The Lakers may be in need of lineup changes

Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum may be more talented overall, but they aren’t as good together as Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm, or at least according to Lakers coach Phil Jackson. After the Lakers beat up on the short-handed Clippers team at Staples on Sunday, Jackson had the following to say to reporters at the post-game press conference.

"I didn't enjoy how the first unit played. The ball stopped too often. They didn't have good movement, didn't play together and did a lot of individual stuff with the ball. As a result, there were turnovers and steals that lost us our momentum in the third quarter, which was difficult to watch…I tell them sometimes that I can hardly wait to get the second unit on the floor the way they're playing."

Jackson’s comment brings up an interesting point though about the Lakers starters and bench lineups as it is currently constituted. We had been contemplating a post discussing the inefficiencies of the team’s lineups for a few days now, but whether its laziness (clearly attributed to the recent chill here in the Northeast), lack of hours in the day (mostly tied to our real job) or a more pressing need to address the Celtics’ historic run, we simply haven’t addressed the issue -- until now, of course.

Despite giving up a whopping 102 points per game, the Lakers, surprisingly enough are third in the league in opponent’s field-goal percentage, holding foes to a stingy 43.8 percent shooting from the floor overall. They’re just as stingy defending the 3 point arc, allowing opponent to shoot only 33.3 percent from beyond the line, good for fifth best in the league. Not bad. But the stats, as they often do, only tell half the story. If you’ve watched any decent sampling of Lakers games you’ll know that the team’s defensive intensity is incredibly inconsistent during the course of a game. And, there are serious lineup issues that can be easily fixed, and will need to be addressed if the Lakers are serious about making noise in this year’s Western Conference playoffs.

But, before we get to the possible lineup changes, here’s how the flow goes in most Lakers’ games:

The team comes out gangbusters (particularly offensively) and generally claims a decent lead by the 4 minute mark of the first quarter

The bench then holds their own against the other team’s second unit, usually taking a small lead into the half

But then it all falls apart in the third quarter (at least in the team’s losses). Turnovers, poor shooting by the first unit and a general lack of defensive intensity drops the Lakers 10-15 points behind by about the 4 minute mark of the quarter

They catch up slightly when some of the second unit players like Farmar and Radmanovic mix with the first teamers like Bryant and Bynum to make a mini-run going into the fourth

But, in the fourth, generally still down significantly, the team, seemingly in desperation, starts taking ill-advised shots, with Kobe usually being the primary culprit. And on the defensive end, while they try to play aggressive, they also lose cohesion and give up easy shots

By the latter half of the fourth the snowball is already rolling down the mountain, picking up steam and there is no way to prevent a loss – at times a player like Bryant, Radmanovic, Fisher, or Farmar will get hot, but it is too little too late

Think back to Laker losses this year to teams like the New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors and you’ll remember the same old story – big first and second quarters, followed third and/or fourth quarter meltdowns. Defensive intensity, or lack thereof, is one of the culprits for these outcomes and lack of ball movement, as Jackson pointed out following the Clippers game, is another.

These issues though can be addressed through some minor lineup changes. First, Jackson needs to yank Luke Walton out of the starting lineup in favor of Trevor Ariza. Ariza brings a ton of energy to the floor, but more importantly he’s able to take on the toughest backcourt defensive assignment, leaving Kobe free to focus more offensively. With this small change, the Lakers become a better defensive team at the start of the game, but more importantly when the starters come out in the third quarter. With Kobe and Ariza on the wings and Andrew Bynum developing regularly as a top-tier shot blocker, the Lakers should, in theory, be able to lock down teams defensively coming out of the half and extend, rather than surrender, the leads they usually build going into the break. And, this would free up Kobe defensively to focus more on scoring and setting up his teammates for open shots in the third.

The second change would be to play Lamar Odom more with the second unit, particularly in the second and third quarters. Perhaps, Jackson needs to limit the amount of time Lamar spends on the floor with Kobe Bryant. As we all know, both players must dominate the ball in order to be successful and have never been very complimentary in their respective styles. The simple solution then (other than trading him of course) would be to use Odom as an anchor for the second team, instead of a complement to Kobe.

Lamar should probably still be a starter and he needs to finish games with Kobe, but at all times in between the two could spend very little time on the floor together. So, who could replace Lamar’s minutes with Kobe on the floor? Vladimir Radmanovic, if he’s shooting the ball well that particular game or Ronnie Tauriaf are solid alternatives.

Finally, when Kwame Brown does return to the Lakers following his most recent injury, perhaps Phil Jackson should fiddle with a twin towers lineup, teaming Kwame with Bynum particularly against smaller teams like Golden State and Phoenix -- with Kobe, Radmanovic and Farmar manning the wings in this lineup. Both big men are mobile enough that, unless teams go extremely small, they should be able to stick with players like Al Harrington or Boris Diaw on the defensive end, while dominating those smaller players in the post and on the boards on the offensive side of the ball.

Of course, match-ups dictate a lot of what coaches do with their lineups in the NBA, but it certainly makes a whole lot of sense for the Lakers to use these lineup tweaks as a general rule of thumb. It may better position them for sustained sucess in the playoffs against some of the more elite teams in the Western Conference.

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