The Lakers' newfangled bench will be called upon to complement the starters and it falls upon Mike Brown and the rest of the coaching staff to find the best combinations over the course of the season.
That the Lakers tend to have a poor bench has been a fairly consistent theme about every squad since the '07-'08 season, a result of maintaining a group of stars and trading away draft picks like confetti. Last year was the culmination of this trend, as until late in the season, there was precisely one player on the bench who looked as if he belonged in the NBA in Matt Barnes, and essentially everyone else could have likely been replaced by a D-League call-up without any great drop in efficacy. With the emergence of Jordan Hill, development of the younger players, and a few new acquisitions, the bench appears to be significantly stronger, although tempering expectations at the same time is a wise track to take. As we have seen throughout the preseason, the bench as an individual unit is hardly something to be feared, but for the Lakers' purposes, this is acceptable.
The central reason is that barring injuries, foul trouble, or an outright blowout, the bench will almost never be asked to carry the team. Their role is to work off the starters, keep the offense humming, and hold down the fort on defense. Frankly, expectations are pretty low given the degree to which the bench has hurt the Lakers in recent years: if this current iteration can play opponents to a draw and not actively hurt the team, this is a great outcome since the Lakers starters will be obliterating other teams left and right. Per the article the other day on the offense:
The above has all left out any mention of the bench, primarily since we should treat the bench not as a standalone unit, but as a toolkit of sorts to mix and match with the starters.
How Mike Brown will treat these rotations is important because the team's offensive identity could drastically switch depending which of stars is on the floor. The most important factor here is Nash.
The issue is finding the combinations that work best as to maximize the effectiveness of each individual bench player. To illustrate this, let us go with each bench player and start throwing around scenarios with regards to how this can work. Before we start, we should note that basically everyone is going to play better if more starters are on the floor. It is hard to imagine a more ideal situation for any player than coming into the game with multiple bona fide All-Stars sharing the court with them. This noted, you can see some players performing better with certain starters, and from the practical side of things, you have to give the starters their appropriate rest. Now, without further ado:
This is presuming that Blake is the one who actually wins the backup point guard spot, which seems likely at this juncture. Chris Duhon hasn't been terrible and is the better defender of the two, but it appears that Blake is the one who will come out with the actual gig. As for Darius Morris, he really should spend most of the year in the D-League, as that is frankly the best thing for his development. In any case, Blake being on the floor means that Nash is on the pine, so the pick-and-roll part of the offense instantly loses a huge portion of its effectiveness. Blake can "run" the pick-and-roll insofar as getting around the corner, but he's never any big threat to score and his court vision isn't anything for opposing defenses to fear.
In the Princeton, this is not as much of a problem, but the more bench players come into the came, the more onus you are putting on Blake to create for the more limited players on the floor. Spot-up shooters, guys who operate on cuts, and others who have to be fed near the basket do not benefit from a guy who isn't terribly adept at getting them the ball where they need to and is not a threat to score in and of himself. Blake is an extreme low usage guard for a reason, and letting him play off others while providing some utility to the team with his long-distance shooting is likely the best approach.
As a result, you really want Blake on the floor with as many starters as humanely possible as to minimize the amount of ballhandling and creating off the dribble he has to do. Kobe Bryant is the most obvious solution here, but even having Pau Gasol on the floor means that the offense can run through the high post, as best befits the Princeton. Keep Blake as a spot-up shooter behind the arc, have him make some easy reads from now and then, and the mistakes probably won't be many or at least not that debilitating for the team. Of the Lakers' five primary reserves, Blake is clearly the weak link, but Nash during the regular season isn't an option, so Blake has to play a healthy amount of minutes. When his shot is falling, he can still be useful, and it behooves the Lakers to keep him in that role as much as possible by letting him play off starters on the floor.
You have to imagine that part of the attraction for Meeks in coming to the Lakers was that he could enjoy a role in which all he had to do was spot up on the wing or the corner while receiving passes from the likes of Nash off penetration or the pick-and-roll or Dwight Howard in the low block. Frankly, that is the best way to use him: keep Meeks with the aforementioned two starters as much as possible to take advantage of the open looks his more celebrated teammates are going to create. We should give credit to Meeks for having some elements of an off the dribble game, an uncommon development for a shooting specialist, and he is decent at drawing fouls, but at the same time, you want him playing to his strengths as much as possible.
Meeks helps Nash with the spacing he needs to operate off the pick-and-roll, and as we have seen throughout Nash's career, spot-up shooters thrive playing next to him since he always finds them in rhythm and a good position to shoot. Similar thing applies for Howard, whose time in Orlando tells you all you need to know about how he benefits outside shooters with his enormous interior presence. Now, this is certainly not to say that Kobe or Gasol aren't helped by Meeks either, but he appears particularly synergistic with a Nash and Howard combination, which should be Brown's most commonly used starter combination with the bench because everything can play off the Nash/Howard pick-and-roll.
Ebanks is an interesting case study here since if his development is really as far along as the preseason has indicated so far, he really could be plugged into any conceivable starter/bench combination and come across as very effective. His handle is vastly improved, he is decisive on his cuts, and best of all, his shooting has looked good from midrange and behind the arc. One could say this is a very rosy picture of where he is as a player right now, but he has largely earned those plaudits. When a player who was mediocre, if not awful at shooting from range comes into this year making threes off the dribble and has a decent handle despite never really displaying one beforehand, you have to be impressed.
The above notwithstanding, were you were to name one starter that Ebanks would pair well with, however, it would likely be Gasol. Drives and cuts in the Princeton work best with the center occupying the high post and Gasol's passing from that area syncs very well with Ebanks' game. Similar to Barnes last year, you are wasting Ebanks' ability to draw free throws around the basket, another facet he has shown during the preseason, if you merely treat him as the spot-up shooter he would tend to be if you placed him on the floor with most of the starters. Altogether, he is probably one of the Lakers' best reserves at this juncture, a far departure from last season's mess at the small forward position.
The cratering of Jamison's efficiency lately has disguised one key aspect of his game: he is still a good finisher around the basket with all his assorted flips shots and such. Even in Cleveland last season, where his overall percentages were bunk, Jamison hit 62.8% of his shots at the rim and 40.2% from three to nine feet, the latter of which was a full five or six points below his customary mark. It is no surprise that he experienced his greatest success in Washington under the Princeton because the offense gets him near the basket on cuts and drives where he can be effective. As such, he is misplaced as a spot-up shooter, a role he has been occasionally pigeonholed into the last few games.
This makes his classification as a "go-to guy" for the bench somewhat illusory since while he should not be a player asked to create offense, he very well could be a high scorer under the right circumstances. Those involve the Princeton being implemented in its entirety, a development that still has not come to pass, and a lineup in which he has the freedom to move through the defense and the space to cut and drive. In this sense, one could see how he would be more effective next to say Gasol, who can operate in the high post and shoot from there, as versus Howard, who will be occupying the block or getting his own points on flashes to the rim. Now, Dwight attracts so much attention from opposing defenses that that pairing could work out regardless -- see all the easy drives Kobe got in the Kings game because defenders refused to leave Dwight -- but at least within a schematic view of the Princeton, Pau would be an ideal partner.
While we want to think that Hill's sudden love affair with his jumper is a recent fad for him, he had been showing range for quite some time, as seen in his 42.1% mark from 10-15 feet and 36.0% from 16-23 last season with Houston. For an energy guy who you want around the rim for putbacks, this may appear disadvantageous, but it does make him able to pair with either of the Lakers' starting frontcourt players without any major hiccups. Combined with his rebounding and active pick-and-roll defense -- his rotations could use some work, but we'll chalk it up to rust for being out with injury thus far -- he is arguably the Lakers' best bench player, so the question of who he plays with is less important than whether the coaching staff can structure the rotation such that he gets on the floor for a decent amount of time every game. Given the rotations last game against the Clippers, this appears to be a priority of Mike Brown and co.
As for the Lakers' third string, we will rarely see them in a real game situation, so as good as Robert Sacre has played recently, it will be hard for him to make a dent in the frontcourt rotation unless an injury occurs. If Duhon wins the backup point guard battle, a similar logic will apply as with Blake to the appropriation of minutes and with whom he plays with. The bottom dregs of the roster in Darius Johnson-Odom, Darius Morris, and Earl Clark -- already presuming that Andrew Goudelock is on his way out -- will practically never see the light of day except in the D-League.
So where does that leave us? It seems that we want to pair Nash and Howard to get as much out of that insanely scary pick-and-roll combination as possible, and Jodie Meeks would be an ideal addition to that lineup as noted above. Metta World Peace or Ebanks could serve as the second wing, as could Hill or Jamison for the four spot. This unit would be all about working off Nash and maximizing his ability to succeed in the halfcourt and in transition with a panoply of shooters and cutters capable of finishing at the rim. Give the ball to Nash and let him work his magic without having to share the ball. Of any combination the Lakers could put out on the floor, this would be one using the Princeton the least and would probably resemble the Spurs-type offense Brown ran last year, except with an actual bona fine point guard running the show.
Conversely, without Nash present, you have Blake, which brings us to a group that would instead rely on the Princeton to create buckets. To a certain degree, we are hearkening back to triangle principles here, so you have Kobe and Pau on the floor to act as a secondary ballhandler and high post operator respectively in order to keep the offense humming. Under this framework, Jamison would be at his most potent offensively, although Hill pairs well with just about anyone. Ebanks also benefits from this lineup since he can drive, cut, and spot-up with relative freedom. After Pau gets the ball in the high post, everyone else is cutting or running off screens for open shots, with Kobe as an option both off the ball and with it.
Naturally, the aforementioned group with Nash and Howard sounds far more imposing, but with Blake on the floor with other bench players, the dynamics have to change accordingly to account for his shortcomings. If you are wondering why the Lakers would kill for a better backup point guard, this is it. Of course, there are going to be units that fall in between the two because we presume Brown will gradually transition during a game to a more bench-populated unit and vice versa, but these demonstrate two extremes in terms of the offensive philosophy the team can have on the floor with varying combinations of starters and reserves. All of this is a far cry from the time when the Lakers could place a full bench unit into the game in '07-'08 and have it drastically shift the team's fortunes by overwhelming opposing reserves with an uptempo style. Today's reserves can be effective, but finding the right context for them to be so will be an important task for the coaching staff as the season approaches.
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