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There was a time in the NBA when the lines drawn between point guard all the way up to center were clear. All five positions on the court were defined like lanes on the highway, and if a player was veering out of those boundaries he'd feel the bumps along the road alerting him something was wrong.
But the NBA is evolving, and the lines are becoming a blur of positional diversity now more than ever in today's game. It has nearly become a necessity for a center to be able to pull his defender out of the paint and stretch the floor. Small forwards are dipping their toes into the power forward waters every day and finding that the water is just right. "Scoring" point guards are being painted into shooting guard roles while also maintaining ball-handling duties.
Yes, times are changing, and while the idea of these roles overlapping into one another isn't anything new in the NBA landscape, the importance of having a roster with enough flexibility to transform from an eighteen wheeler to a convertible has never been higher. The Lakers are no strangers to sliding players around in their rotations, as they always have slid Pau Gasol up to fill out minutes at center. In the past, the Lakers had the luxury of doing the same with Kobe Bryant. Sasha Vujacic or Shannon Brown would come into the game and Kobe would simply move up to the small forward. However, last season, with a roster full of flaws, Kobe was locked into extended and exclusive minutes at the shooting guard position. With Jodie Meeks' bench presence, the Lakers have a backup two guard who can be the key for giving Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and the Princeton offense a puzzle piece they need to operate effectively. But, even more important in the grand scheme, is the positional diversity he opens up. What does this all mean? Let's dive in.
First and foremost, the priority of the Lakers' coaching staff when it comes to Kobe will be cutting down the 38.5 minutes per game from last season. At this point in his career, with the treasure chest of talent the Lakers have uncovered, there's no reason for Kobe to put in nearly 40 minutes a night. Over the last 14 seasons, Kobe's lowest minutes per game average through a season is the 33.9 from his 2010-2011 campaign. He has averaged less than 38 minutes only four times over that time frame. It's going to be critical for Mike Brown and Kobe Bryant to find a minute range that works best for both the team and Kobe. On the other side of Grandpa Kobe will be Jodie Meeks, a fresh legged 25-year-old shooting guard who averaged 24.9 minutes per game last season. Meeks' minutes per game will fluctuate based on how effective he can play within the offense, and if he can avoid being atrocious on the defensive end. Yes, averting atrocity is just how low Steve Blake set the defensive bar when he was filling in as the backup shooting guard last season. Meeks' shooting numbers should see a rise in efficiency while playing in a system made to create open looks for players, but even more important is how comfortable both Nash and Howard play when they have sharpshooters
along the arc behind the arc (no Derek Fisher foot-on-the-line twos, please). Shooters generally need to find their rhythm, and a 20-minute per game window feels like a solid estimate for a player with Jodie Meeks' skill set. But minutes can only be spread so thin and putting Meeks in for 20 minutes would cut Kobe's playing time down to... 28 minutes per game. While, yes, it would be nice to rest Kobe for 20 minutes on a nightly basis, that simply isn't happening. There will be times when he's needed for extended stretches on the court, and let's face it, Kobe isn't going to play any less than 30 minutes a night at the very least. This is Kobe freakin' Bryant we're talking about here.
So what do you do about this "minutes" problem? How do you effectively use Meeks off the bench long enough to allow him to find his stroke, while also giving Kobe the minutes he needs to be out on the floor? You tinker. You twist. You play. You diversify.
The first lineup, a finesse look if you will, is a bread and butter slide up for Kobe. Howard-Gasol-Bryant-Meeks-Nash can be a lineup that gives teams headaches, and has the potential to become a dangerous offensive unit. Keep in mind that match-ups are everything when tweaking lineups, and if there isn't a physical offensive small forward on the other side (Durant, Lebron, Pierce, Granger as just a few examples), Metta's offensive talents don't cover the spread when considering the damage Nash-Meeks-Bryant can incur. This lineup is a pure offensive look, so another wrinkle would be to replace Pau Gasol with Antawn Jamison. Jamison can actually stretch the floor out to the three-point line, unlike the Spaniard's failed endeavor last season, so his presence would help spread defenses even further. Either way, it's difficult to imagine this lineup not seeing the light of day. Meeks would be the biggest benefactor in the "finesse" lineup, as the attention defenses would have to give the other four players on his side should open up plenty of space for him to snipe away at those poor lace nets. Another reason why this lineup is particularly effective is that it also helps patch the "other" glaring hole in the Lakers' bench, the backup small forward.
As much of an issue the backup point guard position has been, the backup small forward has the potential to be just as frustrating this season. Devin Ebanks is still an unproven player who couldn't find a role with the team last season. One of the things that the "finesse" lineup does is limit minutes for Ebanks. Shifting Kobe up into the small forward position when Metta hits the bench not only keeps Ebanks off the floor, it effectively subtracts minutes away from him, as more time on the bench for Metta World Peace means more time on the floor for the starting small forward later. While this may seem like a harsh handling of a third year player, he simply hasn't shown enough positive time on the floor to incite confidence. Yesterday's roundtable highlighted just how important the bench players will be for the Lakers. Cases were made for each core bench player, except one: Devin Ebanks. He still has upside, he showed he can be a bothersome defender at times with his length, he might become an effective slasher someday, but it's all up in the air. He will get his chance to prove his value through training camp, preseason, and limited minutes in the regular season, but this Lakers team isn't about giving players a chance. This is about winning a championship now. If Ebanks doesn't progress, the coaching staff won't have their hands tied waiting it out, there will be options.
The next lineup is what I'm going to lovingly dub the bulldog lineup. You know that beautiful, dreamy, house that has a "Beware of Dog" sign on its white picket fence? A huge lawn with plenty of shade from the trees that seem to be perfectly placed throughout the lush green grass, the leaves shuffling in the breeze, but the serenity is stripped away when you walk by the gate and their beefy bulldog charges up to you lashing out, barking, and snorting up a storm? That's what I picture the Lakers as when they roll out a potential lineup of Howard-World Peace-Bryant-Meeks-Nash. The beautiful house which is Bryant-Meeks-Nash on the offensive end, and the defensive bulldog muscle of Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace. This is definitely a circumstantial lineup, but one that isn't farfetched. While it may be used sparingly, the "bulldog" can be instrumental for the Lakers' championship hopes. The Miami Heat have wing players galore, and Chris Bosh has already stated he's ready to play heavier minutes as a center. The Heat rolled out lineups featuring either Shane Battier and LeBron James at the power forward slot at times, and will only continue to push their positional diversity going forward with Ray Allen on deck. Is a lineup of Chalmers-Allen-Wade-LeBron-Bosh out of the question? Certainly not. The playoffs bring out the chess matches when it comes to match-ups, and the "bulldog" from the Lakers will be a necessary tool in combating downsized opponents. Do you want Pau Gasol trying to man up against LeBron James when the Miami Heat are playing small ball? Or, how about against the Oklahoma City Thunder? They haven't been shy about sliding Durant up to the power forward in the past, and he is definitely a mismatch for Pau. How about the Christmas game with the New York Knicks? Analysts have been calling for Carmelo to shift up into the power forward position; how do you think Pau would fare against him? The deeper down the rabbit hole we go, it becomes more and more evident. Whether or not the Lakers run the "finesse" or "bulldog" lineup as described is inconsequential. The gears are turning now, the possibilities are there.
This is a step in the right direction.
The fact that the Lakers even have the option to explore positional diversity is extremely important in achieving the level of success they are aiming for. Having a true backup shooting guard allows Kobe Bryant to step away from his responsibilities at the two and allows the coaching staff to utilize the talent at their disposal more effectively. When taking a deeper look at the implications, it becomes even more apparent how imperative it is for the Lakers to be able to adjust with the hybrid lineups that seem to be sprouting across the league. With the acknowledgment that Oklahoma City and Miami are both teams that are likely to obstruct the path to bringing the Larry O'Brien trophy back to Los Angeles, it will be no easy task. All stones must be turned.
A year removed from Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Jason Kapono (along with late entries of Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks) being all the bench could offer, this is a monumental shift. The Lakers could hardly find production off the bench, coming in at a league-worst 20.5 points per game last season. Adapting the bench and starters to new strategies through the turbulence of last season? That would have been preposterous. The NBA is evolving into a league of analytics--advanced statistics being applied in ways front offices never considered. Teams are minimizing inefficiency, and maximizing their profits, both on and off the court. The Lakers front office has given their coaching staff everything they need in this game of chess. Now, it's up to Mike Brown to find a way to exclaim those two triumphant syllables.
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