Beast or Burden: Fear the Mask

Feb. 29, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves small forward Martell Webster (5) defends Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) in the second half of the game at the Staples Center. Lakers won 104-85. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The passing of March 1st has made roughly a quarter of the league available to trade, not only in a legal sense but also on ESPN's NBA Trade Machine, which doubtless has kept many hoops junkies awake into the dead of night. (Yes, that includes yours truly.) Before you wonder in anxiety why a flurry of trades hasn't been announced yet, let us refer you to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, who explains in this video with NBC Sports that because the trade deadline -- normally a February event -- has been moved to March, many front offices are busy scouting college prospects in the tournament and there isn't a whole lot of time for team executives to explore trade possibilities. Yes, Minnesota offered Michael Beasley to the Lakers for the Lakers' traded player exception and both of their first rounders, but we can attribute that to Beasley's value taking a jump after a solid performance against the Clippers. Obviously, two firsts is excessive, but the reality is that the Lakers have -- or at least, should have -- much grander hopes for their assets at the deadline and it undoubtedly starts with finding a point guard.

The offense on Wednesday night was impressive in the smooth ball and man movement that dissected a Minnesota team that had played the night beforehand, but it highlighted, as most games this season have, the dire lack of a real playmaker. No, Kobe Bryant can no longer really be considered one as he can barely dribble the ball nowadays with his deteriorating handle. He continues to show that he is most effective off the ball on curls, post-ups and especially as a cutter into the lane, where he was absolutely devastating Wednesday evening. Needless to say, a point guard who can feed Kobe in those spots and not make the offense so execution dependent aids that problem and has to be the Lakers' highest priority. Kyle Lowry, as has been discussed endlessly on this site since Tuesday, would be the premier option, dependent naturally on Daryl Morey deciding it is in his team's best interests, but given our current point guard situation, almost anything would be an upgrade at this juncture really.

Beast

  • Kobe Bryant -- The above screed shouldn't detract from how well Kobe played against Minnesota, but it highlights just how much he has changed as a player recently. A highly diminished first step and a suspect handle has torched a huge portion of Kobe's dribble game, and he simply isn't the perimeter threat he has been in recent years. It is a testament to his overall skill set and absurd work ethic that he still manages to be effective nevertheless, but when it really comes down to it, Kobe is a superlative jump shooter. Is he still a first option? No doubt, but he needs a lot more help from his teammates to do so because he has to be given the ball on the move on certain spots of the floor. Previously, we had the triangle to help Kobe in this regard, but in Mike Brown's system, the fix is instead a point guard who puts everyone in their proper places and provides good floor balance. Kobe has put the work in to adapt his game to what his body is allowing him to do, and it behooves the front office to find the supporting piece, whether it is Kyle Lowry, Ramon Sessions, or any number of serviceable pick-and-roll point guards, to do so.
  • Andrew Bynum -- He simply continues to impress. Double teams no longer bother him as much as they previously did, and while he still is somewhat slow at getting into his post moves, he has shown some nice ones around the basket lately, especially going baseline. His biggest contribution, however, was defensively, where he swallowed up Nikola Pekovic, who has been utterly dominant lately. Against a player whose game relies around brute force and strength, Bynum stood his ground and used his length to negate Pekovic's game around the basket. Bynum also did a solid job stepping out on pick-and-rolls, denying rookie phenom Ricky Rubio any lanes to pass through and even blocked one of his shots on a switch. Finally, the comments about getting a playmaker putting everyone where they need to be applies to Bynum as well -- he has had no one who can run a real pick-and-roll with him and despite the lack of proper spacing and floor balance, has used sheer strength to carve out his spots in the paint. If you think he's good now, wait until we get someone who gets him easy shots off penetration and similar.
  • Steve Blake -- All of the above comments, however, should not be taken as an indictment of Blake's play this year, as he has done an able job in a system that better fits his talents and showed that he is a perfectly good backup point. To some extent, this is because he looks especially awesome next to the glorified shooting guard known as Derek Fisher, but he has done his best to run the offense as it was intended to be run and Brown has rewarded him with the lion share of minutes at the point. He still needs to have a more itchy trigger finger on shots given the number of kick outs from the post he gets a game, but his line against Minnesota was very respectable. The ironic thing is that his minutes might be subsumed by whatever point guard the Lakers acquire at the deadline since excising Derek Fisher from the rotation appears to be an impossibility, but one would hope that Brown finds a few minutes for him in the guard rotation regardless.
  • Honorable mention goes to Matt Barnes, who continues to do a solid job as the designated bench energy man, relentlessly attacking the offensive boards and getting open time and time again on nice cuts to the rim. He did miss a few chippies around the rim that he normally makes, but he looks as good as he has all year. As with Blake, that the Lakers have a need at his position is due to the player who sits in front of him in the rotation, and if we do find an improvement at the three, let us hope the coaching staff finds some room for Barnes in the rotation, assuming he himself was not used to acquire his replacement.
Burden
  • Andrew Goudelock -- For a shooting specialist, Goudelock is having quite the dry spell. Some of it is that he needs to adjust to defenses reading the scouting report and chasing him off the line, although he is missing even the wide open looks he gets. Most rookies hit this kind of wall at some juncture, so we'll see if he works his way out of it, although for a player with his kind of shooting talent and swag, it shouldn't be beyond him.
  • Devin Ebanks -- After a few nice games in the D-League, where he averaged 18.3 points per game on 55.3% shooting and six rebounds in three games, Ebanks looked rather poor in his garbage time minutes Wednesday, although this is mostly nitpicking. After being robbed of what was likely a 20-25 minute opportunity if Kobe was sidelined with his concussion, however, he didn't do himself any favors either, and he likely is one of the sweeteners the Lakers can put into trades to get back the assets they are targeting. It has been a long fall for Ebanks ever since he started against Chicago on opening night and acquitted himself rather well, but the most he can do is continue to plug away, if not in L.A. then in some city that hopefully sent a nice point guard the Lakers way.
  • No third selection or (dis)honorable mention this time around, as the Lakers uniformly performed pretty well against Minnesota. Mike Brown deserves a few raised eyebrows for throwing the starters back in for a stretch in the fourth after the bench began to lose the Lakers' lead, but none of the starters were played an overly large amount of minutes as a result. Top of this list will be the front office though if some trade isn't consummated before the deadline, however, as the Lakers' title hopes more or less rest upon it.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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