.
Flanking these two is excellent shooting as the return of Channing Frye (back this year after heart surgery last year) and PJ Tucker (hitting 50% of his 3′s on over 2 attempts per game) space the floor and provide the driving angles both Dragic and Bledsoe thrive on. Add in a bench that consists of the Morris twins (Marcus and Markief) and Gerald Green at the forward spots and there is a lot to like about this team today and moving forward.
Keys to the game: As mentioned already, the Lakers really are deploying a lineup that is designed to match up with what the Suns want to do offensively. With that being the case, the team’s starters must carry their weight this evening and not lay the egg they did against the Raptors.
Defensively this means controlling Dragic and Bledsoe, which is easier said than done. The Slovenian Dragic learned at the feet of Nash in how to operate in the P&R and brings a shifty, southpaw style to the floor. He can hit from range and get to the rim while proving adept at scoring or kicking the ball over to an open teammate for an easy basket. Bledsoe, meanwhile, offers power and explosiveness in a compact body. He can bull doze defenders in the open court and get to the rim when putting his head down coming off picks.
The Lakers’ guards, then, will have their hands full in trying to contain these two off the dribble, but will also need a lot of support from their big men as helpers. With Frye in the game (and later the Morris twins), helping off of bigs can prove dangerous and the Lakers must find the right balance between helping all out and feinting help and recovering as to not allow wide open shots from behind the arc. If they can accomplish this well, they should be okay. If they can’t, the Suns can explode for points in bunches in the half court while also using their superior speed all over the floor to create in transition.
The Lakers, then, must be smart about how they play on offense and while that involves a lot of variables, a major improvement must come from Kobe. His 8 turnovers from Sunday can not carry over and he must be better about not forcing passes and in making the right shot/pass decisions when turning the corner in the P&R. The odds are he will have a lot of P&R chances with Pau and the hope is that the chemistry between those two wins out over some of the riskier plays that were attempted on Sunday.
That said, one way to try and create fewer risky situations is to have Blake handle the ball more and to switch up some of the sets the team runs in order to get Kobe the ball in positions where he’s not always starting with a live dribble. With the team going small to start the game, I wouldn’t mind seeing the team run more HORNS options with Kobe starting at the elbow with Gasol rather than having the PF (Williams) start there. Kobe can then either serve as the trigger man after receiving the initial entry or serve as a screener on the back side and then become a secondary option. Either choice is a solid one — as the trigger man, Kobe starts in a triple threat at the elbow where he’s long been dangerous or he screens on the wing and then either flares to the corner or drops to the mid-post where he can work from another preferred spot.
The other key offensively will be how the 2nd unit performs and who is there to captain it. On Sunday D’Antoni again went with PG-less lineups and those had mixed results. On some possessions things went well, but on several others they were disorganized. I’d like to see Blake play more with the Henry, Young, Johnson, Hill foursome that allows them to push the pace and better play to their strengths as a unit. The Suns also have some good talent on their bench, so whoever can control this part of the game will be in a good position to win. The Lakers would be wise, then, to allocate their resources in a way that gives them a chance to come out on top when the benches match up.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.