Los Angeles Lakers: bench
LOS ANGELES -- The faces were new. The expectations were lowered. The product was better? You bet it was.
Dwight Howard? Who needs him.
Kobe Bryant? Take your time with that left leg.
Somewhere, Dr. Jerry Buss is smiling.
It may have been just game No. 1 of 82 on the schedule for these 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers, but their effort against the Los Angeles Clippers looked much improved from last season's squad that lost by an average of 13.3 points in a four-game season series sweep a year ago to their co-tenants at Staples Center.
So improved that instead of being run off the court, they were the ones with their foot on the gas pedal all night in a 116-103 win.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni came into the season saying he could stretch out his rotation to 11 players this season, and all 11 players to get on the court against the Clippers contributed.
It was one of those "wow" nights that happen in sports every so often. And it happened against the Clippers, of all teams.
Is L.A. still a Lakers town? For a night it was, at least. Undisputed.
How it happened: The Lakers came out strong, thanks to 11 first-quarter points from Pau Gasol, and trailed by only two at the half. The Clippers quickly pushed their lead to eight, causing D'Antoni to furiously call timeout, but the Lakers were able to shrink the bubble to four going into the fourth. That's when L.A.'s bench went nutty. D'Antoni played his reserve unit of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill the entire final period, and the Lakers blew the Clippers' starters out.
What it means: First impressions go a long way. If the Lakers' 4-4 preseason laid the foundation to rid Staples Center of the stench from last season, Tuesday's opener was like getting the place fumigated. This should buy D'Antoni and the team some faith from the Lakers faithful.
Hits: Henry scored a career-high 22 points to go with six rebounds, going 8-for-13 from the field.
Gasol finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
Four other bench players reached double digits led by Farmar with 16, Meeks with 13, Hill with 12 and Chris Kaman with 10.
Misses: Matt Barnes was called for a flagrant-1 foul after a cheap shot on Shawne Williams in the second quarter.
Steve Nash had only three points and five assists in 21 minutes.
Williams shot 1-for-5.
Stat of the game: The Lakers' bench scored 76 of the team's 114 total points. This after their bench ranked 28th in the league in points per game last season. The depth is real.
Up next: The start to the Lakers' season is like being shot out of a cannon as they head to Golden State to play the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday and follow that up with a date back home against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday.
Nick Young has had no problem volunteering for the extra shot attempts, leading the Lakers with 80 shots through their first seven preseason games (18 more than the next closest Laker in Pau Gasol), but he also has spent most of his time playing small forward. And that's still only 11.4 shots per game for Young, about half of Bryant's total.
"Yeah," D'Antoni said after L.A.'s 108-94 win over the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night at Staples Center, their best showing of the preseason. "Unless somebody grabs it. That could happen. We'll just keep monitoring things. There's a lot of guys that deserve to play."
Just how many guys will actually play consistently is up in the air, but even when Bryant returns -- and especially when Bryant is out -- the Lakers look to be playing with a deep, deep bench.
How deep? D'Antoni said over the summer he would try to employ an 11-man rotation. When reminded of that statement this week, he said that 10 is more likely, although when Bryant is back in the mix there would be 11 players deserving once again.
D'Antoni also has unexpectedly had to dole out about 15 minutes per game from Steve Nash's minutes, as the 39-year-old point guard has been limited by injuries all preseason, the latest being discomfort in his neck keeping him out of the second half.
On Tuesday, D'Antoni gave 10 players 15 minutes or more of playing time and it paid off, as L.A.'s bench produced 74 points, including four players in double digits in Jordan Farmar (20 points), Jodie Meeks (15), Wesley Johnson (14) and Jordan Hill (10).
D'Antoni is going out of his comfort zone a bit as he has kept a short bench in the past (the Lakers basically played only eight guys as they made their playoff push a season ago), but the coach has his reasons. He said that the dropoff between the eighth guy and the ninth guy on those previous teams was precipitous, whereas on this season's Lakers, he has legitimate horses in his stable.
No question, some nerves were settled by the debut of Dwight Howard, whose mere presence provided glimpses of the high ceiling possessed by these Lakers. But as with any player returning from injury, there's always fear of setbacks. And in a game in which Steve Nash and Metta World Peace also suffered injuries (a sore ankle and a dislocated right middle finger, respectively), those concerns are compounded.
Well, so far so good.
Howard told reporters of notable soreness, but those aches are a part of the process. The center was told his body would react this way, and treatment was part of today's agenda. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. For that matter, Nash and MWP practiced -- albeit in a session with no heavy contact -- and neither is expected to miss any games. The same can be said for Kobe Bryant, who skipped today's workout with a strained right foot. The injury took place during Sunday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, but nobody seemed particularly nervous about an extended absence. Mike Brown confirmed that Jordan Hill is close to a return.
The benefits to having all hands on deck extend beyond just the roster's collective strength. It allows Brown to finally develop an informed opinion for a desired rotation. Between the third-stringers he's been forced to give obligatory looks and some key players being absent, the coach hasn't been able to utilize players as envisioned. And the results have been obvious, especially with the reserves on the floor.
Among other deficiencies last season, the Lakers lacked a legitimate backup shooting guard behind Kobe Bryant, reliable outside shooting, reliable bench bench scoring and young legs attached to a reasonably NBA-seasoned player. By agreeing to terms with Jodie Meeks, the Lakers have simultaneously addressed all four areas. Obviously, his presence pales by comparison to that of fellow newbies Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Antawn Jamison, but as Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller demonstrated during the 2012 Finals, the players around the edges of a roster often push a championship quest over the top. Hopefully, Meeks can follow suit for the Lakers.
The show can be heard by clicking on the module, and below is a breakdown of talking points.
- (:55): Meeks explains why he chose the Lakers over other options. For many young players still establishing themselves, starting for a lesser team would feel more practical than coming off the bench in a title chase, but in this case, it wasn't a sticking point.
- (2:40): Having spent the first four seasons of his career guarding Kobe, Meeks now looks forward to learning from The Mamba as a teammate.
- (4:28): Meeks believes he's a better defender than his reputation. For that matter, he considers himself a more generally well-rounded player than his image as primarily a spot-up shooter.
- (8:50): The Lakers are a fairly brainy crew, which means Meeks, a former SEC All-American at Kentucky, should fit right in. The guard places a high value on keeping his brain active, but draws the line at Sudoko puzzles.
- (10:15): Seriously, Jodie. It's time to update your personal website.
-(10: 48): Meeks has a "shoe fetish." His words, not ours.
- (12:15): With Meeks gone, we break down his potential effect on the Lakers.
"Jamison will sign a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum with the Lakers ... The 36-year-old forward will bolster the Lakers' bench with scoring and veteran leadership while pursuing the first championship ring in a career largely spent as the best player on bad teams...Brian recently shared some thoughts on Jamison. The two-time All-Star was among the bigger "names" available, but also among the more productive players. His numbers may be trending southward, but last season's 17.2 ppg and 6.3 rebounds is nothing to sneeze at. Even if those figures -- along with his shooting percentages from the field and downtown -- continue to dip, Jamison could become the most useful Lakers reserve since Lamar Odom. And we all remember how much LO (or a credible equivalent) was missed in 2012.
... Jamison had several suitors for his services, including his hometown Charlotte Bobcats, the Brooklyn Nets and the Golden State Warriors, his employer for his first five NBA seasons. For a player who has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs in 14 NBA seasons, the Lakers' chance to contend apparently was too enticing to Jamison."
The Lakers really needed a bench player who can score.
And even if Jamison remains an absolute sieve, here's the thing: Last season, the Lakers subs averaged a league-worst 20.5 ppg (more than a third of which were provided by Matt Barnes, who ain't walking through that door). Unless the bench scoring is drastically improved, the reserves' collective defense is largely irrelevant, because they'd need to hold opposing second units to 10-15 points a night to be effective. That being a completely unrealistic goal, enter Jamison, who nearly outscored the purple and gold reserves himself in 2012. He's often a volume shooter, but outside of his rookie season, he's never averaged less than 14.8 points (which came off the pine). Jamison's proven ability to unite ball and basket removes pressure off the starters and reserves alike. Simply knowing somebody can consistently score should provide the bench with a mental lift, and defenses being forced to key on Jamison should make the unit as a whole more effective. Thus, I'm guessing the points generated by Jamison will offset the inevitable buckets he'll allow in the process.
There are other pluses as well. He's a former Sixth Man of the Year. Yes, that was eight seasons ago, but success in that role requires a specific mentality. Some players adjust well to joining games already in progress. Others struggle to catch a groove. Jamison is familiar with the process, so hopefully this will help him hit the ground running. The half-season spent under Mike Brown in 2010 means he's at least somewhat familiar with the coach's style and system, which could result in a reasonably smooth transition. (Ditto Steve Nash after their 2004 season as Mavericks teammates.) While probably better suited for the four at this age, Jamison can play both forward positions, which provides depth at two spots. Durability isn't an issue, even at his age, which is important for a team lacking the depth to absorb an injury to a key player. He's also long carried a reputation as a good locker room addition, and even veteran teams can never get enough of those players.
And finally, the money involved makes this a pretty sweet deal. More often than not in life, you get what you pay for. On paper, Jamison represents more help in one player than I figured the Lakers could realistically land at that cost. Unless he seriously underachieves, this signing should prove a very useful bargain.
Driving the lane, MWP experienced early success. Further out, not so much.
In his first seven games, MWP notched 10+ points three times, 3+ assists four times and drew fouls as a point-forward/post-presence. Defensively, he was typically a step (or three) slow and his 3-point shot was staggeringly absent -- through January, 14 percent success, rounding up -- but Metta still brought something to the table as an imperfect option. However, as time marched on, so did MWP's distance from the basket. For reasons I never could get explained by Brown or Metta, those post opportunities steadily declined, making MWP once again a lonely man there on the corner. Banished from the lane and lagging defensively, MWP's ineffectiveness reached the point where unless a return to the block was orchestrated, I questioned the logic of even playing him.
Shortly after an unusually strong effort against the Clips, MWP joined the first five, but consistent production still eluded him. For every game his defense or a timely 3-pointer made a difference, in several others Metta played like a shell of himself. Nobody would reasonably expect a Xerox of "Indiana" Ron-Ron, but something better than this version certainly was fair to request.
Desperately needed signs of life first came in March. Five double-digit showings. His 3-point shot began to fall semi-regularly. LeBron James and Paul Pierce were forced to work hard for points during Lakers victories. MWP looked more comfortable, and spoke freely about improved health and confidence. Still, his impact wasn't pronounced enough for MWP nor fans to hang their proverbial hat on.
April, however, proved a veritable hat rack.
On both sides of the ball, Metta performed not just like the dude from his debut season in L.A., but better. When a shin injury shelved Kobe Bryant for seven games, MWP picked up a big piece of the slack, averaging 16.3 points and reaching double-figures six times. A season-high nine assists against Golden State, was indicative of MWP's hand in shaping wins. Obviously, these numbers were to some degree a byproduct of The Mamba's absence, but 23 points (on a tidy 13 shots) against Houston came with Kobe in uniform. A sustainable high gear had been discovered, and for an underdog team looking to make a deep run, MWP became the roundball equivalent of found money.
Then came bankruptcy in the form of an elbow to the head of James Harden.
No matter if Barnes' ankle is fully recovered in time for the Lakers' playoff opener against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, he'll have to wait a little longer than tipoff to get on the floor.
Even though Metta World Peace will have six more games remaining on his suspension when the postseason opens up, Barnes won't be starting in World Peace's place at small forward.
"Ebanks can play the small forward or the two guard," Brown said, alluding to the seven games Ebanks filled in as a starter for Kobe Bryant while Bryant was out with his left shin injury. "I always like to if I can to not disrupt too much of the team or too much of what we have going on. We have a rotation right now that we feel good with with our bench, so I’d probably end up starting Ebanks, but who knows."
Ebanks started Thursday against the Kings despite dropping a 55-pound weight on his left hand while working out this week. He did enough to earn Brown's confidence in the Lakers' 114-106 double-overtime victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder to get the nod moving forward. Ebanks had eight points, five rebounds, two steals and a block in 27 minutes, but more importantly helped hold Kevin Durant to 11-for-34 shooting with his defense.
"He showed me a lot," Brown said. "You don’t stop a guy like Kevin Durant. Hopefully you can just make him work and I thought Ebanks did a good job or a solid job of trying to make the guy work and the guy still scored, which he’s going to score, but we like Ebanks doing at least what we ask him to do with our defensive principles."
While Barnes earned a starting spot with the Thunder win, Jordan Hill found a role in the rotation. Brown inserted Hill into the lineup as the first frontcourt player off the bench behind Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on a hunch, and was rewarded as Hill put up a season-high 14 points and a career high 15 rebounds.
"Jordan has earned the right to continue getting looks at that third big, so that’s what I’m going to continue to do," Brown said, meaning that Hill should see time ahead of Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy.
A combination of Hill's right knee not being 100 percent after suffering an MCL sprain when he was still with Houston and Brown not wanting to "disrupt" the rotation with L.A. playing solid basketball since the All-Star break kept the 24-year-old on the bench.
But not anymore.
"He’s earned the right to play and continue to get looks," Brown repeated. "He’ll be that guy."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Not a Photoshopped picture: Steve Blake did actually execute this finger roll.
Quietly and by any measuring stick, Steve Blake, who's suffered through a largely disappointing season, has played two very good games in a row.
From a statistical standpoint, his numbers are much improved. Over the last two games, he's averaged nine points (53.8 percent from the field/60 percent from deep), 3.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and .5 turnovers in 28.5 minutes. The stats aren't necessarily eye-popping, but they're perfectly fine from a backup point guard. And against the backdrop of his overall April splits (5.4 ppg, 41.4 FG, 41.2 3pt, 3.0 apg, 1.3 rpg, 1.1 TO), they're practically a revelation. While fellow reserve Matt Barnes has insisted the Lakers bench shouldn't be judged by scoring totals, this entire season has served as proof of how hamstrung the starters become without consistent support. In particular, Blake's cupboard has been bare. Nobody would reasonably expect a dude with a 6.9 ppg career-average to reinvent himself as a purple and gold James Harden, but some firepower off the pine is mandatory. For at least two games, Blake's brought a gun to a gunfight.
Blake's also managed to impact games beyond his numbers. In New Orleans, a pair of charges were drawn and he not only tracked down an otherwise certain turnover, but managed to huck the ball while airborne to Ramon Sessions. The possession ended with Barnes scoring at the rim, but Blake enabled the basket, even as the only principal who didn't enter the box score on the sequence. Against the Spurs, he prevented a fast break by hustling back on transition, squaring up Stephen Jackson and getting his mitts on the ball. Slowed by Blake, Jackson had to take the ball out, and the ensuing possession came up dry.
We discuss the matter with Dave McMenamin.
Brown's plan coming into the season was to bring World Peace off the bench to provide scoring and anchor the second unit, but after he turned in his best performance of the season against the Clippers -- three points, five rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block in 38 minutes -- the coach is reconsidering how he'll use his mercurial small forward in the future.
"I like him on the second unit. I want to give him a chance to be with that second unit. But, at the end of the day, there is a chance I would throw him in the [starting] lineup if I thought it would help our team," Brown said. "I’m not opposed to that."
During training camp Brown said he expected World Peace to average double digits this season while being featured in the post on offense with the Lakers' reserves, but that hasn't happened so far. World Peace is averaging a career-low 5.3 points on 33.9 percent shooting.
"From our second unit from last year’s team, we lost a lot of scoring when you talk about Lamar [Odom] and Shannon [Brown], so we got to figure out how we can get some of that back," Brown said.
World Peace might not be the guy to do that. He says he has different priorities when he's out there.
"Give other guys a chance," World Peace said before the game. "I could have been out there easily taking more shots, but [Andrew] Goudelock is out there playing well. By the time that Kobe [Bryant] and [Andrew] Bynum and Pau [Gasol] come back in, all I got to do is maintain. So, it’s not about points."
Backup big men Josh McRoberts (sprained big toe on his left foot) and Troy Murphy (gastroenteritis) are out of commission and backup shooting guard Jason Kapono was given permission by head coach Mike Brown to stay with his wife, Ashley, back in L.A. and be with his newborn twin daughters, Isla and Campbell.
"I was the guy that made the decision to tell him to stay back with his family and I think it’s important when those things [come up]," said Brown, who has two sons of his own. "Those are like once, twice, 3-4 times maybe, depending on how many you want (laughing) in a lifetime experience. I think it’s very important to show support, especially to your wife because we’re gone a lot. I know my wife plays mother and father a lot of times when I’m on the road. So, to me, it’s only human to allow that to happen. I’m OK with it."
Brown said he abandoned scouting trips to be with his wife, Carolyn, when she gave birth to his sons, Elijah and Cameron.
With his substitutes out, Brown was left to focus on getting the most out of his Lakers' family.
Luke Walton went from playing 10 total minutes in three appearances this season to playing 26 minutes at backup power forward against Phoenix, racking up six points, eight rebounds and three assists.
When asked if Brown would go with Walton again, he said, "We'll see."
He could also give more time to Metta World Peace at power forward, who he complimented for grabbing seven rebounds in just 20 minutes against the Suns. Or Brown could experiment with Devin Ebanks at the 4 position. Ebanks has fallen out of the rotation since Matt Barnes won the starting small forward role from him.
Rookie Andrew Goudelock will assume Kapono's minutes as Kobe Bryant's backup at 2-guard. Goudelock had zero points and two turnovers in nine minutes against Phoenix.
The Lakers have another back-to-back on the horizon this week when they host Cleveland on Friday then play a "road" game against the Clippers on Saturday.
Brown expects to have Kapono back by then, but is not sure about Murphy's and McRoberts' statuses for those games.
"We could [have them in the lineup]," Brown said. "I don’t want to say yes because nothing is guaranteed with the other two guys."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
That's a good thing for Mike Brown because the new Lakers coach admittedly still has a long way to go in determining his playing rotation.
"I’d love to have a set rotation so the guys know exactly -- for the most part -- when they’re coming in and when they’re coming out, but I’m not there yet," Brown said after the Lakers beat the Warriors on Friday.
There are three positions in particular that Brown is toying with: starting small forward, backup small forward and backup shooting guard.
The problem is Brown has three small forwards when he only wants to play two (four if you count Luke Walton, but it appears Walton is being relegated to the bench for the time being) and two backup shooting guards when he only wants to play one.
The players still stuck in auditioning mode long after training camp has ended are Matt Barnes, Devin Ebanks and Metta World Peace at small forward and Jason Kapono and Andrew Goudelock at backup shooting guard.
The in-flux nature of the roster was on full display Friday when Brown's rotation looked completely different against the Warriors than it did in the first eight games of the season.
Barnes had his best game of the year with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals in 30 minutes as the starting small forward, but it came just a day after he played only 17 minutes against Portland and was benched in the second half in favor of Ebanks.
"It's tough, but you have to stay professional about it, you have to stay ready," Barnes said. "We have a very unique situation where we have three small forwards that can play in the league and not too many teams have that. You just have to stay ready. Some nights it's going to be your night, some nights it may not. Some nights it may be the first half [only] that's going to be your night, so, you just have to stay ready and do whatever coach asks."