The idea of “positionless basketball” isn’t new, but in the past 5-10 years it has become more and more en vogue. Front offices fall over for the versatility of bigs who can shoot with range, guards who can post, and players of all sizes having the skill sets of wings who are as comfortable handling the ball as they are setting a down screen.
The Lakers have an interesting mix of players who are capable of helping the team move in that direction. It’s an idea we touched on in the preseason and, while it hasn’t always been the case this year, we have seen hints of the Lakers playing a more positionless brand of ball — especially recently, with the team running more modern offensive sets.
While we often talk about positionless basketball within the context of offense, though, the key to really making it work is as a viable approach is defensive effectiveness. If you want your “PF” and “C” to be Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in order to maximize offensive spacing, those guys need to be able to be able to defend bigger players and then rebound the ball.
So, defense matters. And, as the old saying goes, the position you play is the one you can defend. The more positions you can defend, the higher your value in a league which wants to pick and roll teams and run a myriad of motion sets designed to force switches and create mismatches.
This brings us to the Lakers and, as the head coach calls it, an experiment they are trying over the course of the team’s final 14 games this season:
Byron Scott says he expects to experiment with Larry Nance, Jr. at the three for the remainder of the season.
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) March 17, 2016
Scott recently noted that he mostly wanted to try Nance at SF for defensive reasons. If he can guard smaller guys, the Lakers accomplish several things: 1). they get one of their young players on the floor where they otherwise wouldn’t have 2). they start to clear some of their logjam at PF where Julius Randle is going to command more and more minutes in the coming seasons 3). they get one of their better defensive players on the floor 4). they get more athletic.
One can argue the importance of any of the above points, but they do have meaning. Leaving out Anthony Brown and Tarik Black (for now), the Lakers have four young players who all look to have positive futures in this league. Nance is the only one of those four who currently is not starting, though he clearly has, at the very least, role-player-on-a-good-team potential. Finding ways to get him on the floor, even if at SF, is worth a shot. Again, this is an “experiment” not a full time commitment or a position change.
That said, in a league where nearly every positional swap is sliding a player up a spot (PG’s move to SG, SF’s up to PF, PF’s up C), the Lakers are doing the opposite here. Sliding Nance down does give the team more size and athleticism — things which should help on the glass and in transition offense. There are, however, potential challenges to overcome too.
Namely, moving a player down a position, especially from PF to SF, and especially when that player isn’t a shooter, can have some serious repercussions offensively. Spacing is impacted, shrinking the floor in ways which impact the other players on the court. If you think Randle, Clarkson, and Russell have some tight driving lanes or face quick rotations to them now, those windows and lanes only shrink when you flank them with a non-shooter (or a shooter they do not respect — which isn’t always the same thing).
Nance, then, will need to hit shots, show some expanded range to the three point line on his jumper, and, basically, find ways to hurt defenses who lay off him. Maybe that means finding creative ways to screen or being a smart and aware cutter. Maybe it means hitting the offensive glass even harder or being a more opportunistic post up player — or it needs to be all of the above.
And, lastly, Nance needs to show he can actually defend SF’s. Against the Knicks, Nance got thrown into the fire against Carmelo Anthony in the 2nd half and promptly took a bit of a roasting. There’s no shame in that, ‘Melo can roast the best defenders. But on nights where Nance isn’t facing an all-star, can he hold his own? Can he avoid drifting too close to the paint when guarding a shooter? Can he navigate the myriad of screen actions teams run to free their SF’s? Can he handle his own in isolation?
These are questions we don’t yet have the answers to, but that’s the point in all this. If Nance can have some success, it’s another variable in the Lakers’ potential shift towards more positionless lineups. If he cannot — and, I do think some struggles are coming — then this experiment will fail.
Personally, I’d be more inclined to move Nance or Randle up a position to C to try and push the pace more both in the open court and by running more quick-hitting sets in the half court. I think the best future is in the Lakers having more athleticism and skill on the floor at the 5 spot (we have already seen how effective Bass has been as an undersized C after a slow start to the season). There would be defensive tradeoffs with that choice, but we’re likely to see that with Nance moving down to SF too.
I guess this is where we could argue Scott is still stuck in the 90’s. That sliding Nance down a position rather than up one is just another data-point in the discussion how Scott is behind the times and not hip to current trends on how to be successful in today’s NBA. And maybe there’s merit in all that, I just don’t care to discuss it much, if at all, at this point. Scott is what he is as a head coach and he’s trying this. Let’s see how it goes.