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Pushing for Small Ball: Analysis of the Lakers backcourt rotation

The original goal of this piece was to analyze the Lakers rotations across the board, and to figure out how the team’s minutes should be allocated. However, barring injury or a miraculous turnaround in Adam Morrison’s shooting stroke and NBA career, the frontcourt is pretty much set in stone. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum will split the 96 minutes at the 4 and 5 (probably right around 36:30:30 respectively, as long as Bynum can control his fouls). Ron Artest and Luke Walton seem likely to split the small forward minutes, and that split could be anywhere from 30:20 to 36:12. So, as I said, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of questions regarding where the minutes will go in the front court. Ammo could steal some of Walton’s time, but anything more than a couple minutes a game seems unlikely unless he breaks out. Josh Powell and Mbenga should be relegated to spot duty and garbage time unless an injury requires more. Which brings us to the back court.

The back court is a trickier situation. The Lakers currently have 5 guards who have all proven, at one time or another, to be worthy of playing time. The starters are set in stone. Kobe Bryant will play between 36-38 minutes, as he always does. Derek Fisher will start, but it’s unclear how many minutes he plays. Honestly, with the Lakers guard depth, it wouldn’t surprise me if PJ limited Fish’s minutes to about 20 a game, but it will more likely fall in the 24-28 minute category. For nice round numbers, we’ll say that there are 36 guard minutes available. The three candidates for those minutes are Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Shannon Brown.

In terms of positions, Farmar is a pure point guard, Sasha is a pure shooting guard, and Brown is a ‘tweener combo guard, but leans towards playing the point, and he was used almost predominantly at that position last season. So, on the surface, it seems we have two backup point guards and one backup shooting guard. The logical conclusion to that statement is that Sasha will pick up whatever minutes Kobe doesn’t play, and Farmar and Brown are left to duke it out for the rest. I already posted about this last week, and Lakers fans seem pretty clearly to be in Brown’s corner, by a factor of 2:1. Here’s my question: Why should we have to choose?

If Farmar and Brown are the Lakers’ two best reserve guards, why not play them together? Brown’s got enough size to be OK guarding the other team’s off guard, especially since we’ll be talking about 2nd unit two guards. There aren’t a whole lot of off guards who can use their size as a real advantage anyway, and I can’t think of a single one who isn’t starting. And the potential of a Farmar/Brown backcourt goes far beyond just simply playing your best players. To elaborate, we must think back to last year.

Through the first 15-20 games of the season last year, the Lakers bench was considered one of the best, if not the best, in the league. At the time, the 2nd unit consisted of Farmar, Sasha, Trevor Ariza, Lamar, and either Gasol or Bynum. This unit had considerable success because of their dynamite transition game. With Odom and the other big pulling down rebounds, Lamar could either lead the break himself, or get it to Farmar. Farmar would fly down the court and have Ariza filling the wing, or Sasha ready to nail a transition 3. Compared to the slow, efficient, pace of the starters, the 2nd unit provided a great spark that quite often turned 5 point leads into 15 point leads. So what happened? First, Farmar got hurt, causing Derek Fisher to play big minutes with the 2nd unit. Fisher has many wonderful qualities as a player, but pushing the pace has never been one of them, even when he was young enough to do it. When Fisher wasn't in, Sasha was handling lead guard responsibilities. So things slowed down. By the time Farmar returned, Bynum had gone down and Odom was no longer with the 2nd unit. Farmar also lacked the explosiveness that he used to push the pace with such reckless abandon. At some point along the way, Ariza was deservedly moved to the starting role. From then on, the bench struggled mightily. Instead of pushing the pace, they were forced to run a lot of half court sets, and their execution of the triangle was not good. Possessions more often than not ended in turnovers or rushed jump-shots. Their defense also suffered, although that probably had more to do with the personnel changes brought on by injury and the need for Ariza to play starter’s minutes. In short, the 2nd unit lost their identity.

Back to the upcoming season, if we assume that Brown and Farmar can’t play together, the 2nd unit looks like this: Farmar/Brown, Vujacic, Walton, Odom, big man. Certainly better than the end of last year due to Odom’s return, but it still seems like a bunch of pieces that don’t really fit. Farmar can’t really run unless he develops the one man fast break mentality (and success) of Tony Parker or Devin Harris. The team is still left to run the triangle in the half court, and while Walton and Odom know what they are doing in that regard, the unit still lacks focus on the offensive end. The offense for that unit seems most likely to be dump it in to the big man almost every time, and if the big can’t deliver, or if the rest of the team can’t get the proper entry pass, things will be stagnant.

But if Brown and Farmar play together? Now, the 2nd unit looks like this: Farmar, Brown, Walton, Odom, big man. Suddenly, the 2nd unit has that fast break magic once again. If Brown can do one thing (and yes, I know he can do more than one thing) in this league, it’s finish at the rim. You can’t tell me that the idea of Farmar to Brown on the fast break doesn’t make you salivate at the possibilities. Walton’s not a great finisher, but he’s a pretty good passer, especially on the break. Odom can go coast to coast whenever he wants to. Gasol runs the floor better than any big man in the NBA, and Bynum isn’t at all shabby as a secondary trailer if he’s the pivot at the time, as he also runs the floor pretty well. It’s just my opinion, but I think that unit has much of the same mojo and success that the Bench Mob became so known for from 2007 to the first part of last season.

The odd man out in this scenario is clearly Sasha Vujacic. This may or may not be a good thing. If Sasha continues his struggles of last year, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with his playing time decreasing to spot minutes. However, if Sasha can return to the way of the Machine, he’s definitely a player that you want out on the court. He’s the best shooter on the team. Even last year, when everyone knew he was struggling badly with his shot, he still shot better than all but Fisher and Radmonivic (yes, his percentage was better than Kobe and Ariza). If he can re-discover the game that got him his contract, he should be played, and that pretty much destroys this whole scenario, right? Again, I ask why?

What if the Lakers throw out a three guard lineup as their 2nd unit? Now, it looks like this: Farmar, Brown, Vujacic, Odom, big man. Now, not only is the fast break mojo back, but you’ve got Sasha ready to punish any team that focuses on defending the paint in transition. Remember how devastating an offensive force Sasha can be? He almost single handedly kept the Lakers in game 3 of the NBA Finals against Boston two seasons ago. Defensively, Sasha is much more of a liability at the 3 than Brown is at the 2. He’s got the height to be able to deal with that position, but his classic Euro physique would allow him to be out-muscled by 90% of the leagues small forwards. In the event that the other team has the ability to take advantage of that matchup, this lineup wouldn’t necessarily be the best idea, and Walton can easily fix that problem. But if the other team is trotting out an offensive liability at that position on the floor? There are more than a few teams who have athletic, but offensively challenged, wing men, and as long as Odom and the big man do their job and clean the glass, it is conceivable for Sasha to provide more of an advantage on offense than he does a disadvantage on defense, thus making the whole situation worthwhile.

Obviously, that whole scenario requires that Sasha re-discover his game, which is a pretty big if. It could also theoretically work if Adam Morrison re-discovers his game, but that is one of the biggest if’s in the NBA (besides, even those he’s got much more size, Morrison could be an even bigger liability at the 3 than Sasha would be). But regardless, it seems to me that the Lakers’ best option for a 2nd unit involves both Brown and Farmar together, flying down the court and filling up the scoreboard. What do you think?

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