Tonight the Lakers play game seven against a resilient Nuggets team that has battled back from a 3-1 deficit. Unless you have been hiding under a rock the past few days, it has been crystal clear where the focus (and blame) has been for the Lakers struggles to close out the series: Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. To say that the Lakers big men have been a disappointment is an understatement.
The Lakers rode Bynum's 10 blocks in game 1 and 27 points in game 2 to take a 2-0 series lead. Since then, the all-star center has failed to break 20 points or 4 blocks and the Lakers have dropped 3 of the 4 games. Gasol meanwhile has yet to match his season average in points or rebounds in any of the six games. The combination of Bynum and Gasol's poor play, Kobe's single handed attempts to carry the franchise, and the blowing of a 3-1 series lead have led to comparisons of this team with that of the 2005-06 Lakers, a team devoid of talent.
For some historical context, here are the average stats for the current Lakers duo of big men and those of the 2006 combination of Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown through six games:
- Bynum/Gasol: 28.0 pts, 19.1 reb, 5.5 ast, 48.9% FG
- Odom/Brown: 34.0 pts, 18.8 reb, 6.3 ast, 54.3% FG
It's no wonder the spotlight shines bright on Gasol on Bynum. The pair of All-Stars haven't even matched the production that Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown provided when the Lakers last blew a 3-1 lead.
Tonight the Lakers may get an answer to an important question, can the Lakers win titles with due of Bynum and Gasol? The quick answer is yes because they have two titles together already, however the answer may not be so crystal clear once you dig a little deeper. The Lakers have made three NBA finals in the last 4 years, winning two titles, but Bynum and Gasol did not play the bulk of the minutes together during those deep runs.
In 2007-08, the Lakers went to the NBA finals and lost to an incredibly good Boston Celtics team. Unfortunately, Andrew Bynum did not play a single minute of the playoffs due to a knee injury. That deep playoff run was the result of a line-up consisting of Gasol at the center spot and a more traditional stretch power-forward in Lamar Odom. It wasn't a twin towers approach to the game.
In 2008-09, the Lakers won their first title in the post-Shaq era. While Andrew Bynum did participate in the playoff run, the impact of the Gasol-Bynum front line was minimal at best. The duo of Gasol and Bynum played only 220 minutes together, less than 20% of the minutes the team played in the post season. During that 220 minutes, the Lakers basically played the opposition to a draw, outscoring them by a slim +4 margin (447-443). The twin-towers line-ups contributed little to the title.
In 2009-10, the Lakers repeated as champions. The duo of Gasol and Bynum played a more significant portion of the minutes in this post-season (388), however the results were no different. The Lakers outscored the opposition by only two points (789-787) with the two big men on the court at the same time. Once again, the Lakers were better when playing a more traditional center-power forward line-up than something that more closely resembles a two-center front line.
In 2010-11, the Lakers finally had a healthy Bynum and Gasol and were looking towards another three-peat. Unfortunately their playoff run came to a quick close in the second round when they were swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks. The duo of big men played 208 minutes together (43% of the team minutes) and this time the Lakers were outscored by 8 points (386-394). It once again showed that in the playoffs, the duo of big men playing together did not produce winning results.
Put all those results together and the combination of Bynum and Gasol have played 816 minutes together in the post season and have played their oppositions to a virtual draw (1,622-1,624 for a minus-2). That is a very large sample size with little support that the duo of big men are a winning combination. The Lakers have been much better when the two weren't on the court together (a plus-289). The line-ups featuring one of the two centers and Odom (a more traditional PF) were the keys to the Lakers playoff success.
Fast forward to the current series and the results are more of the same. Bynum and Gasol have played 154 minutes together and have once again played the opposition to a statistical draw (317-317). The evidence is really starting to mount that the duo of Gasol and Bynum doesn't work all that well and certainly not well enough to win a title.
The blame for the current struggles can't solely be assigned to Bynum and Gasol though. Perhaps the problem doesn't stem from them so much as it does the lack of space due the Lakers not being able to make a jumpshot. The Nuggets are keeping all five guys near the key and making it almost impossible to even get the ball into Gasol or Bynum. Having shooters on the wings to space the floor would force the opposition out of the key and create more opportunities for Bynum and Gasol to exploit inside. But there-in lies one of the problems in the Lakers strategy. Management made the decision at the trade deadline to keep the big three together and tried instead to improve on the perimeter by getting Sessions. From strictly a shooting standpoint, Sessions isn't an upgrade over Fisher. Sessions value lies in his ability to create opportunities for others through dribble penetration, but dribble penetration too breaks down when there are five defenders camping out near the lane. The Lakers did nothing to address the shooting woes that plagued the Lakers this year, and in seasons prior.
The Nuggets have clearly laid out a strategy to beat the Lakers; put everyone in the paint and dare them to shoot. The strategy neutralizes the Lakers biggest advantage, their size inside. The problem the Lakers now face is that they don't necessarily have the personnel to make teams pay for packing the paint and they don't have assets (outside of Bynum and Gasol) to acquire those type of players. A loss tonight may force the Lakers management to re-think the long term future of the Lakers and how the team should be structured. Are the Lakers better off moving one of the big men (most likely Gasol) for a more traditional stretch power-forward and other solid wing players who can create space for the Lakers in the post and for Sessions to penetrate?
It is by no means a question that should be taken lightly. That is why the spotlight burns so brightly on the Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol tonight. A loss may, according to Magic Johnson, mean the last game for Mike Brown as the Lakers coach. It may also mean the last game the Lakers big men to play together.