Pardon Our Bench

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About a month into the season, we're starting to know some things about the Los Angeles Lakers. It's still only November, sure. We don't know how strong they'll ultimately be compared to other league powers. But we can start to see the contours of a typical night at the office.

Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are a manly inside pair and too much for most teams to handle. Kobe Bryant is still a lethal scorer and playmaking force. Ron Artest is still a splendid defender, and on any given night either he or Lamar Odom will be good for 15 or more points. All of the above was on display against a pathetically overmatched New York Knicks team last night.

And then there's the bench. I'm really sorry to do this, but it's time we talked about the bench. We've put this off long enough.

First, let's be clear who we're talking about. Although Lamar doesn't start when the team's fully healthy, he does play starter's minutes, and his talent and production are not subject to any serious debate. He hasn't always been great so far this year, but we know he's not the problem. When Lakers fans grumble about "the bench," Lamar isn't meant to be included.

What we're really talking about is the play of Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Josh Powell, Luke Walton, DJ Mbenga, Adam Morrison and Sasha Vujacic. Of this group, Walton didn't play last night because of his back injury, and Mbenga and Powell got DNP-CDs. The performances of the other four are cast into unflattering relief by their plus-minus numbers. Farmar, Brown, Morrison and Vujacic averaged a -9 in about 10 minutes of action last night. All but Farmar were on the court when the Knicks ripped off an 11-0 run, which dragged Kobe and Ron back into the game with five minutes left.

If you were surprised that the second unit failed to maintain the Lakers' lead, welcome to the wonderful sport of basketball. I hope you enjoyed your first-ever game.

With about two minutes remaining against the Knicks, Lakers play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers asked rhetorically at what point in the season the Laker reserves would "step up." After the game, sideline man Michael Eaves asked Pau how long he thought it would take for the bench to find its "rhythm." These questions contained an unstated assumption that the Laker bench right now is anomalously underperforming, playing worse than what we should reasonably expect. Is that really the case, though? What precisely are we expecting from these guys?

Farmar_medium

I'm not implying that the second unit is playing well, mind you. Certainly their job description should include being able to hold a lead against the Knicks, at home. But why do people keep expecting them to transform into game-changing shock troops? Isn't it possible that they're not "inconsistent" or "out of sync," but just not that good?

In the table below I've listed, for each of the Laker reserves in question, their PERs for the last two seasons as well as the season so far. And before you start screaming: no, I'm not suggesting that PER be accepted as an end-all, final-word metric. It's just a useful shorthand for a player's overall production and works fine for the present discussion.

Player

2007-08

2008-09

2009-10

Brown

6.6

13.0

12.8

Farmar

15.3

9.9

10.7

Mbenga

9.4

13.9

10.2

Morrison

DNP

5.7

11.2

Powell

10.4

9.9

10.8

Vujacic

14.9

12.7

6.4

Walton

12.2

11.3

15.0

If there's to be improved play from the bench this year, where's it supposed to come from? Luke was the best reserve before his injury; if he's in decent shape when he returns, the situation won't look quite so grim. But who else?

Shannon, DJ and Powell are all basically performing in line with their respective track records. At age 24, Brown likely has some improvement ahead of him, but he's not going to become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate overnight. Farmar, I'd argue as well, is also more or less where we should expect him to be. With each passing game, his performance in 2007-08 looks increasingly flukish, and his performance last season looks like his real baseline.

Adam Morrison has actually been better than we would've guessed, but no one thinks he's a candidate to be even a league-average player. The dude is simply no es bueno. If he's in the NBA next year, it'll be solely due to residual caché from having been a high lottery pick once upon a time.

Morrison_inside_071021_medium

The real mystery in all this is Sasha Vujacic, who in three years has gone from good to frustrating to radioactively bad. On the one hand, it seems improbable that he'll remain this terrible; someone his age shouldn't completely fall apart absent an injury. On the other hand, he shows no sign of bouncing back any time soon. He's averaging less than 10 minutes a night and has made only two shots in the last five games. It must be getting hard for Phil Jackson to justify even putting him on the court.

What about help from outside? As Ben R pointed out in the comments last night, two available names are Jerry Stackhouse and Wally Sczcerbiak. If those guys had anything at all left in the tank, they wouldn't be available. There's also Allen Iverson, though it's hard to imagine the Lakers voluntarily stepping on that particular land mine.

A deadline trade will be a possibility, the most likely situation involving cutting bait on Farmar and shipping out Morrison's expiring deal. It's not possible at this point to foretell who might be obtainable in return.

The Lakers, we should probably just admit, are stuck with a subpar bench. The reserves aren't about to "step up" or find "consistency." How the Lakers have won games so far, by overwhelming opponents with top-line talent, is how they'll have to get it done in the foreseeable future. Which might, in fact, be plenty good enough.

Lakers_bench_explode_in_celebration_during_game_one_of_the_2009_playoffs_vs__the_jazz_medium

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