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The softer side of the roadie

January 8, 2008 |  8:49 am

(UPDATE - My take on the starting small forward question is added below the jump, for those interested.)

Not to poo poo the first opponent taking on the Lakers (5PM PST, KCAL) during back to back away contests, but the Memphis Grizzlies are a decidedly more "beatable" team than the New Orleans Hornets awaiting the Lakers on Wednesday.  Who will be the starting small forward during this theoretical beat down opportunity?  It's a call between Luke Walton and Trevor Ariza, with Phil Jackson often reserving the right to flip flop based on matchups.  PJ floated the notion of going with Ariza during yesterday's practice as a counter to Rudy Gay, which would mean Walton coming off the pine, which suits Big Red's kid just fine.  Granted, he personally thinks he's produced better as a starter, but again, no biggie one way or the other.  Besides, Walton's ankle still hurts like a mother no matter when he enters a game, so to some degree, who cares?  The Lakers could always go with Kobe at the 3, but then they'd be killing a slam dunk All-Star campaign at guard (although Kobe would probably get voted in listed as a center). 

For those curious, the numbers for Walton as a starter vs. a sub don't bear much difference one way or the other.  He does tend to turn the ball over a little more off the bench, but then again, he also shoots 33% better at the stripe for whatever reason while playing in the second unit, so that might offset the butterfingers.  Ariza's splits are harder to evaluate, since the starter-sub discrepancy includes Orlando stats produced while not playing much.


I had a doctor's appointment in the morning, so I needed to post today's links before adding my two cents.  But I didn't want to spark a small forward debate without adding my thoughts.  Let me preface this discussion by saying (for probably about the 50th time this season, but oh well) that I think "starting" remains, in most cases, an overrated and overblown topic.  All in all, it doesn't reflect a player's impact nearly as much as his minutes or how often he finishes the game.  People often regard the starting unit as proof of a "pecking order" or a player's "worth," when it often has more to do with creating the best overall fivesomes for both the first and second units, as well as creating beneficial matchups. 

Personally, I would start Ariza in most cases.  He's the better defender (and unlike Luke, can be used primarily for that role if need be) and adds a spark of energy to the opening group.  But my rationale also has as much to do with what Walton can do for the second unit, rather than purely a "Luke vs. Trevor" issue.  Walton brings another good ball handler and facilitator with quality triangular knowledge off the bench, which equals less onus on Jordan Farmar to put things in motion.  The only other options are basically (when healthy) Sasha Vujacic (more shooter than true play maker) or Javaris Crittenton, playing in Sasha's absence and often battling the urge to "prove himself," which often leads to him trying to do too much and turning the ball over even more often).  Thus, the ball is often in Farmar's hands, and lately that's led to some over-dribbling and a lack of motion while trying to organize.  Walton's presence could add some fluidity to the proceedings, perhaps offsetting to some degree what the loss of Andrew Bynum has meant for the bench's early season dominance.

That said, even while proposing to start Ariza, I can still see the argument for going with Walton.  The second unit tends to play more uptempo, which is clearly a better fit for Ariza's game than Walton's.  The first unit already has Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom, both of whom are capable of breaking down a defender and taking it to the hole.  Save Farmar or maybe Crittenton (if he remains in the rotation when Sasha's healthy), the bench unit is comprised of either shooters or bigs, so an additional threat to slash and attack can create more options.  Plus, playing Luke with the first unit's better defenders can help cover his weaknesses on that front (although, quite frankly, they're not nearly as bad as some of his detractors make them out to be).

In the end, Phil's current approach of going by matchup is probably as sensible as setting one starter in stone.  Neither Walton nor Ariza is playing decidedly better or worse in either role (as opposed to, say, Vlad Radmanovic, who's been considerably better off the bench).  Nor does any unhappiness appear to be brewing over the direction Jackson wants to go.  And let's be honest.  It's not like Phil's hemming and hawing between Kobe Bryant and Coby Karl.  We're talking about two role players.  Neither is All-Star quality.  Both would likely come off the bench on most teams.  Even if you think one is a better call than the other, I don't think a flat out obvious choice is staring the Zen Master in the face.

Doesn't make the debate any less interesting.  But still, a perspective should be maintained.  I wouldn't drive yourself nuts over the call.