A favorite refrain from Jalen Rose is how positions were added to the analysis of basketball to help the more casual fan understand where certain players belong on the court. It’s an interesting premise that might hold water if plays weren’t designed around players fitting roles based on their skill sets and size (you know, positions). There has, however, been a move toward positionless basketball – a more free-flowing, offensive predicated on versatility and individual skill.
Granted, “free-flowing” is not what you think of when Byron Scott’s crossed arms pop up in your head, but the Lakers do have the pieces – especially in their starting five – to make this work, at least for stretches.
The first player most point to when they think of positionless basketball is LeBron James, which makes sense as he should be the guy anyone thinks of first in terms of any style of basketball. He’s really, really good. When considered in this scenario, though, it’s because of his versatility. He’s a Ferrari in a semi’s body, Karl Malone, but as a point guard. Being so athletically dominant and so skilled makes any offense built around him otherworldly.
While the Lakers may not have LeBron on their team, they do have plenty of guys who are more than capable of playing a few positions or stretching the boundaries of what their position typically demands.
Kobe Bryant is interesting because he’s basically the opposite of LeBron (cut to his detractors nodding obnoxiously). Bryant plays shooting guard based on his size, but is fairly easily the Lakers’ best post player and has been the best playmaker on any team he’s played on for most of his career. When he’s on the court, the Lakers might employ a point guard, but that’s mostly for defensive purposes. Historically, he’s done most of the creating.
Julius Randle might be built like a power forward, but he has wing skills, with shooting as the obvious exception. From the right wing/high post area, Randle will have the opportunity to penetrate and look to kick with his dominant hand. There aren’t many power forward who can do that kind of thing with his level of quickness and from that exact position on the floor, seeing as he is left-handed.
Even D’Angelo Russell, who will play “point guard” isn’t built like you’d typically expect someone playing the position. He and Jordan Clarkson could alternate plays in such a role based on what the defense gives them while normally one would carry to load mostly as the other anticipates based on how the defense is broken down.
Combine the skill sets from the four guys I mentioned above, and it would be fairly inefficient for the Lakers to force-feed any one player over the others. Having Kobe float around outside would be a complete waste of his mid-to-low post talents. Randle would quickly grow frustrated if he had to share the limited space down low with Roy Hibbert, the only prototypical position player of the Lakers’ ideal starting five. Even Hibbert has shown a proclivity to step out and knock down a midrange shot on occasion, which only further lends itself to a this type of playing style.
Forcing Russell to create for everyone at the top of the three point line would not only frustrate his teammates who are more than capable of opening similar holes in the defense, but probably Russell, as opponents would have time to set and adjust for the pick and rolls the Lakers would repeat from that angle.
Sure, the bench is probably best-served to stick to a more rudimentary system, as it is made up of less-versatile players. But while the starters (or, at least, the guys I hope are the starters) share the court, Scott would be tying his own hands behind his back not to at least experiment with this type of system.
The Lakers have fallen under some (fair) criticism for falling behind the times in many respects. Thing is: the starting five most anticipate is something closer to modern. No, Randle can’t yet step out and hit threes like today’s prototypical power forward, but his skills lend themselves to something beyond the bruising power forwards of yesteryear. If the Lakers as an organization are fighting the perception of an unwillingness to adapt, the lineup they’ve pieced together sure feels like a step in the right direction.