Beast or Burden: After the Storm

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 03: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Al Harrington #7 of the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on February 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Last night was a rather painful exercise of conflicting loyalties. As a current Ivy League student and half-Asian, I find the Jeremy Lin story undoubtedly inspiring for all the factors that have been discussed ad nauseam in the media: an NBA player coming from a school far better known for producing bankers, lawyers, and politicians, and an Asian-American at that doing so. That it had to come at the expense of my favorite team was the unfortunate part of the process. That the Lakers had the opportunity to acquire Lin during the 2010 offseason only twists the knife even more, although to blame the Lakers for not having the foresight to offer as many years and guaranteed money as the Warriors to an undrafted free agent would be excessive and rather undeserved. Regardless, lost in the Jeremy Lin hoopla was the fact that the Lakers looked completely dead last night. Tyson Chandler is a magnificent defensive player, but he doesn't completely negate Andrew Bynum. Jared Jeffries doesn't slow down Pau Gasol, or score eleven points on him and Bynum for that matter. The game was still disappointing for the lack of fire the Lakers played with, but in the larger picture, the Lakers are currently 2-3 on this road trip and can make it a respectable 3-3 with a win against the lowly Raptors on Sunday. Since we all would have considered 4-2 a very good road trip, 3-3 is acceptable, albeit disappointing for how those losses went down. In any case, onto our recent contributors and convenient scapegoats:

Beast

  • Pau Gasol -- As Wondah's POTW selection made evidently clear, Pau showed up to play on this road trip, albeit too late to claim a spot on the All-Star team. Even more than Bynum, Pau has been the linchpin of the Lakers' defense, defending adeptly on the perimeter and stalling penetration down the middle. He remains the biggest reason Mike Brown's hedge-and-recover system works and all of his difficulties in fitting into the offense aside, he has embraced Brown's defensive mantra. That noted, he has produced well offensively recently and the synergy between him and Bynum appears to be growing as the pair gets more and more adept at their interior passing. It wouldn't be remiss to call Pau's alley-oop passes to Bynum the Lakers' best offensive play this year and Pau's passing in general has helped keep afloat what otherwise is a terribly moribund offense. While he won't be representing the Lakers in Orlando, he certainly has made a statement, at least for the moment, that he thinks that he belongs there.

  • Kobe Bryant -- Kobe continues to be maddening. When he is intermixing his masterful scoring ability with pinpoint passing and surgically dismantling a defense, he is a joy to watch. When he persists in thinking that it is still the Smush era and he needs to take impossible shots when he doesn't need to, especially down the stretch of games, it sends all of us into a fit of rage and frustration. In games such as last night, when the entire team looked completely dead offensively, Kobe taking over is acceptable. Against Philly on Monday, however, in a game during which Bynum had dominated Philly's interior defense, not so much. The ridiculous shot making is simply part of whom Kobe is and there's no changing it, but it wouldn't be remiss to ask him to pick his spots better. There's no denying that he is by far a net positive by any measure, as he was this week, but the more he, Pau, and Bynum are working in sync come playoff time, the more noise this team is going to make.
  • Andrew Bynum -- This is grudging. Bynum was arguably the biggest reason the Lakers lost last night, looking lifeless on both ends and putting up pedestrian numbers in a game in which he should have been far more effective. As noted above, Chandler is a superb defensive player, but that doesn't excuse Bynum for not trying harder to claim deep post position, or allowing Jared Jeffries to waltz past him in the lane to the rim. Yes, he was tired. Yes, he was an important part in the Lakers gutting out a win against Boston the previous night. It still doesn't excuse him for not putting forth the effort, notably when his frontcourt partner in Pau was able to do so. He still deserves this spot for his demolition of Philly's and Utah's interior defense, but he better be looking to regain some pride on Sunday by destroying Andrea Bargnani in the post.
  • Honorable mention goes to Matt Barnes, who was one of the few players to actually show anything last night. The lack of off-ball recognition -- especially on Bynum double teams; yes, Bynum needs to get better at passing out of them, but his teammates need to give him a much easier and prompter release valve -- has been a persistent problem on this team for seemingly everyone except Barnes, whose cutting is a godsend. With Steve Blake back from injury, his work off the ball will hopefully prop up the Lakers' otherwise putrid bench unit.
Burden
  • Metta World Peace -- Before the season, I would have laughed at you if you could consider any position group on the team worse than the Lakers' point guards. I stand corrected. The biggest culprit has been the utterly terrible play of MWP, who has quickly gone from quirky championship role player to amnesty bait thus far this year. His offense has obviously been grotesquely awful, and while his defense is still respectably solid -- compare his defensive performance against Paul Pierce as versus Matt Barnes' -- the offense has gotten so bad that you have to wonder whether he really is worth putting on the floor when he doesn't have a clear wing matchup to shut down. While we quibble at specific foibles of the big three, a much bigger reason for their offensive struggles is that defenses are free to blatantly ignore two of the five players on the court. For obvious reasons, it's hard to win that way. A modest suggestion would be to switch around the players at the three based on matchups. With Pierce playing most of the game, MWP getting minutes is understandable. Otherwise, Jason Kapono would arguably be a better choice. True, his defense is about as good as MWP's offense, but he offers some desperately needed spacing for the big three to operate, and he would be much more effective playing off the starters than he would be on the bench. All in all, that such a suggestion doesn't sound completely insane is testament to how far MWP has declined.
  • Derek Fisher -- Nothing really is new here. He can't defend, can't shoot, makes bad decisions, what have you. The foot-on-the-line long twos must be pathological, as there's really no other explanation otherwise. His awfulness might be the only reason to put a big asterisk on the rise of Jeremy Lin, although that is somewhat unfair to Lin for simply producing against the matchups in front of him. The only upside this season is that Mike Brown is clearly cognizant of Fisher's sheer level of suck, as Blake has usurped a good portion of his minutes as well as the important ones in crunch time. If Andrew Goudelock could take some of those minutes as well -- as with the Kapono example above, allowing Goudelock much more spot-up opportunities by working off the big three would help him, and he might be the only non-Kobe player on the team who is a threat to penetrate off the pick-and-roll due to his floater -- that would be even better.
  • The offense -- The Knicks shot 42.9% last night, which seems amazingly low between the Lin explosion and the Lakers' dead legs. On most nights, that's enough to win. When the Lakers proceed to shoot 37.5%, not so much. This definitely is a very flawed roster and to his credit, Brown has mixed up lineups and tried to get production out of a pile of steaming garbage that includes luminaries such as Troy Murphy, who, like MWP, has inexplicably lost the ability to shoot despite being more than wide open most of the time. As Steve Blake gets back into shape, the offense should improve, but there's no denying that the Lakers desperately need help in this regard. As Blake showed before his injury, a serviceable point guard can unite the disparate parts of the roster and get them to function well together. Ramon Sessions anyone?
  • I mentioned him above, but (dis)honorable mention goes to Troy Murphy. We expected the atrocious defense. The sheer lack of production on offense is simply unacceptable, however. In a way, his struggles are even more surprising than MWP's, as Murphy was an 18 PER player two years ago. It really is hard to blame Mitch Kupchak and Mike Brown for thinking that Murphy is more than the shell of the borderline All-Star player he was with the Pacers, but if this continues, you have to start asking why Josh McRoberts is nailed to the bench, assuming he doesn't get moved for some help on the wings.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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