In the past six years, there have been no shortage of superlatives that could have been used to describe the players who have manned the five for the Lakers, and it would not be overly remiss to describe them as the driving force, Kobe Bryant notwithstanding, of the team's recent success. The ability to field either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum at the center spot at any point in a game was an enormous advantage that most teams were simply not equipped to deal with; adding Lamar Odom to the mix made it emphatically the league's best frontcourt rotation when everyone involved was healthy and provided enough quality depth to get by when it often was not. In a league that was steadily moving towards the perimeter and becoming smaller, the Lakers prided themselves on being able to exert their will down on the box.
This was no different last season, as the Lakers had three players able to man the position in Pau, Dwight Howard, and Jordan Hill. Hill's emergence in particular as a solid reserve made the position group especially strong; he was only the best offensive rebounder in the league when healthy. And alas, those very health problems that obliterated the Lakers last year also savaged the center rotation. All three of the aforementioned names missed time on the court, forcing Mike D'Antoni into the awkward position of having to choose between an undersized Earl Clark and an overwhelmed Robert Sacre as the backup fives from time to time. Age and injury also sapped the effectiveness of the players manning the position; the drop in defensive efficiency whenever Dwight left the floor was massive.
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that in light of these injury issues that the biggest move Mitch Kupchak made this offseason after Howard's departure was to use the Lakers' sole non-minimum financial tool to snag Chris Kaman to buttress the frontcourt rotation. It feels like an odd move because of how dreadful the Lakers' forward rotation currently is, making it a poor allocation of resources, but it is at least somewhat understandable. That Kaman has fit in snugly as a frontcourt partner next to Pau further decreases the apprehension, although the severe defensive issues with that lineup are still a significant problem. In that light, one might simply consider fretting about the center rotation a case of sour grapes. It isn't anywhere close to the force it has been in past years, but it is an above average and perfectly serviceable position group that can certainly compete against most teams on any given night.
The bigger issue is that you can make an argument that three of the Lakers top six or seven players all play the same position, especially insofar as Mike D'Antoni considers things. Hill has not played a lot of four next to Pau so far in the preseason, an arrangement that admittedly might change as we see what the regular 48 minute rotation looks like, but at the moment, he appears to be almost exclusively a backup five. Shawne Williams and Ryan Kelly edging in for minutes at the four accentuate the minute crunch and it might be hard for the Lakers to get their best players all on the court as much as they should be. This is the main gripe with the Kaman signing, all of the potential injury problems notwithstanding, and how D'Antoni sorts through this will be one of the bigger storylines going into the season.
The good (and bad) thing for Pau this year is that there are no more excuses. Forced further and further out to the perimeter by a breakout season from Andrew Bynum two seasons ago and Dwight Howard's presence last year, he now has unfettered control over his favored spots on the block. Kaman might get a look down there from time to time against a favorable matchup and as part of the flow of the offense out of Horns, but for the most part, it is Pau's domain to operate in. The preseason return of some of his usual staples such as his silky baseline hook has to be a welcome development for any Laker fan holding optimism for next season.
Now, why we point to a possible downside in this for Pau is that he basically has to prove this year that his perceived decline recently was largely a function of scheme and not of ability. We are well acquainted with Pau's imminent free agent status and to say that how the front office should tackle his situation depends on this upcoming year is a gross understatement. The worst thing a team can do is to destroy its future cap flexibility by giving oversized contracts to aging and declining players. That noted, while the notion that Pau is declining is irrefutable, he can assert that the extent of such has been overstated and he will age gracefully into his mid-30s.
As noted, the preseason returns on Pau's offense have mostly been positive. If anything, the team will rely on him even more as a set up guy out of Horns and he's looked pretty good in that role as he did near the end of last year. The challenge will be to put up more of a fight on the defensive end, as injuries sapped a lot of Pau's effectiveness last year, if not making him an outright liability. As a five, his responsibilities in checking the pick-and-roll will be lessened -- although lineups with Kaman will inevitably force one of the two into awkward spots -- but a pickup in his weak side rotations and rebounding would be a welcome development.
It should be noted that complaints about Kaman's acquisition have little to do with Kaman the player and more how he fits into the rotation as a whole. Thus far in preseason, he has fit in splendidly into D'Antoni's offense, his superb midrange accuracy making him a natural choice for Horns sets and the pick-and-pop. If he is able to replicate his blistering 52.1% mark on 16-23 feet shots from last season, Kaman should be able to pair with just about every big on the roster from an offensive standpoint. It also helps that Kaman has been fairly cerebral so far in picking his spots, as seen in the synergy that has formed fairly quickly between him and Pau in Horns sets.
The issue -- something that is the case for most of the roster -- presents itself on the other end, as Drew, among many others, have amply documented how Kaman and Pau are simply a bad defensive pairing. Two somewhat slow-footed frontcourt players don't work all that well in a league that requires you to effectively check the pick-and-roll to have a good defense, especially given the defensive deficiencies of most of the Laker perimeter players. Kaman has never been well-regarded on this end either, most of his positive contributions coming in the form of rebounding.
This isn't to say that the pairing can't work, but it has to be employed judiciously to help out what already projects to be a fairly poor defensive team. Both Williams and Hill are better fits at the four on the defensive end; however, neither of the two have demonstrated the offensive synergy with Pau that Kaman has so far. Something will have to give at some juncture, although this doesn't detract from the fact that after Pau, Kaman will probably be the most important factor in the Lakers' frontcourt going into next season.
We covered Hill at length in the power forward preview, and more or less everything said there still stands. The simple reality is that he needs to make more of an offensive impact to start beating out his competitors for minutes and that hasn't really materialized so far.
Well, one could mention the awesome bench cheerleading and probably cover the extent of Sacre's contributions towards the team next season, but that's a bit of a disservice to the improvements he's made since coming into the league. Yours truly thought that the main way Sacre was going to carve out a role in the league was to demonstrate the same type of skill set that has been keeping bigs such as Kurt Thomas in the league for so long: hit midrange shots, take charges, and don't kill your team on either end. So far, Sacre has been making steady progress towards becoming that kind of player, displaying most of those skills so far in preseason after a solid summer league performance. Barring injury, there is little chance that he will be part of the rotation due to the glut of players in the frontcourt, but as one of the few players on the team under contract through at least 2015, he will have his opportunities in the near future.
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