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Bench the Answer on Both Coasts?

Would Amar'e Stoudemire and Pau Gasol both benefit from coming off the bench this season?

With both the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks looking to get the best out of Pau Gasol and Amar’e Stoudemire respectively, the solution may be as simple as playing each of them from the bench.

Of course, plenty of people will dismiss the idea because of the contracts both have – that’s too many dollars to be sat warming the bench, surely? But the fact of the matter is if either team wants to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, those contracts cannot guarantee a place in the starting lineup.

Both sides have a different reason for considering sending their big men to the bench. For the Lakers, Gasol has struggled to fit into Mike D’Antoni’s system alongside fellow seven-footer, Dwight Howard. An argument can be made that, with constant benching late in games, he’s not been allowed to fit in, but the fact is, the Lakers are currently not a cohesive team.

For New York, it’s a case of don’t fix what’s not broken. At 19-6 – tied for second best record in the league – the Knicks are definitely not broken. In what has amounted to one of the league’s most surprising stories, the Knicks have been better than any would have imagined, and it’s all been without Stoudemire.

So, is it time for these superstars to come off the bench?

Let’s start with Gasol. On paper, having two seven-foot behemoths on the floor is an advantage for any side, simply because of the dearth of big men in the league. In reality, Gasol has become an odd man out, conceding (by design) the low post to Howard.

Now, consider this. With all of the talk about Gasol not fitting in, Howard underachieving, Kobe taking too many shots, and Stave Nash’s injury, people are missing one of the Lakers’ key flaws; its bench.

Just like last year, the Lakers bench is short. Really short.

Whilst Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison have each had a fairly good season, none are what you would consider a lock for a decent performance night in, night out. Elsewhere, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon, and Darius Morris have not been impressive. Yes, they’ve had to cover for Nash, but you wouldn’t trust any of them with the ball.

What the Lakers lack is Lamar Odom. Coming off the bench in Phil Jackson’s second go-around with the side, Odom was a Sixth Man of the Year winner and gave the Lakers consistency when Bryant or Gasol went to the bench. And that is exactly the role Gasol could play.

Put Gasol in when Howard goes to the bench, either at the center or as a power forward alongside Hill, and the Lakers would have a bona fide scoring option on the court for 48 minutes a game. When Bryant goes to the bench, the offense could be run through Gasol, especially with Nash returning to set up some easy pick and roll opportunities.

When Gasol and Howard do find themselves on the court at the same time, utilize Gasol as a midrange jump shot shooter. The space is going to be there with Howard requiring double and triple-teaming.

So, who takes Gasol’s place in the starting lineup? Keep Jamison in that position. The big man can shoot the three which forces defenses to spread, giving Howard more room to work.

Will Gasol go for it? Yes. He’s at that time in his career where winning is more important than points, and this represents the best opportunity for him to win a third NBA title, matching Tony Parker as the most successful Europeans in NBA history.

Now, how about Stoudemire?

There’s no doubt that the Knicks forward will come off the bench when he returns from injury. However, the temptation for Mike Woodson will be to move him to the starting lineup once those knees have been worked into playing condition. But that would be a problem.

If we learnt just one thing from last season’s Knicks side, it’s that Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony don’t play well together. Who’s to say this will be any different this season?

This season, Anthony has been flourishing at the power forward position in an offense built for three-point shooting. How long the Knicks can continue succeeding beyond the arc is another discussion altogether, but moving Stoudemire into the lineup automatically limits that style of offense.

Instead, have Stoudemire spell Anthony at the four, and run the pick and roll through Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni – who by the way is having a terrific rookie season – or whoever is at the point. Then have J.R. Smith slashing and shooting the lights out.

When Tyson Chandler needs rest, put Stoudemire in at center. He may not be the best of rebounders but he’ll demand the defense’s focus, which leave Anthony and Co. to shoot from distance or cut to the basket.

Will Stoudemire go for it? Yes. Like Gasol, he realizes that to win his role may have to change. Unlike Gasol, he has no championship rings and the hunt for one at this time in his (oft-injured) career should be a feverish one.

Will it work for the Knicks? Perhaps. It is however a much more sensible option than disrupting an offense that is working well.

Of course, in both cases, it wouldn’t be unexpected for GMs to get jumpy and pull the trigger on a trade. In both cases though, doing so isn’t necessary the right approach to take.

The Lakers might be able to bolster its bench by sending Gasol packing, but it’s hard to imagine the team getting equal return. There’s also the small matter that Howard may be gone this summer, in which case the team would be lacking any big men.

Meanwhile, on the right coast, Stoudemire is the highest paid player on the roster – he’ll receive just shy of $20 million this season – and it’s hard to imagine too many teams being interesting in trading for a veteran with bad knees.

The Lakers and Knicks will meet on Christmas Day at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA (3:00 PM ET).

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