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Which Laker Frontline Is Most Effective?

Arguably the greatest strength of this Laker squad is their ability to trot out two All-Star caliber big men together at any given time in the game. It means that the vast majority of the time the Lakers have a crushing advantage in the paint over their opponent; and when the offense isn't clicking there's generally at least one big man who can still be relied upon to get buckets, meaning that the 'bail-out' responsibility isn't solely on Kobe's shoulders. It also leads to a great number of easy points, whether it be through offensive rebounds or open dunks given due to double teams on Kobe. Undeniably, the presence of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the Los Angeles Lakers is a boon 29 other teams would kill for.

However, it can sometimes be difficult for a coach in dividing minutes up between the three. During the Regular Season, it's a total non-issue, as getting the stars rest and reducing their minutes is considered a good thing (though, with Phil Jackson's propensity to leave Pau Gasol in during the fourth quarter of blowouts, it could be argued he doesn't place as much value on this as most coaches). During the Playoffs, however, it's literally a case of having too many weapons to choose from.

With seasoned veterans who know and relish their role like those on the Lakers, there's not really a problem in terms of player egos - all three of the core Laker bigs are beyond the stage in their careers where they worry about minutes - which makes this far less of an issue than it could be on some other teams (though I'd wager most of those teams wouldn't make the Playoffs). But there is an issue, however minuscule, in that  Phil literally has so many options it'd be hard to choose.

All the various combinations of the three Laker bigs have their own respective strengths and weaknesses; from the overwhelming size of the Bynum-Gasol frontline (one that Phil in the past has said he really likes); to the mobility, versatility and offensive fluidity of the Gasol-Odom frontline; and the cover-all-bases approach of the Bynum-Odom frontline. All these lineups also have their weaknesses; whether it be the Bynum-Gasol frontline's size making it difficult to guard 'stretch fours' and switch on screens; the Gasol-Odom frontline's relative lack of size and overwhelmingly surprising incompetence on the defensive boards; or the Bynum-Odom frontline's lack of the (usually) most effective Triangle pivot man in Pau Gasol.

As such, it's easy to imagine that it might be hard to choose a line-up to put out there. Obviously, the choice would depend on a variety of factors, such as match-ups, score, what style of offense the Lakers wish to play (obviously Bynum's not the best-suited to pushing the ball), the need for rebounds, the defensive scheme, and time of game. And Phil Jackson's probably the best coach in the history of the game at organising talent, so he'd do it better than most.

But what's interesting is that Lamar Odom, one who many have been lauding as the most consistent Laker throughout the season, and the League's Sixth Man of the Year, has seen his minutes drop in the playoffs. In the Playoffs, with the complete elimination of players like Theo Ratliff and Joe Smith from the rotation, one would expect all three members of the frontline's minutes to increase; however Lamar's have dropped from 32 to 28 minutes per game. Incredibly small sample size is of course a massive issue here, but the trend still exists, with his minutes dropping consistently every game. One would think that a major reason for his drop in minutes, in the small sample size provided, would be his subpar performance in Game One, but indeed that game featured his highest minutes total of the Playoffs so far.

It's possible to draw a strong correlation between Odom's drop in minutes and Bynum's resurgence as a dominant force on the inside, with Bynum's minutes having jumped from his regular season average of approximately 28 per game to roughly 31. And indeed, Bynum does deserve the extra minutes, but at the same time Odom is arguably as crucial as Bynum. Indeed, the Bynum-Odom frontline is statistically the Lakers' best defensive frontline by a wide margin; as shown in this table:


(from Actuarially Sound's excellent piece here)

The table also highlights some other interesting trends, such as Phil's preferred frontline of Gasol and Bynum actually being the least effective of the frontline combinations when played in conjunction with the starters. It also reinforces some already known notions - that the Odom/Gasol frontline is the most effective offensively, for example. However, perhaps the most jarring realisation from this table is that the most effective frontline that the Lakers possess (statistically, at least) is by far the least-utilised front line.

Of course, many don't believe statistics are the be-all end-all in basketball analysis, and I'm of that camp myself, however it does make sense that Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum combine to make a very effective frontline. The two combine the best of both worlds, in that Bynum is a true big man of the type that can go to work and get baskets in the low post, whilst being a monster on the boards and a significant defensive presence. Meanwhile Odom adds versatility in his ability to switch on screen-and-rolls, defend and play virtually every position on the floor, grab a rebound and run the break, guard stretch fours and play as a dribble penetrator and floor-spreader as well as in the post.

This combination of size and mobility is in contrast to the Bynum-Gasol frontline, which does feature some redundancy in that both require being fed the ball in the low post for most of their offensive input. Also, with Bynum's reliable range being limited almost exclusively to the paint, and Pau's being to abou 18-foot, spacing issues present themselves as well, as shown by the comparatively lower offensive efficiency of that line up compared to the other two in the table above. While the lineup does feature more size than any other in the NBA, it does so at the cost of mobility, making screen-and-roll defense more difficult. What's more, as Gasol and Odom are very comparable rebounders (15.6% and 15.2% Total Rebound Rate, respectively); this lineup doesn't even present a significant advantage on the boards.

The polar opposite of the 'Twin Towers' line up, the Gasol-Odom line up is perhaps the most well-known of the Laker line ups. Whilst Phil claims he prefers the Bynum-Gasol frontline due to its overwhelming size, a combination of injuries and offensive fluidity have led to this frontline combination playing more often than any other; a trend even more present in prior years where Bynum missed greater amounts of time to injury. It's the line up that was on the floor for most of the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 Championship runs, and the one that's trusted to close games out by Phil. However, we've seen instances when this has cost the Lakers. Whether it be singular events like the lack of Bynum's presence in rebounding leading to the Kenyon Martin put-back; or larger trends such as the Laker defense comprehensively collapsing in fourth quarters, there is much evidence to point to this line-up not always being a great idea, particularly in closing out games where stops are needed.

The primary reason for this lineup being out there in crunch-time is offensive fluidity, with the combination having a higher offensive efficiency than any other; but that idea seems somewhat redundant in true crunch time, where Kobe's usage rate spikes and Gasol often disappears. If Kobe is carrying the offense; then why put in a frontline which is more gifted offensively at the cost of any chance whatsoever of effective defense? Unless an opponent is playing small-ball in which the matchups dictate that Gasol and Odom will match up better with the opponent, I would argue that Bynum should be in the game in crunch time. 

As for the issue of where that leaves the other two big men, it really would depend on match-ups, but quite frankly Gasol has a habit of disappearing in fourth quarters, when refs swallow their whistles and teams get more physical; whilst Odom has a knack for getting the crucial rebound, or hitting the deep three, or going coast-to-coast for the back-breaking layup. Odom has been a true closer this season, with clutch moments comparable only to Bryant's. This is probably a pretty controversial stance to take, considering the line-up on the floor to win the last two championships has featured Odom and Gasol; but I believe that with Odom's emergence as a consistent force on the Lakers, and Bynum's growth into a defensive monster (not to mention Gasol has regressed in terms of rebounding, efficiency and defense in comparison to the prior two years), a frontline featuring Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom is the best one the Lakers possess, and as such should see the lion's share of minutes. What do you think?

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