The Lakers' power forwards embody how positional definitions are changing

Ethan Miller

We continue on the season previews by looking at the Lakers' corps of power forwards and how variable that label has become in the league nowadays.

One of the main elements of the offensive revolution that Mike D'Antoni helped to usher into the NBA was a paradigm shift in traditional positions. Guys who were once treated as too short or not sufficiently bruising enough to play in the frontcourt suddenly found roles as players who were too quick and accurate from range for their usual counterparts to cover. In the modern NBA, it is increasingly difficult to play fours incapable of stretching the floor at least out to fifteen feet or so, as well as checking the pick-and-roll ably on the other end. The recent success of the Miami Heat, a team that routinely trots out LeBron James, Shane Battier, and other players that would have emphatically been considered small forwards ten years ago at the four, is testament to how this has become the new norm.

Of course, the Lakers were determined to buck that trend last year, at least initially. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard were arguably the league's biggest frontcourt, Pau's passing and Dwight's defensive mastery expected to overcome their odd fit in the modern game. Injuries to both players, the lack of consistent offensive flow caused by D'Antoni's arrival in the middle of the season, and other factors made it a relative failure until a dedication to running Horns sets and better overall health made it a more natural pairing. Still, D'Antoni's preference was clear when he consistently moved Metta World Peace over to the four and preferred Earl Clark in the starting lineup over a hobbled Pau. The bottom line was clear: spacing, arguably the most important aspect of modern offenses, was a paramount concern.

This adds an interesting wrinkle into the discussion concerning the current state of the Lakers' frontcourt rotation, seeing that D'Antoni has marched out a Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol starting lineup for the past few preseason contests. Compared to last year, however, there is little question that the two can work as a pairing on offense; the main issue comes in their lack of speed on defense, making this pair especially susceptible to pick-and-roll play that basically every team uses as a primary offensive weapon nowadays. Their synergy on offense might ultimately outweigh any other concerns about their status as the starting unit, but the drawbacks are sufficient enough that we have a lot more possible variance in how the rotations will be behind them.

How they fit on offense does bring into focus how classifying one or the other as the four in the lineup isn't really very meaningful. If anything, Kaman's superior jumper and Pau's more able post game means that the former fits the mold of a four man than the latter even though Kaman's practically never been considered anything other than a center. It would be most accurate to consider it starting two centers. If you want an example of why labels such as "bigs" and "wings" are probably more useful nowadays, here's a useful exhibit. With this in mind, let us look at the other players on the roster who can man the four and what possible role they could play in the rotation next season:

Jordan Hill

Directly reflecting how the traditional positional labels are increasing obsolete, it might be more technically correct to classify Hill as a five given his role on the roster. Instead of pairing him with Pau or Kaman, D'Antoni has opted to play Hill with Shawne Williams and sub out both his starters in the process. This will likely change during the regular season since Pau will play over 30 minutes and the historical data tells us that Hill is probably the most effective frontcourt counterpart for him. Still, Hill doesn't evoke images of the modern day four with his play, as his most noticeable skill is his nose for the ball on the offensive boards.

Much has been made of D'Antoni's comments to Hill to extend his range, but it probably is the main trait that distinguishes him from every other big on the roster. Plays are going to be run using Horns as a basis and there will inevitably be times when Hill will be called upon to hit an open fifteen footer within the context of the offense. He doesn't have to be a dead eye shooter by any means; it's just accounting for the way that opposing defenses are going to play him. How consistent Hill gets in this area will determine whether he finds more minutes as a backup five in place of Pau or Kaman rather than along them.

And that's a shame since as Drew has written in the past, Hill is by far the best defensive big on the roster and is the team's best response to heavy pick-and-roll play. His athleticism and decent lateral movement allow him to hedge and recover well, as well as make efficient rotations on the weak side. The problem is whether he can be enough of an offensive threat outside of rebounding -- and make no mistake: Hill is much more skilled than he is given credit for, as seen in the rare times in which he gets the ball in deep post position -- and work well enough in the Horns and high pick-and-roll sets that will dominate the Lakers' offense next year to carve out a bigger spot in the rotation. At the very least, he'll start the year as the first big off the bench.

Shawne Williams

With the possible exception of Xavier Henry, Williams has been the biggest surprise among the group of reclamation projects the Lakers brought in during the offseason. Thought to be an one-dimensional player brought in primarily because of his success with Mike D'Antoni in New York, Williams has quickly shed that label in his first few games with the team. Naturally, that spot-up shooting is there, but Williams moves very well as both a roll man and finding the open spots on the court after setting a pick. There

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, has been his defensive utility and effort on that end. Although nominally a three man playing one position up, Williams has a long frame with a 7'3'' wingspan that makes him particularly effective on weak side rotations and allows him to switch onto wings and play off them. It's not an accident that the Williams and Hill frontcourt appears to move like cheetahs on defense compared to the typical frontcourt the Lakers have trotted out recently. Time and time again, Williams has been the main guy sprinting back in transition defense to stop the other team from getting to the rim.

All of this appears to have solidified Williams' role as the primary four in the rotation, but as Blake pointed out, the Lakers' group of small forwards is so dismal that Williams might end up playing at his "natural" spot from time to time. Either way, Williams has all but won his spot on the roster and that's not a result that yours truly thought would have been the case a few weeks ago.

Ryan Kelly

Kelly's injury has prevented us from making a thorough analysis of his game, as he only recently debuted in a Lakers uniform after missing all of summer league and a fair chunk of the preseason. As such, we really don't want to take too much from a small sample size, but at the same time, we don't have a whole lot of else to analyze. It also helped that Mark Jackson bizarrely decided to play his starters in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, so we at least got the opportunity to see Kelly matched up against the likes of David Lee instead of the scrubs at the end of Golden State's bench.

In that short time, Kelly displayed mostly the same things that made him effective in college: he's very good at drifting into the open spots on the floor off the ball, has decent ballhandling ability for a big, and can stretch the floor from range. He did have a tough time down the stretch, although this can be forgiven by the fact it was his first game in months and it's still preseason. There won't be a lot of times when the unit on the floor calls for Kelly to take contested shots off the dribble. As for his defense, that's harder to parse, notably since just about any rookie big is going to get worked over by Lee, but he did do a good job of getting back in transition and took a smart charge on Stephen Curry when he was trying to get the ball up the court.

We'll get a much better idea of where Kelly is at as a NBA player as preseason continues and he gets more reps. That said, the initial -- albeit super premature -- results are positive and one can see flashes of the type of player that the Lakers picked for his fit in Mike D'Antoni's offense. Should he continue to shoot well and find other ways to be effective, there's a chance for him to nab a few spot minutes once in a while. If not, he'll undoubtedly get plenty of development time down in the D-League. Regardless, it's a rather noticeable turnaround for a guy whose hold on a roster spot was thought to be precarious at one juncture before the last preseason game.

Marcus Landry

Kelly's case has been helped out by Landry's spectacular letdown after coming into camp with a head of optimism from his solid summer league performance. This has not been a good preseason for Landry, as his mishaps have outnumbered the more positive aspects to say the least. Increasing the level of competition from summer league, when Landry was consistently good game to game, has not turned out well, as the airballs and overall lackluster play attest. A large contributing factor in this has been the complete disappearance of the off the dribble game Landry brought out in summer league to make up for his fluctuating shot-up shooting. This has made Landry highly one-dimensional and brought into pointed relief his limitations at the four in comparison to other options such as Williams, especially on defense since Landry lacks Williams' length to compensate for playing a position up.

Now, there certainly is a lot of preseason left for Landry to regain his lost stock and D'Antoni has constantly mentioned his faith in Landry. That noted, there's some pretty stiff competition for Landry to do so; if we assume that Henry's play has earned him a spot on the roster, that leaves Landry competing with rookies Harris and Kelly for the last two spots. The youth of the latter two works against Landry, however, as their possible future upside is weighed against what Landry can produce for the team right now and frankly, that's not a whole lot. Williams has filled the role of stretch four who can defend both forward spots more ably than Landry so far and there's not a lot of compelling reasons for Landry to make it unfortunately.

Elias Harris

We should note that Harris hasn't shown a whole lot either, but he wasn't expected to do so. The structure of his current deal, with a partial guarantee for this year, non-guaranteed second year, and qualifying offer for the third year, is that of a regular rookie contract with all of that implies. Harris does have a shorter leash than the average draft pick because of the lack of non-guaranteed money, so there's an expectation of consistent improvement for him to keep his spot, especially considering that he's older than the average draft pick. That improvement doesn't have to take place immediately, however, and the team will likely feel comfortable watching his development in the D-League in the upcoming season.

If this sounds cynical on Harris' chances of cracking the rotation in the upcoming season, compare Harris' situation to that of Hill's. Harris is an even worse shooter and doesn't have Hill's superlative offensive rebounding skill to compensate for this, making it tough for Harris to work in this offense at the four, let alone the wing. He does offer a bit of defensive versatility similar to Williams in that he can check both forward spots, but that's not nearly good enough at the moment to justify a rotation spot. The hope for Harris is that he's a very inexpensive piece the Lakers can hold onto and possibly turn into a solid investment in 2014 when the Lakers will need these kinds of players to open space for possible free agent acquisitions.

Wesley Johnson

The notion of Johnson playing at the four wasn't even remotely considered by most until D'Antoni brought up the possibility early in training camp. It's not an entirely unjustified notion. Johnson experienced a lot of success in college playing a hybrid forward role, rebounding well and hitting shots from range while evoking Shawn Marion comparisons from the likes of Draft Express. The problem is that Johnson, when healthy and on the court, hasn't shown that he's remotely shed the emphatic bust label attached to him yet, not to mention that the weakness of the small forward position means that he'd be better suited there if he does pan out. His injury has further complicated any analysis of this situation, although Johnson's guaranteed deal will ensure that he sticks on the roster through the upcoming season, so he'll have plenty of opportunity to show whether he deserves a spot in the league.

If we presume that Pau and Kaman will take up all the available center minutes, this leaves about 25-30 minutes for a pair of backups at the four to fill in combination with one of the two. At the moment, Hill and Williams are the leaders in the clubhouse and we'll get a better idea of how the rotation will shape out the closer we get to the start of the season. Williams taking minutes at the three, for instance, might open space for Kelly to take ten or so minutes if warranted or open up more minutes for Hilll. The identity of the final roster causality will further help illuminate this for us, although it would take quite a dramatic change for anything to change our current conception of the frontcourt rotation.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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