With his Los Angeles Lakers club floundering in the absence of Pau Gasol, Mike D'Antoni is searching desperately for answers. Sunday night, he seemed to find one in the midst of a disappointing 117-110 home loss to the Utah Jazz. After Jordan Hill played well off the bench at power forward during the first half, he opened the third quarter with the rest of the starters in place of Antawn Jamison at the spot that usually belongs to Gasol. Hill played well Sunday, putting up 17 points and nine rebounds, but a look at the Lakers' performance by frontcourt over the course of the season shows that Hill and center Dwight Howard have failed to click.
The Lakers' three coaches have combined to use five combinations of Gasol, Hill, Howard and Jamison up front for at least 50 minutes this season. Here's how the team has played with each of them on the court, via NBA.com/Stats:
Frontcourt Min ORtg DRtg Net
Gasol/Howard 415 107.4 103.9 + 3.5
Jamison/Howard 175 113.3 100.8 +12.5
Hill/Howard 143 108.4 116.9 - 8.5
Hill/Gasol 110 114.4 92.9 +21.4
Jamison/Gasol 67 133.6 108.4 +25.2
This chart has some interesting implications for Gasol's future in L.A., since the pairing of the two stars has not been particularly effective. In fact, that duo has the worst Offensive Rating of any of the Lakers' regular frontcourts. The team has been much more efficient with Jamison next to Howard, or any other combination with more balanced skills.
At the same time, the Lakers have hardly thrived since Gasol sat down to rest his ailing knees. Sunday's loss dropped the team to 1-3 in the four games without Gasol. Since Jamison's play doesn't seem to be the issue, that points a finger at both how the Lakers play when Howard sits and the combination of Hill and Howard, which has been torched at the defensive end of the floor. The 116.9 Defensive Rating it has surrendered would be far and away the worst in the league over the course of the season. (The New Orleans Hornets are actually 30th at 112.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.)
The important issue here seems to be fit more than skill, as evidenced by the fact that Gasol and Hill have been very good together in limited action, but neither has worked as well with Howard. While the Gasol-Howard duo mostly struggles at the offensive end due to spacing, the concerns I've aired in the past about having two traditional big men on the floor together are actually showing up with Hill and not Howard.
Even with Hill and Howard having a positive plus-minus on Sunday against Utah, the problems the two players have in transition defense were still evident. The Jazz pushed the ball at every opportunity in building a lead, a strategy that proved particularly fruitful during the second quarter. In general, the Lakers do a poor job of getting back on defense. Per mySyenergySports.com, 14.3 percent of plays against the Lakers come in transition. Just two teams, Cleveland and Minnesota, allow more fast-break opportunities.
That's exacerbated by having both Hill and Howard on the floor looking to crash the offensive glass. When they've played together, the Lakers have allowed 22.6 fast-break points per 48 minutes according to NBA.com/Stats. By contrast, Gasol and Howard together are relatively decent at taking away transition opportunities, allowing 15.5 points per 48 minutes. The Hill-Howard combination has been far worse than any duo in the NBA with at least 300 minutes played; no one in that group allows even 20 fast-break points per 48 minutes.
With Gasol's status still uncertain heading into a four-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Cleveland, this could be Hill's opportunity to demonstrate he's capable of playing power forward next to Howard on a regular basis. Before Gasol went out of the lineup, D'Antoni was reluctant to use Hill anywhere but center, which left him out of the rotation entirely at times. To avoid repeating that fate when Gasol returns, Hill has to show that his energy and skill can overcome the issue of fitting him next to Howard.
So far, most of the trade speculation around the Lakers has centered around the possibility of moving Gasol for a better shooter, whether a stretch power forward or someone at another position. Such a deal would be difficult because of Gasol's combination of age and high salary. Hill isn't eligible for a trade until Jan. 15 because he re-signed with the Lakers over the summer and his new contract makes him a "base-year compensation" player. That restriction would make moving him slightly more challenging, but as a capable young big man with a reasonable salary ($3.5 million this year and next), Hill might be able to fetch a perimeter player who could help the Lakers' second unit.
If Hill and Howard continue to struggle together, the best fit for Hill might be somewhere else.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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