Gasol to the bench? Not as crazy as it might seem.

With the Lakers recent struggles, especially on their home floor and against the better competition, the magnifying glass is out as analysts, blogs, and mainstream media dissect the ever so popular question of "What's wrong with the Lakers?"  Typically the first person that is examined (and often blamed) is Kobe Bryant. However, Kobe has actually played very well and quite consistently this month.  This seems to have brought on a new flurry of discussion about whether Gasol may be the problem.  Here is one from Forum Blue and Gold and another from Probasketballtalk.  The second comment at the bottom of the latter article caught my attention as the commenter says, "The Lakers need to sit Gasol".  But should they?


It would seem completely incomprehensible to bench a player who is a perenial all-star, a player who was garnering MVP talk at the start of the year, and the obvious #2 option for Kobe, however, a look at the numbers might tell a different story.

Three of the Lakers top 5 line-ups in terms of minutes played are comprised of Fisher, Bryant, Artest, and two of the three Lakers big men (Bynum, Gasol, and Odom).  Because of the number of minutes that each of these line-ups has played we have a great opportunity to look at how each of the various combinations of big men has performed while holding the other 3 roster spots fixed.

Odom & Gasol- This line-up has been used the most due to Bynum missing the start of the season.  This line-up has been on the floor for 664 minutes and roughly 1,286 possessions.  This unit has performed pretty well by having an offensive rating 116.2 and a defensive rating of only 103.5.  For comparison sake the Lakers for the season (all line-ups) has an offensive rating of 112.1 and a defensive rating of 104.8.  This Lakers starting line-up scores roughly 4 points more per 100 possessions and gives up 1.3 points less per 100 possessions than the average Lakers line-up.  Certainly it is a productive one, but is it the best?

Gasol & Bynum- This is the current Lakers starting line-up in which Odom moves to the bench.  This line-up has been on the floor for 281 minutes and roughly 520 possessions.  During that time it has produced an offensive rating of 117.3 and a defensive rating of 104.0.  This "new" starting line-up, as opposed to the line-up at the begining of the year when Bynum was out, scores slightly more efficiently (1.1 pts per 100 possessions) but also gives up more points (0.5 pts per 100 possession).  The net result is that this line-up has performed slightly better (0.6 pts per 100 possession) but is well within the margin of being sample error.

Odom & Bynum- This line-up has not been used as much. It hasn't been used as a starting line-up so when Odom and Bynum are in together they may not be in with the other starters at the PG, SG, and SF positions.  This line-up has played 76 minutes together though, roughly 152 possessions.  How does this line-up compare?  Offensively they score 117.7 points per 100 possessions, while it is the best of the three combinations the difference between each of them is fairly minor and given the small sample size we can probably state that all three line-ups are basically equal offensively.  Defense on the other hand yields somewhat surprising results.  This line-up has a defensive rating of only 92.1!  This a significant improvement over either of the other two line-ups (roughly 12 and 13 points per 100 possessions).  The net result is that this line-up has significantly out-performed the other two because it has been a defensive jugernaught while not sacrificing anything offensively.  In fact, the net efficiency is a whopping 26.6 pts per 100 possessions!

So how good is the Fisher, Bryant, Artest, Odom, and Bynum line-up?  Here is a table showing the top seven 5-man units in terms of net efficiency with a minimum of 75 minutes played together.

Team Line-up Minutes Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Eff
PHI Holiday-Meeks-Iguodala-Young-Brand 79.8 128.2 88.5 39.7
UTA Williams-Miles-Kirilenko-Millsap-Jefferson 104.5 127.5 95.7 31.9
NOH Paul-Thornton-Ariza-West-Okafor 77.7 126.3 99.3 27.0
LAL Fisher-Bryant-Artest-Odom-Bynum 76.2 117.7 92.1 25.6
DAL Kidd-Stevenson-Butler-Nowitzki-Chandler 257.5 121.0 96.8 24.2
BOS Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-O'Neal 253.5 119.0 99.8 19.2
DAL Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler 85.6 121.9 105.5 16.4

The Lakers line-up with the combination of Odom and Bynum along with the other starters is currently the 4th best in the league in net efficiency for line-ups with at least 75 minutes together!  Now this result may be due to sample size as 75 minutes is not a alot, however given the magnitude of the difference between this line-up and either of the other two Lakers combinations, shouldn't more time be given to this particular unit to see if the results continue? 

This gets back to Gasol.  If the best combination of Lakers big men with the other starters doesn't feature Gasol then should he in fact come off the bench?  There could be significant gains made by such a strategy.

Starters Defense- The real difference between a Bynum and Odom line-up vs a combination that includes Gasol is due solely to improved defense.  Now I am not saying Gasol is a poor defender (I think he is actually quite solid), but it may be an issue of having better options at the positions.  If asked who is better to protect the rim and either block or alter shots, Bynum or Gasol? The answer should be obviously Bynum.  He is much bigger and longer and is a better deterant in the paint.  If asked who is better to guard mobile power forwards while still providing help defense and rebounding, Odom or Gasol?  The answer is clearly Odom as he is the Lakers best defensive rebounder and his length and mobility makes him a very effective defender. If both Bynum and Odom are better on defense at their respective positions then it would only make sense that the defense would be improved with them together.

Rebounding - One of the Lakers weak points this year has actually been giving up too many offensive rebounds.  The Lakers are currently ranked 21st in defensive rebounding!  Quite astounding when you consider the size the Lakers have.  The Lakers best defensive rebounders in order are Odom, Bynum, and Gasol according to So an improvement in rebounding should be evident with the combination of Odom and Bynum, but do the statistics show it?  They certainly do! The line-up with Odom and Gasol grabs roughly 69% of available defensive rebounds, the line-up of Gasol and Bynum improves slightly to 71%, but the duo of Odom and Bynum jumps up to an astounding 82%! The phrase "proceed with caution - small data set" certainly applies but it definitely appears to be a sign of an improvement in rebounding.

Bench Production - If Odom were to play more with the starters then it would mean lesser time with the bench. The typical thought process all along has been to keep Odom as a bench player to provide him a leadership role as both a scorer and facilitator with a unit that really executes the triangle (the starters tend to get away from the triangle if certain mismatches present themselves).  But let's think about that bench role for a second... if the role for Odom was to be a leader, Gasol certainly could fill that role as he was a leader in Memphis.  If it is to be a scorer, he satisfies that requirement better than Odom does.  If is to be a facilitator in the triangle then Gasol is actually a better choice than Odom as he would require a double team in the post and create opportunities for his teammates more than Odom would.  The more you think about what the bench unit needs the more it appears that Gasol would actually be a better fit with that unit than Odom would be. 

So if the Lakers do play better defense with the combination of Odom and Bynum with the starters, do not sacrifice much if anything offensively, control the defensive glass better (an area where they are sub-par), and could improve the bench play by letting Gasol run the second unit, then I ask "why wouldn't it make sense to sit Gasol?"  Is precedence really a good enough reason not to at least consider it?

* All stats based on as of 1/31/2011

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