Beast or Burden: Living on the Edge

Come one month from now on March 15th, the Lakers' prospects for this season and likely the next few will be determined. It goes without saying that at this current level of play, the Lakers' prospects for making noise in the playoffs are slim. Certainly, this does not remove the possibility of this current roster playing better -- as it is wont to do as they figure out Brown's system and become more comfortable with the reads -- but the Lakers would still require an awful lot to break their way to go far. The holes on the roster at the one and the three have been well-documented, and there's a fair argument to be made that the threes have -- a notion that would have been all but inexplicable a few months ago -- eclipsed the Lakers' point guards in terms of sheer awfulness. The largest reason has been the fact that Derek Fisher's backup has finally proven that he is a better solution than the starting point, something that has eluded for years now.

Beast

  • Steve Blake -- Aside from Pau Gasol on the defensive end, no player on the team has found a better home in Brown's system, as Blake appears to be liberated from the confines of the triangle in an offense that allows him to use his decent -- although not exceptional -- court vision and ballhandling skill to create off the pick-and-roll and even on penetration from time to time. As the offense basically requires those very things, Blake is a godsend, as he removes the primary ballhandling responsibilities from Kobe Bryant and makes things easier on everyone else. To call him a panacea would be overstating things -- when it comes down to it, he is essentially a very serviceable backup point -- but the utter disparity in fit and talent between Blake and Fisher only accentuates Blake's importance to the team. Of all the lineup adjustments that Brown has made this year, his decision to give the lion share of the minutes at the point to Blake over Fisher, even in crunch time situations, has arguably been his most astute. If Andrew Goudelock readjusts to playing off the ball more as the backup two guard, the Lakers could likely finally have a competent backup backcourt, something that the team has lacked since the Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic pairing in the '07-'08 season.
  • Pau Gasol -- And this is mainly for the first quarter of the game against Toronto, during which he dominated the Raptors, showing his entire arsenal from the high post, on the block, and distributing to his teammates. The lifeless Pau that played the subsequent three quarters was far less worthy of praise, although Pau did finish with a very respectable 16/17/6 line and after some moderate struggles to start the season, he has drawn virtually even (21.21 PER) with Bynum (21.62 PER) statistically. That the Lakers are starting three players with a PER above 21 -- Kobe has a 25.16 PER for those curious -- is testament to the sheer level of suck that has permeated the rest of the roster and the main reason for anyone to retain any level of optimism. Add a competent -- not a world-beater, not even solid, just serviceable -- player at the one and the three and you have a championship squad. Listening, Mitch?
  • Troy Murphy -- Murphy has been maligned for most of the year, most of it justified. He needs to be more proactive about looking for his shot -- although that's partly the fault of the offense for treating him more as a spot-up shooter rather than a pick-and-roll partner -- but he is offering one of the desperately needed sources of shooting on the roster. And while his struggles on the defensive end have been well-documented, he at least tries his heart out on every play. He has stone feet and gets overpowered on the block, but Brown is at least getting him to try, which is all you can really ask. Murphy is the odd exception on the roster in that his shooting percentages are fine, but his usage rate is not. It's great to have a shooter, but not so much when he has a piddling 9.8 usage rate. With two guards on the Lakers' bench capable of running the pick-and-pop with Murphy in Blake and Goudelock, it would behoove them to get him more involved in the offense.
  • Honorable mention goes to Andrew Goudelock, who is figuring out how to operate off the ball alongside Blake in more spot-up situations. He remains the only guard on the team besides Kobe who is actually a threat on penetration because of his nice floater -- hey, Kobe, add that one to your arsenal -- and for a player who criticized his own defense after he was drafted, he is doing a decent job staying with opposing backup points. While Darius Morris needs some more polish on his game before he is ready for the show, Goudelock has fulfilled the role he was drafted for, proving that the faith the Lakers' FO has put into him was not misplaced.
Burden
  • Andrew Bynum -- It is difficult to explain away the difference between the Bynum that savaged opposing frontcourts to begin the season and the current one who looks strikingly ineffective on the block. He has become less proactive about gaining deep post position -- the biggest contributing factor to his early success -- and more often than not, looks like he is simply throwing the ball at the rim after a few dribbles rather than making a real post move. Perhaps it is fatigue, especially after a long road trip, but there is really no excuse for a player of Bynum's height and strength not to overpower his man on a regular basis. Recently, his points have come mostly on putbacks, alley-oop passes, and cuts to the rim. One of the reasons for the Lakers' bench struggles have been Bynum's difficulty in becoming the focal point in the Orlando-esque offense Brown has set him up in with multiple shooters and one big interior threat. Part of that has been Bynum dealing with double and triple teams in the deep post, but another has been the fact that he simply hasn't been that effective in the post. With a long rest coming up, it would behoove Bynum to step up his game, particularly since any slippage in play with the big three has dire consequences on the Lakers' hopes this season.
  • Kobe Bryant -- This is only mild criticism. Kobe looked positively dead for the first few quarters against Toronto and shot after shot came short on fadeaways, post-ups, and even close range ones at the rim. Some of that was probably tired legs, but in that situation, you would wish that he would become more proactive about running the pick-and-roll and getting the ball moving. Pau has been exceptional at finding the open man after receiving the pass in the high post and involving him in pick-and-roll action only improves the overall flow of the Lakers' offense. Moreover, it creates more opportunities for Kobe to either go up for a long two or get into an open lane. Kobe certainly has more freedom to look for his own shot as he operates more off the ball with Blake back, but it would help with the starting unit if he adopted more of a distributing role. The Kobe-Gasol-Bynum passing sequences have nearly always ended in a bucket this season and teams have little recourse in dealing with it, especially since there are so many different things that can happen off it.
  • Metta World Peace -- The expectation after the Ron Artest signing would be that we would have to deal with at least one episode of Artest being Artest. That hasn't happened yet, but MWP's recent comments are coming awfully close. At this point, questioning whether problems of "system," "fit," or "comfort" are relevant is beyond the pale. MWP has simply been terrible this season and has devolved into a Fisher-esque liability on the offensive end. Teams shade so far off him that the corner wing pass is open every single time, and there's no excuse for a 34.1% career three-point shooter to be so amazingly inept at shooting. When you have a 38.5 TS% and a 6.04 PER, you lose all right to complain about anything. Moreover, his declining defensive ability no longer justifies his continuing presence on the floor either, and you have to wonder whether Brown's reluctance to replace his minutes with Devin Ebanks' are an effort to avoid an incident. One way or another, MWP has a one-way ticket out of L.A. this summer via the amnesty axe, and if he would rather Lakers fans remembered him as the quirky role player who played an integral part in bringing the Lakers a championship banner, he has a lot of work to do.
  • (Dis)honorable mention goes to Derek Fisher for reasons I shouldn't even have to elucidate at this juncture. If he would actually step behind the line for his shots and never take another shot inside the arc for the rest of the year, I would be satisfied.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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