Last season for the Lakers was a massive disappointment – and that is an understatement. The team started out with Mike Brown leading the way, but shortly thereafter found themselves being coached by former Suns and Knicks coach, Mike D’Antoni. Although D’Antoni was the fallback plan to the fan’s desire for Phil Jackson, D’Antoni had been a successful coach in the NBA. When he first took over he met with Mitch Kupchack, proclaiming the Lakers should be a team who could score 120 points every night out. With Steve Nash, Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard, why wouldn’t that be the case?
As we quickly found out last year’s team just wasn’t built for D’Antoni’s offense. The team was severely hampered by injuries, but more importantly didn’t have the young, athletic wing players who could shoot the three ball. This season that should all change. The Lakers made a purposeful effort to fill the team with players who could run up and down the court and shoot three pointers. Although the Lakers lost the best center in the NBA, there is a possibility for addition by subtraction – at least on the offensive end.
On the defensive end? Well that’s a completely different story. If the Lakers are to start Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, where will the defense come from? Nash, Bryant and Young do not have the ability to slow down the best wing player on the opposing team each and every night. But the Lakers do have someone with the potential to at least make life difficult for opposing wing players – that player is Wesley Johnson.
Throughout his career Johnson has been thought of as an underachieving bust, due to his status as the 4th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Last season in Phoenix he had a tough start to the season, but ended on a strong note. Prior to the All-Star break Wes averaged 2.5 points and 1 rebound in 7.4 minutes per game, coming off the bench. Post All-Star break, he jumped up to 27.4 minutes per game, averaging 12 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.4 made threes per game. Looking at his splits from when he started versus when he came off the bench, you can see a stark change in his effectiveness. Off the bench, he averaged 11.7 minutes, 4.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and shot only 36% from the field. When he started he averaged 29.2 minutes, 13.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 made threes, and shot 42.9% from the field. Although none of these numbers are earth shattering, he clearly felt much more comfortable as a starter. As a comparison, Nick Young scored 3.4 more points per game when he started in 10 more minutes per game. So clearly Nick Young doesn’t see the same boost in production when he starts versus when he comes off the bench.
Aside from the stats, what is the harm in trying to go this route? This is the type of season where the Lakers can afford to gamble and play around with the roster a little bit. There are no championship expectations on this team, in fact, ESPN’s poll had the Lakers finishing 12th in the Western Conference, which would place them among the teams “Tanking for Wiggins.” If Nick Young is placed in the starting lineup, the Lakers are a 100% offense, 0% defense team. Not only this, but Nick Young wouldn’t get to be used in the best possible way, as he needs the ball in his hand and needs to be shooting to be at his absolute best. With Nash, Kobe and Gasol on the floor, Young will be relegated to the 3rd or 4th scoring option. If he were to be the 6th man who spells Kobe, he would be expected to be the 1st scoring option for the 2nd unit. Wesley Johnson would be allowed to turn into a spot up three point shooter, slasher, and defender if he was given the starting job. As a starter he would clearly be the 4th or 5th scoring option, but that’s a good thing! Johnson is most effective when he isn’t asked to carry the load.
It comes down to this; Is Mike D’Antoni willing to put his players in their absolute best position to succeed? Last season that was not the case, until much later in the season. Historically, D’Antoni has been a coach who is able to do this with his players, put them in positions where their strengths will be utilized and their deficiencies won’t get a chance to manifest themselves. Nick Young has been an excellent bench/6th man over the course of his career. When Wesley Johnson came off the bench last year he flat out stunk, but when he started he was able to find a role where he could be leaps and bounds more effective. Johnson will also be asked to be the Lakers premier wing defender, whereas Young will be asked to be a scorer. So please Mike D’Antoni, do the right thing and put these players in the best position to succeed. After all, what does he have to lose?