Ask a hundred Lakers fans to list the ways the Lakers can improve themselves before the postseason, and most will start with a trade. Getting a gettable, non-elite-but-damn-helpful piece, like Ramon Sessions and/or Michael Beasley to shore up the point and frontcourt, respectively, or flipping a prime chip like Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum for elite-level talent. Something where the Lakers use assets to get assets.
There is one more way: For guys already on the roster to pick up their production. As much as it might give folks the heebie-jeebies to put their eggs in his basket, the best candidate (thanks both to his skill set and abysmal early-season performance) is Metta World Peace. It's not really a question of his defensive prowess, though obviously he can make a major impact on that end. The Lakers are already an elite-level team in the half court, rated third in points per possession by Synergy (.817). Where they break down is in transition (1.14 ppp, 21st in the NBA), in part because of their two 7-footers but more thanks to an offense that, for much of the year, has turned the ball over, launched awkward shots and fueled the other team's break.
A major offender was World Peace, who showed up to camp out of shape, made only two of his first 27 3-pointers and shot a shocking 27.5 percent from the floor during a December in which he averaged only 3.6 points a game. February didn't start with a bang, either, with just four points a night on 23 percent shooting through the six-game Grammy trip.
That's a special kind of bad.
Slowly, though, as Metta has rounded into form less round, his play has improved. Sunday's 17-point outburst against the Heat was his best game of the year, but not totally out of the blue. Over his past five games, he's averaged 10.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals, shooting 50 percent overall (18-for-36) and 47 percent from downtown (8-for-17). A small sample size, no doubt, but real production nonetheless. Combined with an uptick in his defensive consistency, the return of some of that old Ron Artest style swagger, and claims to be healthier than he's been in a while, the past week or two has been good enough reason to at least entertain the idea MWP can be a positive contributor the rest of the way.
Optimism under heavy guard, so to speak.
The Lakers don't need 17 points from World Peace every game (good, because they're not going to get it). Eight or nine would do wonders, more than doubling his early-season output. In a lot of ways that would be tantamount to acquiring a new small forward at the deadline.
Mike Brown is adjusting to his personnel, allowing more freedom offensively, but expecting much more from the Big Three isn't very realistic. Fortunately, having so many members of the supporting cast produce at near apocalyptic levels for much of the year means even modest increases in output have a real, and maybe even disproportionate, impact. World Peace's minutes have been something other than a sink hole. Derek Fisher has hit six of his past 13 hoists from behind the arc. Troy Murphy had a nice run of shooting last month, and while Steve Blake has been cold since returning from his rib injury he has quietly piled up some nice assist totals with limited turnovers.
All modest improvements, but they add up. Squeezing another five or six points a game out of the role players makes the Lakers a very different team offensively, and should strengthen them on the other end, as well, by limiting run-outs and easy buckets.
The Lakers still need help to contend for a title this season, something unchanged by Sunday's result. Whether the front office makes a move remains to be seen. In the meantime, fans just have to hope some of the other guys (Fisher and Blake, for example) can push their way toward career averages, and that the Lakers have found themselves a "new" small forward, even if he happens to share the same body as the old one.