Lakers positional battles breakdown

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
7:15
PM PT
Buha By Jovan Buha
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com
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When Kobe Bryant makes his long-awaited return in the coming weeks, the Los Angeles Lakers will have the third cog of their starting lineup in place.

With Bryant and Steve Nash as the backcourt incumbents, and Pau Gasol returning to his natural position of center, there are two frontcourt starting positions up for grabs. Throw in the heated competition for backup minutes behind Nash, and there are a few intriguing rotation questions that will need to be answered over the next month or so.

Here are the three positional battles to look out for as the regular season approaches:

[+] EnlargeJordan Farmar
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsJordan Farmar gives coach Mike D'Antoni the type of athleticism at guard that D'Antoni likes to have in his offensive system.
Backup point guard

Candidates: Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar

With Nash on a minutes restriction, both Blake and Farmar figure to prominently factor into coach Mike D'Antoni's supposed 11-man rotation. Still, one is likely to play more than the other.

Farmar's speed and athleticism provide a breath of fresh air on a roster lacking athletic players. His ability to make plays out of the pick-and-roll is a near perfect match with D'Antoni's system, so as long as he's able to replicate the passing acumen he demonstrated in New Jersey (29.0 assist percentage in 2011-12), he'll be the favorite to run the second-unit offense.

Defensively, he's arguably the Lakers' best perimeter defender by default, so he'll have a vital role defending faster, more explosive point guards.

Blake, meanwhile, is more of a traditional floor general who adds a level of steadiness and much-needed 3-point shooting. He thrived in D'Antoni's system last season -- largely because he had his best 3-point shooting season (42.1 percent) since 2008-09 -- but it remains to be seen if he can replicate that production.

Despite his diminishing quickness, he's still a tough, feisty defender.

Advantage: Farmar. Between the two options, Blake is clearly the safer, low-risk choice. But D'Antoni has never been one for convention, and Farmar definitely has the higher ceiling of the two. Since both players can also slide over to shooting guard, the logical outcome might be Farmar as the primary backup, and Blake soaking up off-ball minutes as a spot-up threat.

Starting shooting guard/small forward

Candidates: Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Blake

[+] EnlargeNick Young
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsNick Young is the Lakers' second-most talented wing player on the roster, behind Kobe Bryant.
Young is the proverbial favorite, but his tunnel vision offensively suggests he might be better suited as a high-scoring reserve, a la J.R. Smith or Jamal Crawford. The Lakers ranked 28th in bench scoring last season, and Young could single-handedly raise the output to a respectable rate.

Both he and Bryant -- at this point in his career, at least -- can go through bouts of lackadaisical effort defensively, and a perimeter trio of those two and Nash would be problematic to say the least.

Johnson has the length and athleticism to complement Bryant, but questions remain about his 3-point shooting (32.3 percent last season) and one-on-one defense. His inefficiency from the field (48.5 true shooting percentage) is discouraging, and partly reflects why the Phoenix Suns' offense scored 4.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court last season.

While Johnson might look the part of a 3-and-D player, his untapped potential has yet to materialize into anything productive.

Another option could be starting Meeks as a placeholder for Young since he's a better defender, with Bryant sliding over and defending small forwards -- a transition that might happen regardless of who starts beside him. But Meeks has yet to string together consistent shooting stretches in L.A., and if he isn't hitting from deep, he isn't a starting-caliber player.

Along the same lines, Blake could potentially start as a secondary shooter and ball handler, but his lack of size and strength would present multiple defensive issues against elite shooting guards.

Advantage: Young. He might drive the coaching staff crazy some nights, but he's the Lakers' second-most talented wing outside of Bryant, and the surest bet to succeed. It's early, but he seems to have bought into playing more team-oriented ball on both ends of the court. The challenge, of course, will be maintaining that mindset all season. There just isn't another viable option, for better or worse.

Starting power forward

Candidates: Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Shawne Williams

While Kaman technically isn't a power forward, he can function in the role offensively. He's an elite midrange shooter (52.1 percent from 16-23 feet last season) with the ability to finish ambidextrously on either block, so he and Gasol could play interchangeable roles in the high and low posts.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hill
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsJordan Hill seems to give the Lakers a better option on defense at power forward when compared to Chris Kaman and Shawne Williams.
The issue with starting Kaman next to Gasol is that neither big man is adept at containing the pick-and-roll or making quick back-line rotations. Gasol struggled defending power forwards last season -- opposing power forwards registered a 17.2 PER against him, compared to just a 14.4 PER for opposing centers (league-average PER is 15.0) -- but would have no choice but to do so alongside Kaman.

That wouldn't be a problem with Hill, who would defend power forwards and alleviate most of the concerns surrounding Gasol's lack of foot speed. The duo of Gasol and Hill allowed just 96.8 points per 100 possessions last season, which was the best combination among the Lakers' five big men.

Offensively, Hill is constantly screening and cutting, which isn't necessarily as valuable as having a shooting big man like Kaman, but is useful nonetheless. His work on the offensive glass -- he led the league in offensive rebounding rate last season (20.0 percent), albeit in only 29 games -- is impressive, but the key to his fit may be his shooting.

As ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin reported over the offseason, Hill worked on extending his range at the behest of D’Antoni, and improving to even a league-average rate (39.5 percent for power forwards) would do wonders for his game.

Williams is a dark-horse candidate, as his familiarity with D'Antoni's system -- and considerable success under it -- shouldn't be overlooked. He shot 40.1 percent from beyond the arc in New York in 2010-11, can match up with big wings or smaller big men, and is the only Lakers stretch-4 with any chance of playing meaningful minutes.

He has to make the roster first, but if he does -- which is likely given his partially guaranteed contract -- he'll have a shot at starting.

Advantage: Hill. Kaman has already started twice in preseason, and displayed nice offensive synergy with Gasol in last night's win over Denver. The Lakers weren't tested defensively against the Nuggets' big men, though, and that area of the court is still a concern. With that in mind, Hill makes more sense. He's the Lakers' best rebounder, defender and athlete, and those are all areas the team needs to address to compete for a playoff spot.

Stats used in this post are from NBA.com/Stats, 82games.com, HoopData.com, HoopStats.com and MySynergySports.com.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0