When the Los Angeles Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to an already potent duo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, fans around the Southland envisioned dominance throughout the regular season and beyond.
That, obviously, has not happened and the Lakers find themselves clinging to the No. 8 seed with just seven games to go in the marathon we know as the regular season.
Premature coach hiring decisions aside, a part of the reason why the Lakers have struggled so much this season may simply be because they’re overcrowded with stars. The numbers seem to agree with this notion. When the Lakers are missing one of their four stars due to injury, they’ve been playing a lot better.
As seen in the table above, the Lakers play much better when one of their four stars is missing in the lineup. They also are a +163 in these situations.
The old saying goes, “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” However, for the Lakers, the numbers don’t lie: three’s company, four’s a crowd.
In fact, in games where all four stars were available, but Pau Gasol came off the bench, the Lakers are 4-5, which is markedly better than their record when all four players start (4-9).
It’s also important to note the Lakers’ struggles when two of their four stars are missing.
Here’s a breakdown of record and points differential per game when a certain star is missing from the lineup:
When only one of the two Laker bigs is healthy, the team is 17-6. The combination of having an elite point guard (Nash), high profile scorer (Bryant), and dominating big (Howard/Gasol) on the court at once is lethal. The Lakers are to no surprise best when only one of their bigs plays with Nash and Kobe. However, when Nash is out and Kobe works with two bigs, the team is 10-7, which is a little worse than their record when Kobe and Nash play with one of two bigs. Too many bigs in the paint possibly disrupts the spacing for the Lakers and causes Gasol to play the power forward position, which isn’t his natural position. As a result, the team doesn’t perform as well as they do when Nash and Kobe play with one of the two bigs.
Finally, not surprisingly, the Lakers are atrocious when both bigs are missing from the lineup with a -10.3 point differential and an 0-3 record. Ouch. The Lakers lack of depth at the center position rears its ugly head when both Dwight and Pau are out. (Where are you Jordan Hill?)
One factor to consider is that throughout the course of a game, just because all four of the Lakers megastars are healthy, it doesn’t mean that they play together during all 48 minutes. So which lineup combinations are the most efficient for the Lakers this season?
The Lakers have had 14 lineup combinations that have played with each other for at least 50 minutes this season. Here they are with the number of minutes they’ve played together, their plus/minus, and their plus/minus PER 48 minutes. (Information from stats.NBA.com)
It’s a convoluted list so I have color coded to make it easier:
(Purple = Bryant/Howard/Nash combinations, Blue = Bryant, Howard, Gasol combinations, Light Green = Bryant, Gasol, Nash combinations, Bold Black = All four stars combination, Gold = Bryant, Nash combinations)
The first thing that pops up is that lineup combinations featuring Bryant, Howard, and Nash (Purple) have been extremely dominant for the Lakers. If the Lakers have these three on the floor with anyone, they’re going to be just fine.
The next thing we see is that having all four stars on the court at the same time (Bold Black) is neither beneficial nor detrimental for the Lakers. There are two such lineup combinations, and combined they’ve played over 200 minutes together but there is no positive or negative impact on the team.
Next, we see that having Bryant, Howard, and Gasol together isn’t always the best option. One of these lineup combinations featured Darius Morris. Most of these minutes came when both Nash and Steve Blake were hurt and Morris was forced into the game. As you can see, he wasn’t exactly a spark plug for the team. When teamed up with Metta World Peace and Blake, this combination performs a lot better with a +15.2 plus/minus per 48 minutes. That said, as mentioned before, having two bigs on the floor at the same time isn’t as optimal as having Nash, Bryant, and Howard together at the same time. This also shows the importance of Steve Blake in the lineup, especially this year. Blake has improved tremendously since last year and these numbers demonstrate how much the Lakers missed him when he was gone.
Similarly, the Bryant/Nash/Gasol lineup combination’s success is dependent upon who is surrounding them on the court. In this case, having Antawn Jamison play with the trio rather than World Peace, has helped the combo thrive.
It’s also important to note that the Bryant/Nash combination is absolutely terrible. The Lakers need bigs and those three games when Howard and Gasol were missing simultaneously were a nightmare.
Finally, let’s give some kudos to Metta World Peace. The dude’s name appears in all five of the most efficient lineup combinations. Howard and Kobe can’t say that. It’s clearly apparent that his physicality and strength are an important part of the Lakers system and the numbers show it.
So what do we learn from all of this?
- Three stars are better than four. The Lakers play best when three out of their four stars have been healthy. They’re more efficient and they win more often. When everyone is healthy, perhaps having Pau Gasol coming off the bench would suit the Lakers best. Then again, he’s an alpha male and maybe being a bench player won’t be the best idea. The Lakers have tried this already and it didn’t really float well with Pau. Maybe the Lakers should have traded him for Josh Smith at the deadline after all. This way they would have bolstered their bench and added depth and chemistry to a team that has needed both all year long.
- Players need to fit their part. Again, Gasol is a center, not a power forward. Having him play with Howard isn’t always the best idea. When Howard is hurt and Pau starts at center, the Lakers are 3-0.
- Darius Morris does not belong in the NBA.
- Metta World Peace is not a thug and is very underrated.
It’ll be interesting to see the lineup combinations the Lakers use when everyone is healthy for the playoffs. As seen in this analysis, it could easily make or break their playoff run.