For the Los Angeles Lakers, no a week goes by in which the dynamics of the team suddenly seem to change. Some of these changes, namely the litany of injuries which have often cursed the Lakers by taking away more than one person in the same category of the depth chart, have been forced upon the team. Others have been a result of a team that is filled with streaky, and therefore inconsistent players. The net result has been a basketball team that has tried to succeed in a variety of ways, and as that team has often failed to do so, the commitment to each different strategy has grown shorter, leading to yet another change.
It all started with the point guard injuries. When Steve Nash went down, and Steve Blake joined him a week later, the Lakers spend a solid quarter of the season switching their starting point guard like you might between flavors at Baskin Robbins. A few starts for Darius Morris, then Chris Duhon for a bit, and back again. Of course, the net effect of this dance was minimal, because no matter who started, the team was still playing Darius Morris and Chris Duhon for a combined 48 minutes a night. But that's not the only place where the rotation roulette wheel has been spinning.
At different times this season, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks have seen themselves on the outside of the rotation looking in. At one point, Earl Clark was more of a bench warmer than Devin Ebanks. Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Metta World Peace ... all have seen their roles vary significantly (while they were healthy, mind you) at points during the season. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash haven't had changes in their playing time, but they've certainly had to adapt their roles significantly at different points of the season. Only Dwight Howard has had a singular role and responsibility within the team, and as he will be sure to tell you, he's having to adjust to a whole lot of new things as it is.
What's the point in all this? The point is that if we know one thing about head coach Mike D'Antoni, it is that he is not afraid of changing things up if he senses there might be a better way of doing things. On the one hand, it makes complete sense because MDA is trying to implement his coaching style on a team that was not created with his style in mind, and he has done so without the benefit of a training camp to learn about his players' tendencies. That, combined with some terrible overall results, have left the coach desperate to find something, anything, that works. Recently, the experimentation has given way to a somewhat consistent identity, and perhaps the longest stretch of consistent rotations that we have seen all season. D'Antoni has (probably correctly) determined that Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks and Robert Sacre are not players that should be relied upon for any meaningful minutes, and a distinct lack of other options has left the Lakers with a small ball + Dwight unit. However, considering Coach Mike's proven willingness to take a new look at things, we helpfully pose the question: Might it be a good idea to start Antawn Jamison again?
Jamison has been playing very well for the Lakers of late. He's scoring 13 points per game and shooting 42% from 3 pt range in the month of February, providing some much needed scoring punch off the bench. So why would I want to take him away from the role that he has been playing so well the past month? Because the Lakers have a problem ... their starting lineup has been awful. Since Pau Gasol's injury, the starting lineup of Nash, Kobe, MWP, Clark and Howard has been -29 in the last nine games, losing by nearly 11 points on average over 48 minutes. That is a huge hole to have to dig yourself out of on a game by game basis.
The problem with the current starting lineup is that both MWP and Earl Clark have been struggling of late. Since Pau's injury, MWP has been awful, shooting 34% from the floor, 32% from 3. Clark is shooting 43% from the floor, but his 3 pt % has regressed in a major way, just 19% over his last nine games. And, although MWP's struggles have been more noticeable, Clark is -65 since Pau Gasol's injury (MWP is -31, 29 of which is explained through the struggle of the entire starting lineup). To be -65 in nine games is fairly impressive (in the wrong sense of the word, obviously), but to do so while your team has gone 5-4 is even more so.
Of the two players, MWP is more "deserving" of a demotion to the bench, but Clark's participation in the team's most egregious overall failures of late seems to indicate that it would be more fitting to change his role back to being a super sub. The fit, in terms of like for like replacement, is also better. Jamison and Clark are two very different players at very different places in their careers, but Clark is more similar to Jamison than MWP is. Both Clark and Jamison are excellent at cutting off the ball, and both finish well at the rim (or in Jamison's case, well below the rim). They both are capable of hitting the outside shot on the catch, and they both rebound fairly well. Jamison is obviously the more complete offensive player, and Clark is obviously more of a boon on the defensive end. With Dwight Howard appearing to be stronger defensively in the past few games, it would seem to me that having a bit more offensive focus would be appropriate for the starting unit, not to mention the fact that non-Dwight lineups have given up an astronomical 125 points per 100 possessions in the last nine games. Having Earl Clark play with the bench might not change that much, but it couldn't be any worse.
Is this truly a good idea? Even after writing all these words, I'm not entirely convinced. Antawn seems to have found a nice rhythm in his current role, and the team is putting together some wins. For that matter, using small samples of +/- data is never all that great an idea, and nine games is a very small sample. All I know is that there the Lakers have been playing well lately, except for two major problems: The Lakers are getting killed whenever Dwight Howard is off the floor, and they are also getting killed whenever the starting lineup is ON the floor. Which means the Lakers have done their best work recently with a combination of some starters (including Dwight) and some bench players. There's probably nothing the Lakers can do to save us from the non-Dwight minutes, but if they are interested in wringing the most success out of the lineups that are working, the best way to do so might be to make another change to the starting unit.