Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE
As we survey the start of the Mike D'Antoni era in Los Angeles, we give thanks to the players who performed well in the Lakers last two games and hope those who did not do as well pick up their games for future contests.
Everything the Lakers do right now carries with it a giant asterisk mark since Steve Nash is not with the team, seeing as he gives an entirely new dimension to what the Lakers do on the court, but we can appreciate what the team is doing in his absence. Lest we forget, this is a squad whose coach requires playmakers to make his system work, except you could be forgiven if this fact has eluded you in the past week or so given that the Lakers have looked excellent on offense. This was a team that began the season in utter disarray and out of the fiasco that was Mike Brown, both his tenure and his firing, as well as the variety of injuries and maladies that have limited certain members of the team and kept others off the court, we now have some semblance of a functioning squad.
Of course, this current iteration of the team is not perfect by any means, the poor effort in the Sacramento game as the premier example, but there is simply no way that the Mike Brown-led one that dropped the first three games of the year is competitive in the kind of contest the Brooklyn game devolved into. In the first time this season, the team has an identity to adhere to, and while their execution on the floor in pursuit of that identity is certainly not ideal, it can at least be viewed as progress in the right direction, something that was not visible with Mike Brown at the helm. So let us be thankful for Bernie Bickerstaff for overseeing a transfer of power in a smooth a fashion as possible and D'Antoni hopefully providing us with the path towards contention that we want the team to tread down.
- Kobe Bryant -- A good portion of that depends on Kobe maintaining this astonishing level of play, so we should be especially thankful to the basketball gods for letting us see Kobe as good as he's ever been. And make no mistake: the Kobe from last year wasn't capable of the kind of performances he is putting out right now. Neither his hops nor his handle were good enough for Kobe to round picks and probe the defense, with the threat of his dribble penetration going all the way to the rim just as much of a threat as his midrange jumper. Kobe, moreover, adopting the mindset of a playmaker who needs to help the rest of the offense work has been worth its weight in gold, considering that there really aren't any other players capable of doing that on the roster. A player who can sit back and set up his teammates and take over at the opportune moment is invaluable and Kobe has provided all of that for the Lakers this season.
- Metta World Peace -- Don't look now, but Metta has recovered in a huge way from his early season woes, as he quietly has taken on a key role in D'Antoni's offense as a designated wing shooter and occasional attacker from that area. We expected Metta to bounce back in a big way from last year due to the excellent shape he was in during camp and while he did not meet those expectations initially, he certainly has so of late; his current PER is the best it's been in a Laker uniform and he only looks more comfortable every game. Given that we thought he would be a primary weak link in our starting five, for him to be one of the more consistent performers is something to be very thankful for.
- Darius Morris -- With both Nash and Steve Blake out, the onus fell on Morris to finally prove that his potential wasn't going to stay unrealized, and he met that challenge. There is no doubt his game needs a good deal of refinement and growth, but for a player who would be in his senior year in college to take advantage of his available opportunity and show some good defensive aptitude and burgeoning confidence on offense is something that needless to say, we should be very thankful of. The Morris of last year and preseason appeared nowhere near the task of being a starting point guard for such a talented squad and if anything, the key bright spot of the absence of two of the Lakers' playmakers has been the revelation that we might have another one in the wings.
- Jodie Meeks -- Just as we discovered the good with the bad with Nash's injury giving Morris the opportunity to shine, Meeks was the lone good story from the Sacramento game, finally capitalizing on all the hype we gave him during the offseason as a shooter the Lakers could finally have present to work off their core players. And give D'Antoni credit, as he rode Meeks' hot hand as long as he could and Meeks reciprocated by putting up shots when he was open -- or less than open; guy is certainly not gun-shy and that is an attribute you want in your spot shooters. You ultimately need three or so good bench contributors in the playoffs and Meeks could shape up to be one of those individuals if the comfort he displayed last night continues into the rest of the year.
- Honorable mention to Jordan Hill, as like Morris, a consistent role and playing time allowed him to take advantage of his potential this season. And Hill looks amazingly refined for a player who showed a lot of talent initially in his career but didn't have the refinement to take advantage of it. And now, he has a diversified post game -- the counter to his lefty hook in the Brooklyn game and the baseline fadeaway against Sacramento were shocking displays from what we thought was a limited post player -- and a nice midrange jumper; if anything, we should be featuring him much more in the offense. He also is unequiovically the Lakers' second best defender among the bigs, with active help defense and solid pick-and-roll coverage. So let us not only be thankful to Hill for his play, which slipped somewhat in the last two games although we could attribute that to insufficient playing time, but to Mitch Kupchak, who committed highway robbery by getting him for Derek Fisher's decrepit corpse and a first rounder we never were going to get.
- Pau Gasol -- Pau still remains unappreciated for a lot of the things he does that don't show up in the box score and while much of his criticism is deserved, it overshadows the very tangible good he does on the court. His superb high-low passing from the high post is something that simply can't be replicated by most bigs in the league; Howard hugely benefits from the easy looks he gets as a result and so do the perimeter players who are able to confidently give Pau the ball with the confidence that the right read is forthcoming. That deserves thanks of the highest order and it should become even more pronounced when Nash returns. We expect Pau to perform better given his skill and talent, however, and while his effort against Sacramento and defense in the Brooklyn game were unacceptable, there is little doubt that he is a key cog in what the Lakers are trying to do on the court.
- Chris Duhon -- In many ways, Duhon deserves our appreciation because when it really comes down to it, he is much more competent than a fourth point guard has any right to be, and his ability to space the floor has been useful during his time on the floor. Most teams that lose their starting point guard as well as the primary backup at the position would be crippled, but the Lakers keep pushing because not only has their third point guard exceeded expectations, their fourth point guard has held down the fort. We critique Duhon for not having defensive ability nearly in line with his reputation or not being capable of dribbling for an extended period without turning the ball over, but considering the Lakers' current situation, he isn't killing the team and for that, we should be thankful.
- Antawn Jamison -- Jamison hasn't given us a whole lot of reasons to be thankful for his presence due to his disappearing act on offense and Meeks replacing him down the stretch of the Sacramento game would be a welcome change altogether if D'Antoni continues doing so. That noted, the Lakers had high expectations for Devin Ebanks to be an important backup on the wings and Ebanks has not only been mediocre on the court, but also off it, as seen in his recent DUI arrest and sentencing to the team's doghouse. It might be faint praise for Jamison to say that he's simply the next body in line to play at the backup small forward position, but given the Lakers' absolutely miserable depth issues last year, that we have players to swing into the rotation when available is something to be thankful for.
- (Dis)honorable mention to Dwight Howard, who followed up a spectacular performance against Brooklyn with one of his worst in a Lakers' uniform against Sacramento. This noted, that Dwight is even on the court producing at his current level is something that deserves all our thanks and more. Some reports had him out until January and even those that correctly predicted that he would be present at the start of the season claimed that it would take him a while to get back into form. Well, that last part is true, but it would be a fair guess to say that many did not believe that 75-80% Dwight would appear utterly dominant on most nights. If the price of having a Dwight that is getting back into shape is that he is able to obliterate opponents and then look completely gassed on the end of a back-to-back that required travel on the road, then we will take that every time and be thankful he is on the court instead of watching from the sidelines in a suit.