After years of solid, consistent play from the Lakers' primary corps of bigs in Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum, witnessing last season, filled with ups and downs, slumps and rises, was a bizarre experience. Each of the three had parts of the year in which they surpassed their career norms as well as times when they played woefully beneath them, with almost none of those periods intersecting, something that contributed to last season's turmoil. Gasol began the year on a stellar, MVP-level tear before the continued stress of playing too many minutes triggered a season-long decline that resulted in his massive meltdown during the playoffs. Conversely, Bynum, who missed the start of the season due to knee surgery in the off-season, started the year slowly as he got back into form before erupting following the All-Star Break into a defensive dervish at the heart of the Lakers' 17-1 streak. Finally, Odom had arguably the best year of his career during the regular season, putting to rest the almost cliched concerns about his consistency with borderline All-Star play that earned him the Sixth Man of the Year award before he, like Gasol, was highly ineffective during the playoffs.
With Mike Brown taking the helm of the team, the bigs will continue to be the primary fulcrum of the Lakers at both ends of the floor. While the defensive principles of the team will stay roughly analogous to the defense that powered the Lakers streak after the ASG, the offense will switch to the Spurs' playbook that will incorporate the talents of the Lakers' bigs in a different manner than the triangle, although with many of the same principles. Barring a consummation of the long-rumored Dwight Howard deal, the Lakers off-season activity with their bigs will involve picking a suitable backup for the five to avoid the fatigue problems that helped derail the Lakers' season last year. After the jump, we will review how Brown's playbook will utilize our bigs, the adjustments they will have to make, and how the Lakers can fill the fourth or fifth big spots in the rotation in free agency.
As I've noted in both of my previous posts, pick-and-roll play will be a much more integral part of the Lakers' offense next season. It certainly will not to be the degree of say a Steve Nash or Chris Paul-run squad, but regularly enough to constitute a significant shift from the triangle, in which its use was much more limited. Moreover, this will also imply a greater emphasis on screen setting, both on and off the ball, to create opportunities to score; this again is a noted contrast, if not to the triangle, then to the heavy isolation and straight-up post diet that typified the Lakers' offense last season. All three of the Lakers' primary bigs are able screen setters, although there rarely was an opportunity to demonstrate this last year between the offense's stagnation and Kobe's usual preference of working in isolation rather than pulling an additional defender with a pick. Moreover, only Bynum is unable to run both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, as his range extends to about 10-15 feet at most, and he arguably compensates for that by being the better screen setter due to his size. In any case, questions of who the ball-handler will ultimately be on these plays aside, there should be largely no problems on the bigs' part in this regard.
Although it might be getting trite at this juncture, let us turn to NBA Playbook's Sebastian Pruiti again, as he provides an invaluable service in illustrating many of the sets Brown might incorporate from the Duncan-Robinson Spurs, his professed model for next year's offense. Seeing this, it is easier to place many of the comments that Brown made during his initial press conference, vague as they may have sounded initially. For starters, Brown's emphasis on "early offense" and "attacking the clock" refers not to running the ball specifically, but quickly establishing position on the other end and executing a play without wasting the shot clock. Specifically, both bigs become somewhat interchangeable, as the first big down the floor will immediately go to the basket while the trailing big acquires a pass from the guard at the top of the key and is able to hit the big as he posts up before the defense is set. I mentioned this briefly when discussing the changes in point guard roles, but this "early offense" philosophy harkens back to the Lakers' offense during the '08-'09 season, and provides one way of solving the stagnation issues of the previous year by quickly getting into a set.
Outside of delayed transition, the regular setup for post plays looks remarkably similar to the triangle as the big sets up down low while the guard gives them the ball from the wing. What changes here, especially as versus last season, is that the weakside big will move to the opposite block, making for a double block set, and forcing the defense to decide whether to cover the post player with the ball one-on-one or risk an easy dump pass to the opposite big if they double. Frequently, post plays last season between Bynum and Gasol would essentially be each other taking turns on the low block while the other stayed at the high post, negating a lot of the advantage of having the two play volleyball on the offense boards due to their size. If the concept of big-to-big passing sounds familiar, one again can look at the '08-'09 season, in which Gasol and Odom were remarkably adept at playing off each other in the paint, and Brown will look to replicate much of that with Bynum included as well.
The bringing in of Ettore Messina will introduce a few wrinkles into the offense and defense courtesy of his time with the European game. One set in particular that might produce immediate dividends is Messina's preferred method for posting up, in which the big who is posting up comes off a down screen set by the guard, which allows the big to get the ball with good post position. This is something that Gasol, who demonstrated an increasingly obvious inability to gain good post position by backing down his man -- and indeed, often got him pushed away from the basket, forcing time to be burned off the clock so the play could be reset -- could definitely benefit from. Moreover, if that pass is unavailable, the screen creates a double block set that can be taken advantage of by simply passing to the guard who set the initial cross screen, who can hit the other big as he starts posting up.
If all of this sounds wonderfully synergistic, it's because it is and it fits well with Brown's San Antonio sets that I've mentioned above. Triangle influences, another thing Brown referred to in his press conference, are definitely present in these sets, so the learning curve won't be especially steep. However, the changes will work towards solving many of the stagnation issues, particularly insofar as the players getting into the sets, that plagued the Lakers last season. This is not necessarily an indictment of the triangle, as the team's execution of it was horrendous, but as I noted when the Lakers were conducting their coaching search, having to learn a new system from a new voice would be beneficial, as it would give the team something tangible to focus on. Granted, my initial underlying thought when I stated that was that Rick Adelman would be that new voice, but the Spurs' playbook is nothing to scoff at either.
In an interview Mike Brown had with LakersTV yesterday, he also revealed that Messina might implement some zone defenses for the Lakers could use. Many zones that are run in Europe are not allowed in the NBA due to rule differences, but as Rick Carlisle showed continuously last postseason, it can be a very effective situational tool against certain lineups or teams, and is something that the Lakers are able to use with their size in the frontcourt. Having Messina as an assistant capable of managing that is very analogous to the role Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, a prolific user of the 2-3 zone, played for the national team. Besides this, the Lakers' defense should look familiar to that post-ASG with Bynum as the anchor of the defense, except the team will go into the season with that as the gameplan instead of trying to revamp the entire defense at midseason.
What last season also showed emphatically outside of the above concerns was the importance of the fourth and fifth bigs on the bench. Although the degree to which Gasol has to bear responsibility for not rising above his inexplicable slump as the season progressed is debatable, there is no doubt that the lack of a consistent backup on the bench to relieve him contributed to his decline after his MVP start to the season. Theo Ratliff and Joe Smith, both of whom miserably failed at this role, are both free agents and definitely will not be with the team next season. Moreover, between the ever-present risk of a Bynum injury and the fact that Gasol and Odom are now on the wrong side of 30, it behooves the team to invest in some backups capable of playing 10-15 minutes a night, not only for cases of injury or foul trouble, but to simply be capable of holding down the starters' minutes during the regular season.
Derrick Caracter entered last season with perhaps outsized expectations for a player taken 58th in the draft, as he had demonstrated a refined post game and nice touch in summer league that led many to believe, yours truly included, that he could be a decent backup down the road for the Lakers, who appeared to have gotten a steal that fell on draft night due to character and weight concerns. This in part contributed to the outrage that he wasn't getting minutes after Ratliff got injured and it became clear that Gasol was becoming overwhelmed by the amount of minutes he was playing, although Caracter could have been complete garbage if it meant that Gasol was getting adequate rest. After Bynum's return, Caracter's minutes were very limited over the rest of the season, it is difficult to divine anything into spot minutes being played by a rookie at the end of the bench.
What was damaging to Caracter's prospects, and especially in contrast to fellow rookie Devin Ebanks, was his rather poor showing in D-League play. Given that any NBA prospect worth their salt is expected to perform well against the level of competition in the D-League, Caracter did not give an inspired performance, averaging 8.0 ppg and 7.6 rpg on 41.2% shooting in five games while fouling at a prodigious rate. His attack on a waitress at an IHOP certainly didn't do him any favors either, and it is an open question as to whether his services will be retained next season, as the Lakers are free to waive him as they please. Certainly, it space is available on the roster, it would behoove the Lakers to keep Caracter to see how he continues in his development, but parting ways with him would definitely also be understandable.
Outside of Caracter, the Lakers have only solutions that would work in smallball lineups, such as playing Ron Artest and Matt Barnes at the four. Artest's steadily decreasing vertical and lack of athleticism have made him a liability at the position, particularly in terms of rebounding, and he lacks the ball-handling ability to be a threat to bigs from the perimeter. Barnes, on the other hand, is an interesting stretch four option, one that he has played in the past with Golden State and Phoenix, as he makes good cuts, attacks the boards, and on a good day, can sink shots from outside. Given the Lakers' personnel, however, it is unlikely that either ever plays at the four consistently outside of serious foul trouble or injury situations and they are not definitive solutions to this problem.
Thankfully, this year's free agent class is chock full of the type of big men the Lakers are looking for. The top of the Lakers' list, for a number of reasons, should be the Pacers' Jeff Foster. A solid pick-and-roll defender unusually mobile for his size, Foster is an exceptional rebounder, with his 20.7 rebound rate ranking seventh in the league last season. Although he is limited on offense and has a Perkins-esque tendency to set illegal screens, he represents one of the best choices available for the minimum or similar. Moreover, he has a good rapport with Artest going back to their time in Indiana, and anything that acts a stabilizing force for Metta World Peace at this point in his career is a positive thing. Continuing to mine the Pacers angle, Josh McRoberts is another interesting option considering his ability to shoot from range and relatively young age (24), although he is a terrible defensive player. Regardless, his strengths might earn him more than the minimum from some team. A cheaper option in the same line would be Troy Murphy; although he was completely ineffectual for New Jersey and Boston last season, he is just one season removed from a 18.07 PER year, and he brings a tantalizing combination of shooting and rebounding to the table.
Next we have Kwame Brown. Yes, that Kwame Brown. He of the stone hands, mind-bogglingly terrible decision-making, and all of the things we try not to ever recall of a bygone era when he was the Lakers' starter. Thankfully, Kwame has proven that he is at least somewhat competent at two things: defense and rebounding. With this current corps of bigs, there is no reason whatsoever for Kwame to touch the ball on offense, and for all his faults, he's a perfectly good backup for 10-15 minutes a game. Also joining Kwame in free agency from Charlotte is Joel Przybilla, who was an outstanding rebounder and shot blocker while healthy, but was hobbled for last season after coming back from a knee injury. If he can assure the Lakers that he's healthy, he would be another solid selection for the backup five spot.
The rest of the possible selections include Dan Gadzuric, a somewhat injury-prone yet good pick-and-roll defensive big who can run the floor; Kurt Thomas, who played solid ball for the Bulls last year but is 39 and you wonder how much longer he can keep it up; Shelden Williams, another draft bust who has reinvented himself as a good defensive player who can rebound and set good screens; and Reggie Evans, a rebounding dynamo who brings little else to the table. Past here, you have the assorted flotsam such as Melvin Ely, Yi Jianlian, and Chris Wilcox, all of whom are barely adequate even for the fifth big slot.
Dwight Howard. That's it. If a trade is available and the terms are relatively reasonable, it's a no-brainer. For all of Bynum's improvement last year and how much of a force he was after the ASG, he still doesn't compare to Howard's utter dominance of the defensive end, and Howard would single-handedly extend the Lakers' title window. Past him, there really aren't any bigs available that are worth giving up a member of our key frontcourt trio, and it is highly unlikely that the Lakers are able to make a trade for the lower end of their rotation given the poor assets they have and the myriad of options in free agency. If Odom is traded for Andre Iguodala or Monta Ellis, both of whom have been mentioned in reports as potential trade targets, the Lakers may ask for a backup four or five back to help fill Odom's hole in the rotation, but it is highly unlikely they receive anything better than that.
In any case, any Howard or Odom trade notwithstanding, our primary big rotation will look as it has the previous two years, with Brown's and Messina's new playbook hopefully able to make better use of both Bynum's and Gasol's talents in tandem than the triangle has in the past. Given that this new system will require Kobe to be more of a distributor and ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, it would not be incorrect to say that more of the offensive focus is gradually moving to the bigs, as one would hope Kobe will not repeat his insanely high usage rate from last year, and one could certainly do worse than the Spurs' playbook in incorporating the talent of three very talented bigs in Bynum, Gasol, and Odom. As far as the back end of the rotation, while Foster is a preferred choice, it would be hard for the Lakers to go wrong picking a fourth and fifth big among the selections above, and seeing as nearly all of them are likely available for the minimum, there is absolutely no reason penny-pinching should play a role as it has in the past. The Lakers' championship aspirations are tied to the strength of their corps of bigs, and with Brown's playbook and a set of good backups, there is no reason not to expect the Lakers back in the title hunt next season.