Midterm Report Card for the Lakers' BigsIn the wake of the L.A. Lakers' loss to the Boston Celtics in last year's NBA Finals, many people speculated that the Lakers would employ a huge starting frontcourt this season, inserting Andrew Bynum at center, shifting Pau Gasol to power forward and moving Lamar Odom to small forward. I immediately dismissed such speculation, writing, "If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either." As far as I know, in the midst of much feverish talk about the big frontline that the Lakers would supposedly use, I am the only NBA commentator who correctly predicted how Coach Phil Jackson would handle this situation. The Lakers lead the West with a 31-8 record with this lineup, so apparently neither Jackson nor I "bumped (our) head(s)" with the assessment that the Lakers would be best served by bringing career starter Odom off of the bench.
I suggested that the Lakers might be best served to trade Odom because I thought that he might chafe at coming off of the bench during his contract year and because the Lakers' weakest position is small forward. However, Odom has accepted his new role and Coach Jackson has effectively distributed the small forward minutes between the sharpshooting Vladimir Radmanovic and defensive specialist Trevor "Inspector Gadget" (my nickname for the long-armed ball thief) Ariza, with keen-eyed passer Luke Walton making cameo appearances and Kobe Bryant occasionally shifting to this position when the Lakers deploy a three guard attack.
With the regular season nearly half over, now is a good time to provide a preliminary assessment of how well Bynum, Gasol and Odom have performed.
In a 109-103 loss versus the Orlando Magic on Friday, Bryant had more rebounds (13) than Gasol (nine) and Bynum (three) combined. As I noted in my previous post, "In the past three games--a win at Houston, followed by a loss at San Antonio and a home loss versus Orlando--Bryant grabbed 27 rebounds, nearly matching the 28 combined rebounds that starting power forward Pau Gasol (21) and starting center Andrew Bynum (seven) tallied." Although the Lakers won the Finals rematch versus the Celtics on Christmas Day, Bryant (nine rebounds) led the Lakers on the glass in that game and nearly matched the combined rebounding numbers posted by Gasol (seven) and Bynum (three). That does not speak well for the toughness and/or mental focus of the Lakers' starting bigs, who still have something to prove down the stretch of the season and during the playoffs.
Some people pretend/imagine that Bynum is already an elite NBA center, but the truth is that he is a raw, young player who is still learning the NBA game. He still has a lot of work to do to reach elite status at his position, as was painfully evident during the Orlando game; Dwight Howard scored 25 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, while Bynum had 14 points and just three rebounds. After the game, Coach Jackson said, "It doesn't make sense. If Howard gets eight offensive rebounds and he's going to the basket all the time, and he's going to be around the basket, then Andrew should somewhere compete at least at that level, to contest rebounding-wise. What did he get, three tonight? And Howard gets 20? Somewhere along that line, that's not right."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is teaching Bynum how to read various situations on the court, including how to best take advantage when the NBA's most complete player, Kobe Bryant, is double-teamed: "That leaves three guys guarding the four remaining guys. If (Bynum) starts moving at that point and knows the right place to go to, he's going to probably be four or five feet from the closest defender. Therein lies opportunity." Abdul-Jabbar also is urging Bynum to look up the court after getting a defensive rebound instead of simply handing the ball off to a guard who is standing right next to him; crisp outlet passes could create easy transition scoring opportunities for the Lakers.
Bynum's minutes are up slightly compared to last season but his scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and blocked shots all have declined. I give Bynum a C+: the Lakers really expected more from him, particularly defensively and on the glass.
While Bynum is still learning the fundamentals of the NBA game, Gasol is a seasoned professional. He clearly understands how to draw the maximum benefit from the extra defensive attention attracted by Bryant, as shown by Gasol's .589 field goal percentage as a Laker last season and his .548 field goal percentage this season, numbers that surpass his best totals while playing in Memphis when he was the focal point of his team's offense; Gasol has missed more easy, wide open shots this season than he did last season or his field goal percentage would be pushing the .600 mark. Gasol is an excellent passer and, although he is not a very physical player, he rebounds (9.2 rpg) and he is a better defensive player than his reputation suggests. Gasol does not post huge shotblocking numbers but he uses his length to alter a lot of shots. He only made the All-Star team once in his first seven seasons and even though he is the second best player on the team with the best record in the West he will not necessarily make the All-Star team this year: Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony lead the fan voting at forward, while Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki are locks as coaches' choices. Gasol will likely be battling David West and LaMarcus Aldridge for the spot left open by Carlos Boozer's injury woes. I give Gasol an A-: Gasol is playing very well but to earn a full A he needs to convert more of his wide open shots and push his rebounding average closer to 10 rpg.
Last year, Odom averaged career highs in rebounding (10.6 rpg) and field goal percentage (.525); as the starting power forward alongside first Bynum and then Gasol, Odom thrived by cutting to the hoop from the weakside and he was terrifically active on the offensive and defensive glass. This season, Odom is averaging a career-low 26.4 mpg, so the rest of his per game averages have also understandably declined in a corresponding fashion. Although the plus/minus data suggest that Odom has been very effective, I think that those numbers are a bit "noisy," influenced by who he has been on the court with and who who he has been playing against. Odom's rebounds per minute have dropped by nearly 20% compared to last season and he is shooting .473 from the field, higher than his career average but a significant decrease from last year. Odom has been solid defensively for the most part and he is shooting a career-high .385 from three point range, albeit with a small number of attempts (39 in 36 games). Overall, Odom has been effective as a bench player and, even more importantly, he has accepted this new role without making any waves. The Lakers could still use a legitimate all-around starting small forward--Coach Jackson rightfully prefers to use Ariza as a bench player--but I would be hesitant to trade Odom at this point because Bynum has hardly been a world beater so far and the only other bigs on the roster are Josh Powell, Chris Mihm and the seldom used D.J. Mbenga. I give Odom a B: he has played solidly so far and could earn an A by season's end if he can move his per minute production closer to the numbers he posted last season.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:42 AM