Going into this back-to-back without Pau Gasol, we were given reason to expect that Mike D'Antoni's offense would present itself in a fashion much more akin to his Suns teams than the awkward pairing we have been given, and for the most part, this played out. Granted, this is insomuch as his offense can be run without an ideal point guard at the forefront; you could be forgiven if you thought we were Orlando for a moment with constant four-out, one-in formations. Regardless, Antawn Jamison, starting in lieu of Gasol, performed well and his resurrection as a serviceable rotation player has been one of the best parts of D'Antoni's hiring. The problem has been that despite Pau's limited mobility, he is still seven feet tall and has very long arms, which is important from a rebounding perspective and a field in which the Lakers did not acquit themselves well, especially against Houston.
Part of this we can assign to the fact that Dwight Howard is not yet a giant rebounding black hole in the interior as he usually is. The other, as Jamison elucidated quite well last night, is that the rotations aren't quite there because just as Dwight gets into shape, so do the players have to become adjusted to his presence. In an ideal world, Dwight is quick enough to stop the ballhandler, contest the shot, and recover fast enough to get the rebound. His conditioning is nowhere near good enough for that to be the case over an extended period, the major culprit behind a good portion of the Lakers' defensive woes. So as much as we await our point guards returning to the rotation, Dwight becoming the monster on defense watchers of the game are normally accustomed to is a major obstacle to be overcome before we can really begin evaluating this team.
- Chris Duhon -- Duhon quietly had two very serviceable games since moving into the starting lineup, and did well enough that it might be an open question as to who becomes the primary backup when Steve Blake returns. While certainly not a scorer of any sort, Duhon resembles the image of what we thought we could get from Blake when we signed him: a game manager who could pass the rock and hit an open shot every now and then. Indeed, the offense has functioned best when Duhon is handling the ball and D'Antoni's recognition that he was the best choice for helping the offense tick is a big reason behind the Lakers' currently ranking fifth in offensive efficiency. You could have mistaken Duhon for Nash on quite a few possessions the past two games as he rounds the corner on a pick and probes the defense. After all, Duhon got his current contract working as the lead guard of D'Antoni's system and it isn't a stretch to think that returning to those principles is helping him right now.
- Antawn Jamison -- When it comes down to it, Jamison is simply a smart offensive player: he doesn't take anything outside his game and sticks to efficient shots within the flow of the offense. For his part, this has meant catch-and-shoot threes, smart cuts to the basket, and occasional post-ups. Might be a bit of a broken record at this point, but that's the kind of four that flourishes in D'Antoni's offense. There's a reason that Jamison has nearly 20,000 points in his career, a milestone of his own that he might reach this year, His current TS% for the season is 58.8, which would be a career high and is a testament to how well he is functioning within the scope of the offense. Finally, his defense has been good enough as to not be a complete liability on the four, something he was at the three when Mike Brown was playing him there, and his deserved hold on rotation minutes appears assured for the rest of the year.
- Jordan Hill -- That isn't the case for Hill, who finally got on the court more with Pau out, as it is evident that D'Antoni considers him to be a center in the scope of his offense. Hill's game is diverse enough, however, that it one would caution against pigeonholing him into any given role. He can score from the post, shoot from range, and crash the offensive boards like a madman. Whether playing at the four or the five, he can be productive and so long as the quickness or strength matchup not too extreme, cover them well on defense. Although playing Earl Clark just to see whether he warrants any minutes in the rotation is fine and all, Hill should definitely be taking all of those minutes. We knew that the frontcourt rotation would be a key strength of the Lakers going into the season and it behooves them to use their best players as often as possible.
- Dwight Howard -- As bad as Hack-a-Dwight looked against Houston, Dwight lived up to his part of the bargain since he hit half his free throws. The failure was at the other end as Houston scored on basically every possession, not necessarily a failure on Dwight's part, but an indication that the situation goes beyond merely what Dwight does in reaction to the fouling. That noted, he immediately ended Monty Williams' Hack-a-Dwight attempt by resorting to the method that everyone has wanted him to: hitting both free throws. As has been well established at this point, his problems at the line are mental more than anything and D'Antoni is not entirely unjustified in that Dwight simply has to learn how to deal with those kinds of adverse circumstances and have the mental fortitude to conquer them. In terms of the defensive consistency mentioned above, Dwight was so-so against Houston and much better against New Orleans, along with a dominating effort in all aspects in the third quarter that helped the Lakers towards their eventual victory.
- Honorable mention to Kobe Bryant, who had six quarters of the extremes of bad Kobe: a lot of shooting, the offense stalling, and some truly horrific defense. Kobe couldn't be bothered to move on a whole lot of defensive possessions and this lackluster effort severely hurt the Lakers down the stretch against Houston. It appeared as if it would be more of the same against New Orleans until the second half, during which he moved the rock, picked his shots much better, and most importantly, started offering a little bit more than zero effort on defense. Despite this, Dwight calling him out for this was not only warranted, but necessary: Dwight is essentially the future of the Lakers and him developing into a captain on defense is beneficial for the team as a whole. In other news, the ideal Kobe as a playmaker hasn't shown up for quite some time now and while he might ultimately be unnecessary when Steve Nash comes back, he needs to make an appearance if the Lakers are going to have any hope of getting a surprise win against Oklahoma City.
- Darius Morris -- Morris' performance against New Orleans was his first competent one in quite some time, as he didn't appear completely disastrous on drives, although his tendency to dribble half the clock away still persists. As always, it is a combination of bad instincts and a lack of confidence that cripple him. The moist important thing for a point guard is to have a plan when going to the rim, as he considers the reads around him and takes appropriate risks. Morris' refusal to take any of the latter is especially damaging since it only results in him getting trapped and forced to give up the ball without having accomplished anything. He needs constant reps with the ball in his hand to work these issues out and once the Lakers' stable of point guards return, it would be nice if he could get some reps in the D-League where he can get all of these problems out of his system.
- Jodie Meeks -- Meeks needs to wear a shock collar around his neck and have it set to stun him whenever he tries to dribble inside the arc. He really can't penetrate into the paint without turning the ball over and his finishing ability is horrid against any kind of contest. When restricted to catch-and-shoot opportunities and using the pick-and-roll to look for a long range shot, he is perfectly fine. Asking him to do anything outside of that purview simply hasn't worked; it is hard to think of a drive in which something positive resulted from his attempt. This grows all the more irritating when you see Meeks run a nice two man game with Dwight on the wing and put defenders between a rock and a hard place. Although Meeks is young and the compulsion to expand one's game is admirable, good role players are such since they understand that they shouldn't attempt to go beyond the tasks that have been allotted to them. When the Lakers get their ballhandlers and playmakers back, hopefully this will work itself out.
- Dishonorable mention to Metta World Peace, who is basically doing a fine job in most respects aside from shooting well. Well, that and his absolutely inexplicable fadeaway in the final possession of the Houston game after getting the offensive rebound, especially when he had a wide open layup. All he had to do was the same thing he did against the Suns in the playoffs two years ago and the Lakers might be 10-9 right now. Aside from that, his difficulty in traversing screens, caused not by a lack of effort, as with Kobe, but by his declining foot speed, manifested itself against Houston, although he did a generally better job in the New Orleans game. If there wasn't already a minutes crunch in the frontcourt, one would wonder how MWP would fare as a four in D'Antoni's offense, although this is something we will likely never see barring another slew of injuries.