- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Perhaps partly because Dwight Howard is out of the picture, perhaps partly because Pau Gasol is far healthier than last season (OK, mostly because Howard is out of the picture), Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni has made an about-face from his initial coaching instincts when counting on Gasol's services.
Remember when Gasol was benched late in games last season? Or relegated to sixth man status? Or positioned on the perimeter when he was on the court and encouraged to attempt the most 3-pointers of his 12-year career?
Not the case anymore. Just three days into training camp, D'Antoni has already named two definitive starters while Kobe Bryant is out: Gasol at center and Steve Nash, his longtime pupil, running the point. And expectations are high for the former four-time All-Star in the middle.
"When your knees hurt, it’s not easy to play," D'Antoni said after practice Monday, referring to the 33 games Gasol missed a year ago because of chronic pain in his knees. "I think he feels better and when he feels good, I think he’s going to be great. Keep your fingers crossed because hopefully he’ll have his best year ever. He’s still young enough, he’s only 33."
D'Antoni wasn't finished with the praise yet.
"I think he has at least five more good years, real good years, in him," D'Antoni said.
With Gasol's role firmly entrenched, D'Antoni is turning his sights to a five-man group of Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams and rookie Ryan Kelly, to a lesser extent, to determine who will be his partner in the Lakers' starting frontcourt.
It's a diverse crowd. Kaman is the biggest of the bunch at 7-foot, 265 pounds, but he brings with him the ability to consistently hit the from the midrange. Hill is known as an energizing garbage man who plays defense and works the boards, but he spent the offseason working on his outside shot. Williams and Kelly are strictly stretch fours. Johnson is more of a slashing wing who, like Hill, has worked to improve his outside shot to become more appealing in D'Antoni's system.
"Pau can play with anybody," D'Antoni said. "He makes anybody look good with his passing, so, you can play him with Jordan who is more of a runner and slasher, or you can play Kaman who is more of a catch-and-shoot kind of guy, so they’ll all blend in real well together."
D'Antoni said he would prefer to find a full-time starter at power forward by the Lakers' opening night against the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 29, rather than shuffle the starting lineup as the season goes on based on matchups.
"I would rather teams have to match up with us," D'Antoni said. "(The) team that we put out there should be our strongest team and we’ll figure that out. It could happen, but I would like to have everybody know their role and feel comfortable in it. Not some days start, some days not. It might happen, but I don’t know."
It's hard to read the tea leaves to handicap the power forward race based on D'Antoni's comments so far.
On one hand, D'Antoni has stressed the need for defense coming out of the position, so Hill could be considered to have the advantage, yet D'Antoni said Hill has been, "Little rusty, little tired like everybody, but good."
The coach has complimented Kaman's versatility in terms of being interchangeable when being on the court together with Gasol, however Kaman starting means that seldom used second-year player Robert Sacre would become the team's back-up center, which would be a major leap from the bench role he played last season.
Johnson has a lot of upside, but very little experience at the position. Williams had success playing under D'Antoni in New York, but was out of the league altogether last season. Kelly hasn't even been able to practice with the team yet during training camp as he continues to work out on the anti-gravity treadmill while recovering from foot problems.
"At this point, we're still determining what the lineups will be," Kaman said. "We've had three practices and everybody is kind of jumping the gun a little bit. Let things happen and see how that goes. Who knows what the lineup is going to be? Who knows if we go small, big? It just depends on the teams and the day and how coach is feeling about certain things."
No matter who wins the starting job, D'Antoni is hoping the pool of players can make up for the absence felt from Howard's departure.
"These guys have other strengths," D'Antoni said. "Dwight is a very good player, obviously, and we would play a certain way. This way we’ll play a little bit more wide open, a little bit different but that remains to be seen. The biggest thing on the defensive end, we just got to collectively do the job."