Roster Experiments: Real Genius or Weird Science?
Travis J. Rodgers
After the Los Angeles Lakers' failure to capture the 2008 NBA title, fans turned immediately to consoling themselves with thoughts of the roster-that-could-be in 2008/2009. If the prospects of a lineup including Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum do not elicit a salivatory response in one, one just might not be a Lakers fan. Because that lineup is simply devastating, featuring four players capable of putting up twenty points with some regularity and two who can score thirty or more. And of course one of them is the greatest offensive weapon in the game. But fairy tales rarely contain more than a trace of reality. The preseason seems to suggest that the Frightening Five is not to be.
In the first place, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have struggled to play together on the court effectively. It is not at all evident what the problem is, as Gasol has played a good deal of Power Forward in his career and has an effective jump shot while Bynum is a prototypical Center. Gasol's finesse play would be backed by Bynum's power game. Yet reports from Lakers camp are that the two on the court at once is not working so Bynum may be headed to the bench.
Second, Lamar Odom, who has played essentially every role on this team except Shooting Guard, showed up to camp out of basketball shape (perhaps more mentally than physically) and threw a fit when early indications pointed to his inability to play in the starting lineup. Rumors of his playing at Shooting Guard or even Point Guard have been tossed around. Most recently, he has shown signs of having come to terms with the possibility of being first off the bench.
So where does this all leave the Lakers' rotation? If Bynum and Odom both move to the second unit, Fisher and Bryant would still man the back court, but there would be a considerable shakeup in the front court. Gasol would return to Center, where he was adept offensively for the Lakers last season. Trevor Ariza might slide into the starting Small Forward role by default as Sasha Vujacic's avulsion fracture will keep him out of the bulk of preseason and prevent him from competing for a starting spot (should that happen, Bryant would slide to a slightly more effective Small Forward role). Vladimir Radmanovic would presumably be Phil Jackon's top choice for starting Power Forward. Radmanovic, when playing his best, is a solid player in the mold of Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu. He can do everything reasonable well, including defend when he puts his mind to it (in this sense, he is not as effective offensively as Peja but is superior defensively). Yet at his worst, he is a train wreck on the court.
So why is Radmanovic even in the running for a starting gig? If Jackson's appreciation for offensive play borders on the obsessive, his ability to look past defensive inconsistencies and hope that some Zen spirit infuses the unit and brings it to a higher level borders on the obscene. So expect Radmanovic to start if Bynum and Odom are both pushed to the second unit. In such a situation, the sole response that would put LA in good shape on both sides of the ball would be to put Ariza at the Small Forward spot. His offensive game has some limitations, notably in terms of ball handling and distance shooting, but with Fisher, Bryant, and Gasol on the court, the Lakers would still fare reasonably well in those categories. The lack of a true Point Guard did not hurt LA except possibly for the NBA Finals. Bryant's ability to create a shot off the dribble would be augmented by Ariza's, who is arguably the second most skilled (although Jordan Farmar certainly makes a strong case) on the team at creating in such conditions. Vlad's weak defense can be concealed by Ariza's tough-minded approach and there is always the Jacksonian hope that feeding a player's offensive game will spill over into his defensive efforts. So perhaps things will work out. Imagine if they do.
LA's starting five would still be one of the best in the game, but when it comes to second units, imagine a team trying to compete with Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. Or perhaps it would be Walton out and Josh Powell in, with Odom sliding to the Small Forward spot. At any rate, no team in the NBA can compete with that. Perhaps that is the fantasy Jackson has. Now for the serious problem.
Basketball players are not chess pieces. You cannot manipulate them around the depth chart like pawns on the board. Even if he plays thirty or more minutes per game in Jackson's plans, Odom may not respond psychologically to the demotion from the starting lineup. And after the season Andrew Bynum was having until his injury, and given how hard he worked during the offseason, his plans were not to serve as backup. As a young player eyeing a big contract, the stress on Bynum is already considerable. Struggling to find regular heavy minutes in Jackon's often inconsistent substitution plans may take their toll. And this is all assuming things go swimmingly in the starting lineup. If not, further shakeups will be necessitated.
So while there have been numerous defining moments in Phil Jackson's career, it is unclear that there has ever been a more monumental test looming for his skill at manipulation. Hailed as the Zen Master, Jackson has battled to fit together jagged-edged egos into a seamless puzzle. Perhaps he has always succeeded in the past, but this season may pose the greatest test yet. Whether Jackson will be remembered ultimately as a cool and calculating genius or a mystical eccentric could be determined over the next few months.http://rodgersreport.wordpress.com