Beast or Burden: Navigating the Interregnum

Jeff Gross

Although we are all caught up in the transition between Mike Brown's firing and the hiring of Mike D'Antoni, the Lakers defeated the Warriors and Kings.

Talking about Phil Jackson and Mike D'Antoni has made most everything else in Lakerland irrelevant at the moment and for good reason. How the Lakers perform right now under Bernie Bickerstaff -- winningest coach in Lakers' history! -- has no reflection upon how they will do under the auspices of D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" style of play. What Bickerstaff did against Golden State and Sacramento, however, in asking the players to simply go out and play ball, was a classic example of what happens to players who are freed from a system they do not necessarily agree with, and as a result, find new purpose in their time on the court. The talent on the team, both at the top and bottom, was able to express itself as it should have been instead of being overwhelmed by the demands of the system. While a reversion to system-based play is in the works with D'Antoni at the forefront -- although the principles of his system are much more akin to the freestyle way the Lakers have operated in the last two games than the strict read-and-react fashion of the Princeton -- one would think that the simple affirmation that the team can go out and win on sheer talent has to be endearing to everyone involved.

Beast

  • Kobe Bryant -- Nowhere was this more visible than in the play of Kobe, who will certainly have a great deal of freedom under D'Antoni's style of play. Against the Warriors, Kobe dominated in nearly every facet of the game, scoring from the post, on cuts, and on catch-and-shoot opportunities, as well as offering some nice dimes on penetration, something he will be asked to do in order to take the load off Steve Nash. Even though his turnover issues continue to be a problem, this is definitely some of the best all-around ball Kobe has been playing for a long while; in the Kings game, he shot the worst he has all year and still was able to put up a very respectable 20/6/6 line. Now, if he could be bothered to cover his man on the perimeter...
  • Darius Morris -- As the top echelon of the roster in Kobe felt liberated, so did Morris on the opposite side. Freed from a system in which he had no familiarity and what must have been daunting for what essentially is still a rookie point guard considering his playing time last season, Morris had arguably the best game of his career against Golden State. His athleticism and quickness especially stood out in a game in which the Lakers' other perimeter defenders were fairly inept to say the least; his defensive ability continues to be the best part of his game. This was a game in which he brought in on the other end, however, aggressively looking to score on his drives, hitting threes from the corner off kick-offs, and throwing some nice dimes off penetration. On a team starved for the physical attributes he brings in the backcourt, he is making a stronger case for minutes when Steve Nash returns, especially if he can manage a more uptempo unit under D'Antoni.
  • Pau Gasol -- Pau finally returned to form after a number of miserable games following his solid season opener, dominating the boards against the Warriors and hitting from outside in both, an aspect of his game that has been missing so far this year and will be all but a necessity in D'Antoni's system. Save for a few drives in which he let David Lee blow by him when he put the ball on the floor, Pau was solid defensively as well, displaying a fire and energy we haven't seen from him in quite a long time. Seeing as he is about to more or less settle into a Boris Diaw-esque role under D'Antoni, it will be incumbent on him to avoid Diaw's excess passivity and tendency to over pass; essentially, he needs to personally ensure that he remains a key part of the offense.
  • Jordan Hill -- Pau was no doubt helped by the presence of Hill, who Bickerstaff wisely decided to pair with Pau, a frontcourt combination we thought would best complement the respective skill sets of each player. Hill is steadily showing that he is more than merely an energy guy, however, and we are starting to see the talent that led him to be selected in the lottery. He hit jumpers from the free throw line extended, scored in the post on running hook shots, and of course, crashed the boards with wild abandon. It is a broken record at this point, but that he is the best's best player goes without saying. It is not just that most of his colleagues there are really bad; he's also a genuinely solid reserve.
  • Dwight Howard -- Howard only played 24 minutes in the Warriors game, but his defense has become more and more akin to the dominating effort that earned him three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. He consistently obliterated scoring attempts at the rim, including an amazing rejection of Carl Landry, a usual bete noire of the Lakers. Foul trouble and the great play of Pau and Hill kept him on the bench for more of the game than usual, but we finally saw a far more familiar Howard game with the Kings, as Dwight filled up the box score in basically every aspect. He looks far more spry and bouncy than he was at the beginning of the year, and the mere fact that he could look this good despite not being at full strength is a testament to simply how damn good he is.
  • Honorable mention goes to Antawn Jamison, who finally broke out of his self-imposed offensive slump and decided to start hoisting shots, which was what we brought him in for. While his accuracy is still coming along, he will have to stay in this state of mind under a coach that gives his players great freedom in terms of putting up available good shots. Not an ideal floor spacer, Jamison will nevertheless have to be a threat from there, especially since he is more likely to occupy the four, his more natural position, with D'Antoni at the helm. Shockingly, Jamison also has been putting some more effort on defense, notching a highlight reel block in both games and his activity on the boards was appreciated in the Golden State game.
Burden
  • Metta World Peace -- MWP had a nice performance against the Kings, especially from behind the arc, but we can't let him off the hook for a truly horrendous show with Golden State, shooting 0-10 at one point before righting the ship with a few late makes. With D'Antoni, he will be called upon to provide that spacing to allow everything else on offense to work, and as by far the least threatening option on the floor when the Lakers have their proper starting five out there, he has to nail those shots. Thankfully, this also reduces the need for MWP to handle the ball in any capacity, and it remains somewhat doubtful that MWP has the awareness and physical ability to take a page out of Shawn Marion's handbook with the SSOL Suns.
  • Steve Blake -- Blake's dismal pair of games and subsequent injury probably was alright in his book considering that he got to take a ride down to see his doctor on Kobe's chopper, the very image of which has elicited plenty of chuckles from yours truly. Nevertheless, Blake's newfound playmaking ability will assuredly be tested under D'Antoni; while we said last year that Blake might have been more suited for a straight-up pick-and-roll game after a year in the triangle, D'Antoni will be the true test of that assertion. Blake has shown more proclivity for penetrating after rounding the corner on the pick and even scored (!) a few times doing so, an amazing achievement given that he almost never gets to the rim. D'Antoni's system has usually been kind to most point guards, so assuming that Morris or Chris Duhon don't wrest away the backup position while Blake sits with injury, he should have a fair shot at performing well.
  • Mike Brown -- For good measure, he's one last look at Brown, who game into the job with good intentions, but was never able to get over the proverbial hump and create a system that resonated with everyone on the roster. His baffling treatment of rotations was his key flaw, but we most expected him to live up to his reputation and extract defensive effort out of a bunch of players with limited ability on that end. That never really materialized, a likely side effect of his inability to get the team to buy into what he was saying. Ultimately, that was his downfall, as while caretaker coaches who are just there to stand aside and let the talent on the team shine -- see Bernie Bickerstaff's work in these past two games -- have a role in the league, the demands on a coach of the Lakers are simply that much higher. Still, I wish the best for Brown and hopes he finds success somewhere else where the expectations are not as high and the glare of the media and fans not as exacting.
  • (Dis)honorable mention goes to Jodie Meeks, someone who needs to find his shot quickly. Perhaps no other bench player will be more important under D'Antoni, who really needs floor spacers to maximize the effectiveness of what he preaches on offense. To his credit, Meeks is certainly not shy on offense and will hoist up shots when he gets them off the catch. Moreover, while his willingness to put the ball on the floor from time to time and try to run the pick-and-roll are admirable -- and to that effect, should be encouraged in a young player trying to expand his game -- it would be best at the moment for him to stick to his strengths in the catch-and-shoot game.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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