How should the Lakers adjust to Dwight Howard’s possible absence?
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Sorry for being a buzzkill, but someone has to be the party pooper.
There’s a good chance Lakers center Dwight Howard won’t play in the season opener Oct. 30 and beyond. Not that that’s going to sap the enthusiasm for the Lakers’ championship prospects. But the Lakers will have to figure out how to absorb Howard’s possible absence.
This isn’t exactly news. At his introductory news press conference Aug. 10, Howard admitted uncertainty about whether his surgically treated back would be 100%. But some Lakers fans may have forgotten amid the giddiness that came with the reports that Superman would wear a purple-and-gold cape.
In fairness, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak expressed confidence that same day that the team is prepared to deal with Howard’s possible absence. The Lakers, after all, know there is a big difference between playing with an incomplete roster in training camp and at the beginning of the season than in doing so during the playoffs.
Still, the situation opens up questions about the team’s contingency plans in case Howard’s arrival at Staples Center doesn’t exactly correspond with playing in it.
Below are some scenarios:
1. Increase Pau Gasol’s minutes: The Lakers forward has become accustomed to this by now. For the last two seasons, Gasol slid over at center and ate up Andrew Bynum’s minutes because Bynum was either injured (missed 24 games in 2010 rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee) or suspended (missed five games last season for his forearm shove on J.J. Barea in the 2011 playoffs).
Given Gasol’s versatile skill-set, he’s easily capable of doing it again. With Gasol’s thirst for operating more in the low post, the situation could mark his opportunity to have a bigger role this season.
Still, there should be concern about a bigger workload for Gasol. He’s coming off a summer in which he trained and played extensively for the 2012 London Olympics. Though that should ensure his conditioning to open the season, it also increases the likelihood that he could fall to fatigue pretty quickly, as happened two years ago.
Granted, the Lakers now have a deeper team, capable of coping with that possible problem. Their starting lineup would still be dangerous with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. Their frontcourt depth in Antawn Jamison, Jordan Hill and even rookie Robert Sacre is superior to Theo Ratliff and Derrick Caracter. But considering Gasol’s age (32) and vulnerability to hamstring injuries, it could be a dicey gamble to simply extend his minutes.
2. Start Antawn Jamison at power forward: Jamison has played most of his 14-year career as a starter, and his 19.5-points-per-game average makes him the most likely choice off the bench to replace Howard’s scoring void.
It’s possible Jamison’s numbers could go down because of the talent around him, but his team-first mentality will likely ensure that he fits into the lineup.
No one can truly duplicate Howard’s presence, but having Jamison in the starting lineup would give the Lakers the most continuity when it comes to offensive balance and chemistry, and ease the transition when Howard would return. The difference between Howard’s and Jamison’s skill levels is substantial, but the overarching principle of ensuring fluid ball movement to all parties involved would be maintained.
Jordan Hill is capable of starting on a short-term basis, but he isn’t a scorer, which would give the Lakers a much different dynamic in how they run their offense. The team is better off adapting with a starting lineup that boasts five scoring threats than with four players with an energy guy.
That said, there’s legitimate reasons that Jamison should still come off the bench. The Lakers’ reserves are in dire need of additional scoring power after finishing last in the league last season, averaging 20.5 points per game.
Jamison’s distinguished skill-set would diminish to some degree as a starter, and leave the Lakers’ reserves without a trusty first scoring option.
Jamison’s defensive weaknesses are also well documented, and the Lakers wouldn’t be doing themselves any favors using him to replace a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. And as much as it’s necessary to consider the Lakers’ offensive chemistry, their foundation should still rest on defense.
3. Start Jordan Hill at power forward: He may not be the more talented player, but he may provide more of what the Lakers’ starting lineup would actually need.
They already would have offensive firepower from Bryant, Gasol, Nash and even Metta World Peace. They would just need Hill to provide all the other things lacking in Howard’s absence, such as defense, gobbling up rebounds and making hustle plays.
Because Hill offers those abilities, very little of his game would be compromised playing with the starters. Meanwhile, the Lakers bench would still have a reliable scoring option in Jamison.
Verdict: There’s no other way to put it. Gasol will have to play more minutes. But unlike past seasons, the Lakers have more frontcourt depth so that the burden shouldn’t fall solely on his shoulders.
In that case, Hill seems to be the best option to start because the Lakers would have a greater need in mitigate any defensive drop-off they would experience in Howard’s absence. Meanwhile, they would have plenty of offensive options so that Howard’s absence in the low post wouldn’t be as troublesome.
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