The next player up in our Player Report Card series is backup point guard Steve Blake. Steve was signed by the Lakers almost a year ago on July 8th, 2010 to a 4-year contract worth $16 million. Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers brought Blake to the team to fill the void left by the Lakers choosing to not re-sign Jordan Farmar, who went on to sign as a free agent with the New Jersey nets after spending his first five seasons with LA. Blake was brought to LA because he was supposed to provide some of what the talented but inconsistent Farmar could not. Blake was supposed to be a steady veteran who could hit spot up three-pointers, who could help run the triangle offense and distribute the ball, and who could play some defense. And mainly Blake was brought in to help take some of the minutes away from aging starting point guard, Derek Fisher. As we all know, things didn't quite go as planned.
As a Laker fan, I remember first really becoming aware of Steve Blake as a player during the 2006-07 season when he started most of the games for the Denver Nuggets after being traded there from Milwaukee midway through the year. He then became a much larger blip on my radar screen when he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers following that season, as he went on to help Portland be a real thorn in the side of the Lakers for the next few years. In February of last year Blake was traded to the Clippers, but during his time with both the Nuggets and the Blazers my impression of him was one of being a fearless competitor with a dead-eye long distance shooting stroke. As a Laker fan I will say his presence on the court always worried me when he came into the game for the opposition, so when the Lakers signed him last summer I, like most people, thought it was a great move for the Lakers. One year into the Steve Blake Laker Era, it seems like everyone else I was very, very wrong.
After the first month of the 2010-2011 season, however, we all thought Blake was a great signing, and this was never felt to be more true than after the opening game of the season, on Ring Night against the Houston Rockets. Presumably due to the emotions that often accompany Ring Night, the Lakers came out to start the season quite flat, falling behind by 15 points on their home court to a Rockets team which would go on to miss the playoffs this season. The Laker starters were looking shaky for much of the game, but behind big contributions off the bench from Shannon Brown and newcomer Steve Blake, the Lakers got right back into the game down the stretch, which set up a close finish. Blake impressed so much in that first game that he ended up playing the final 15 minutes of it, including all 12 minutes of the 4th quarter while veteran closer Derek Fisher watched from the bench. Blake made the most of his minutes, hitting back to back 3-pt shots in the final minute of the 3rd quarter to help cut the Laker deficit from 11 to only 5; and then he capped off his first night in a Laker uniform by hitting the go ahead, game winning three pointer with 18 seconds to play to give the Lakers a two point victory.
For the next month Steve showed Laker fans he was worth the new contract he'd signed the previous summer, giving great minutes off the bench and helping the Lakers race out to one of the league's best records. Through the first 20 games of the season he played in, Blake shot 50% or better from the field 12 times while shooting lights out from 3-pt range (almost 48% from three for the first month of the season). Combined with the impressive if unexpected great production from Shannon Brown and from fellow newcomer Matt Barnes, Blake's contributions led to the Lakers looking like they had one of the deepest teams in the league as LA finally looked to have a solid bench to go along with the great starting five which had won the previous two championships. The sky looked to be the limit for these 2010-2011 Lakers and Steve Blake.
Alas, championships are won in June and not November, and for whatever reason that hot start to the year was fool's gold, both for fans of Steve Blake and of the Lakers. Blake's hot shooting from three point land suddenly evaporated, dropping from 47.8% in November to only 31.8% in December. He bounced back a little bit in January (36%) and again in March (38.7%), but was positively miserable in both February (30.8%) and April (30%). His scoring overall also dropped due to his suddenly icy touch from outside. After averaging over 5.5 ppg in October and November, it declined month by month from there, to 4.3 ppg in December, 3.6 ppg in both January and February, 3.3 ppg in March and a paltry 2.8 ppg in April.
In the end Blake's first year with the Lakers turned out to be hands down the worst year of his career. His 4.0 ppg was the lowest he'd ever recorded for a season, and his FG%, 3-pt%, assists per game, rebounds per game and steals per game were all below his career averages, in some cases well below. This disappointing production out of Blake led to his failing in one of the key areas that he was brought in to help with, and that is taking minutes away from Derek Fisher. Blake's low production meant that Phil Jackson had no choice but to limit Blake to only around 20 minutes per game, while keeping Fish on the floor often upwards of 28 minutes per game. This is not what the Lakers were looking for out of their newly signed backup.
Even given all this, the most disappointing thing that stands out the most to anyone who watched Blake this year (and which is also reflected in his stats) is just how tentative the guy was following that hot first month of the season. Blake's 3.9 field goals attempted per game were the fewest he'd attempted in his career, and were far, far fewer than he'd attempted in the last 6 seasons of play, never averaging fewer than 6.2 shot attempts per game in any of those six seasons before this one, and even averaging as many as 9.4 attempts per game in his final full season with Portland just two years ago. For whatever reason, the early comfort Blake felt in a Laker uniform quickly disappeared and he became the antithesis of the fearless competitor I remember him being so often in so many games against the Lakers while wearing an opposing team's jersey. In the end he simply did not rise to the challenge and instead shrunk in the spotlight when the team needed him most.
As Laker fans we can only hope that the root of Steve Blake's discomfort was either worry about helping a team repeat as champions or never fully mastering the triangle offense, since neither of those things should be issues for Blake moving forward under Mike Brown. Since Blake still has 3 years and $12 million remaining on his contract, we have to hope he can go back to being the player he was before the Lakers signed him, otherwise he'll be a threat to be yet another financial albatross for the Lakers in the spirit of Luke Walton. If not for the solid contributions Blake gave the Lakers to start the year, his whole season would be a total failure given what was expected of him, but even that one good month of production can only raise his final grade so much: C-