If Chris Kaman had not returned from China with Gastroenteritis—a horribly ugly definition awaits those who dare do the Google search on that condition—he would probably have started the first four games for the Los Angeles Lakers this season. Instead, Kaman probably ate some bad Chinese food, and the week to 10 days it took to get back on the floor changed the makeup of these Lakers at the start of the season.
In the preseason, Kaman and Pau Gasol appeared to be a budding partnership built on communication, intelligence, and experience. Unlike Dwight Howard, Kaman was willing and able to set screens, could shoot free throws, and actually possessed an offensive game. The Lakers suddenly had two big men capable of running the pick-and-roll, and the offense ran smoothly. Even more importantly, the defense was solidifying and improving with every passing day.
Gasol and Kaman worked together for the bulk of the Lakers’ training camp.
“We got great results by playing together and it’s a combination we should utilize more than we have in the first four games,” Gasol said about his partnership with Kaman at Monday’s practice. “If Chris (Kaman) didn’t get sick and he would have continued to practice and play, he probably still would be starting with me.”
However, Kaman involuntarily spent considerable time admiring the wall patterns in his home bathroom, and the Lakers finished the preseason with a different look. That starting lineup featured Shawne Williams playing in a role designed to stretch the floor using an undersized power forward who can shoot from distance. Playing with this type of player is kind of Mike D’Antoni’s thing, so he was ecstatic at the opportunity to implement his system.
He has not looked back since, but he should.
One of the casualties of the change was Nick Young. Young was recently placed on the bench due to his inability to produce offensively or keep up defensively. Without a doubt, the former USC Trojan appeared far more comfortable playing with two big men on both ends of the floor.
In Sunday’s win against the Atlanta Hawks, Young had his best game of the season. Coincidentally, Kaman and Young both entered Sunday’s game about six minutes into the first quarter. Unnoticed by most, the next 3:40 of game time featured Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Gasol, Kaman, and Young playing together—the unit that would have been starting if Kaman had not fallen ill.
During that stretch in the game, Young and Kaman both made shots, and four of the five Lakers converted a field goal. Nash was the lone non-scorer, but he provided two assists during the stretch. The offense was in balance, and the Lakers extended their lead with the unit.
In the second quarter, Kaman left the floor with foul trouble, and Jordan Hill came in to anchor the defense of the second unit. Hill is an active player who gets offensive rebounds and seems most comfortable at the center position. If Kaman doesn’t start, Hill plays extremely limited minutes.
Even against the Hawks, Hill was only called upon in the second and fourth quarters at points when Kaman fell into foul trouble. Conceivably, the man who created extra chances, fought for rebounds with the ferocity of a wild jungle feline, and challenged every shot with all his might would have simply sat on the bench had Kaman not been in foul trouble.
Williams had his best game of the season against Atlanta, and he finished with seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. In another routine performance, Hill was perfect from the field, perfect from the line, scored six points, and collected five rebounds in 14 minutes.
Williams is averaging 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. Hill is averaging 6.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in 14.0 minutes per game. If the choice is between playing Williams and giving Hill more minutes, the answer is obvious. Hill produces twice as much in less minutes.
The Lakers should start Gasol and Kaman in tandem, and Hill should play center for the smaller second unit. Let’s see how long it takes D’Antoni to figure this out.