Antawn Jamison is a big name with a big scoring average (17.2 ppg in 2011-12), and those factors will combine to provide the false impression that Jamison will be more helpful to the Lakers on a veteran’s minimum contract than he likely will be. His value comes mostly in not being Troy Murphy, and though Jamison remains a useful offensive player as a fourth or fifth option to spell L.A.’s starting bigs, the Lakers are adding a minus defender (to put it gently) to a team in which the defense failed when it mattered most. In essence, Jamison adds depth at the expense of defense.
But depth is useful here. Last season, the Lakers were a team of three stars and little else, at least once the postseason version of Ramon Sessions replaced the regular-season Ramon Sessions. And adding Steve Nash as a fourth star will improve things even if the Lakers limit their innovation and have Nash follow Sessions’ simplistic steps in running the team’s offense. (If that happens, though, we all lose as fans.)
Jamison is a league-average three-point shooter, which is an asset for a power forward. But the Lakers still look very thin on the wing and on the front line beyond Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Jordan Hill had emerged as the team’s best backup big man by the end of last season, flashing some nice touch on offense and improved pick-and-roll defense to go with his usual solid rebounding. Jamison provides no such rebounding or defense. His production on the glass had dipped and he’s served as one of the league’s worst defenders over the last few seasons.
That can’t be overstated. Remember: It was the Lakers’ defense that failed them over the last 20 games of the regular season and through both the team’s playoff series. Bench players don’t matter as much in the postseason, when stars can sop up most of the minutes, but the Lakers need a reliable third big man to hold the fort as coach Mike Brown staggers rest for Gasol and Bynum. The version of Hill that finished last season — a version we haven’t seen all that much of, to be honest — probably offers more two-way reliability than Jamison does right now. The Rockets declined their fourth-year option on Hill before trading him to the Lakers at the deadline, and the Lakers thus do not have full Larry Bird Rights on Hill. They can pay him only $3.6 million next season, the value of the option that Houston declined, and Hill is currently shopping around for something better.
If the Lakers lose out on Hill, they will need to add another defensive-minded big man on the cheap — someone in the mold of Kenyon Martin or (gulp) Jason Collins. Jamison should supply more than the Josh McRoberts/Troy Murphy combination did last season, but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Even if he needs to dial back his shot selection a bit, Jamison can still stretch the floor and earn a fair number of free throws with his off-the-dribble game and funky flip shots. But the Lakers’ defense will suffer when Jamison plays, and finding even average depth remains a problem. If Matt Barnes walks (which appears likely now), the Lakers will be counting on untested players (Andrew Goudelock, Devin Ebanks, second-round pick Darius Johnson-Odom) to serve as backups for Kobe Bryant and the unreliable Metta World Peace on the wing.
Jamison has been tested plenty, but the results have been shaky of late. At a minimum, the Lakers could still use a steady contributor to guarantee that Gasol and Bynum don’t have to play too many regular-season minutes again this year.
The Lakers have the pieces to be a top-three offensive team — and potentially even the league’s best scoring team in terms of points per possession. But those pieces won’t automatically fit together. For that level of productivity to happen, the team will require some coaxing from Mike Brown and some adjustments from all four star players involved. As I wrote after the Nash trade, the 2011-12 Lakers played an offensive style almost diametrically opposed to the one in which Nash thrived for the Suns. The Lakers ran few pick-and-rolls and got out in transition less often than any other team in the league. In the half court, the Lakers ran a ton of isolation plays, usually through Kobe Bryant, and finished a larger percentage of their possessions via post-ups than any other team.
Point guards didn’t have much of a role in that offense, save for a brief post-trade honeymoon period in which Ramon Sessions got a chance to exert his preferences on the team. That quickly faded, and Sessions was soon relegated to setting screens for Bryant, tossing entry passes and getting out of the way for spot-up opportunities he couldn’t convert.
All of that is basically the antithesis of Nash, who has dominated the ball — in a good way — for all of the last decade. Nash may be the greatest shooter in league history, and he’ll help even as a glorified spot-up threat. But the team’s offensive ceiling is more limited that way, and if the Lakers aren’t going to be a top-shelf defensive team, then they need to tap into a higher ceiling on offense. Jamison will help in that regard off the bench, but, ultimately, those units won’t determine whether Los Angeles can become a champion.