Beast or Burden: Welcoming the New Guy

Mar 18, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Ramon Sessions (7) dribbles the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz at the Staples Center. The Jazz defeated the Lakers 103-99. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

With the possible exception of opening night, perhaps no game held Lakers fans in more utter rapture than Friday's contest against Minnesota, during which we realized that yes, it is conceivable for the Lakers to have competent point guard play. From the moment Sessions turned on the jets and sped right past Jose Juan Barea, the tormentor of the Lakers in last year's playoffs, we knew that we had something special on our hands. And mind you, Sessions is an above average point. He is not a star, not even a borderline All-Star, but the sheer difference between Sessions and Derek Fisher and Steve Blake was clear as day almost from the moment that Sessions stepped on the court. The question of whether he should start or not aside, it is plainly clear that the team benefits from every minute he is on the court rather than Blake, and it would not be surprising for Mike Brown to come to the same conclusion.

Beast

  • Ramon Sessions -- Perhaps the most impressive thing that Sessions did, more than his ability to attack the rim, probe the defense, and run the pick-and-roll, was his instant synergy with Matt Barnes, something that took Steve Blake half a season to acquire. Sessions' ability to push the tempo works wonderfully with Barnes, who has been the best Laker this year at slipping out on the break for easy buckets. Aside from this, Sessions was drawing fouls like Kobe Bryant used to do three to four years ago whenever he attacked the rim. He even got a few touch fouls on the perimeter for his troubles. Some missed chippies at the rim notwithstanding, Sessions' ability to turn the corner off a pick and go straight to the rim is essentially exactly what the Lakers needed to complement Kobe, and how it helps the Lakers' bigs was shown in one sequence during which Sessions blew past his defender, forced Enes Kanter to help, and gave Bynum the ball right under the rim for an easy dunk. And as this is with only one practice and two games under his belt, we can only expect it to get better, people.
  • Andrew Bynum -- Bynum's absurd dominance on the offensive end against Utah would have been much more noteworthy if he wasn't sliced and diced on the other end by Enes Kanter, who got Bynum in the air time and time again with simple pump fakes. It is to his credit that he has taken to his expanded offensive role with such aplomb and effectiveness, but he still needs to maintain defensive discipline on the other end. Bynum would benefit if he took a leaf out of Tim Duncan's book, as one of the Big Fundamental's better aspects is his refusal to get out of position and then going to his tiptoes to block shots with his length. With Bynum's insane length, he doesn't need to jump very high to bother shots either, and it would help him quite a bit in straight-up post defense. Altogether though, Bynum has strung together a pretty solid March, averaging 24 points on 65.7% shooting, and as his free throw line jumper on Sunday showed, he still has room to grow.
  • Matt Barnes -- As noted before, Sessions' arrival has done wonders for Barnes' production, as more often than not, he is rewarded for his manic energy with easy buckets. And when he isn't scoring himself, he invariably is creating opportunities for others on fast breaks and cuts with nice extra passes when the defense adjusts to him. As a result, Barnes is setting a career high in PER (15.18), which is rather shocking considering that he has played in run-and-gun systems perfectly suited for his skill set in Golden State and Phoenix. As Metta World Peace might be out a game or two with hip bursitis, we will possibly see Barnes' skills in greater deal, especially if Sessions' role expands more.
  • Honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol, who has been running under the radar recently as Bynum has clearly become the second option (or option 1B, if you prefer) on offense. There hasn't been a post deadline renaissance that many prognosticators predicted would happen when his fears were eased, but he has seemingly adapted to his role as a third wheel, nailing midrange shots, getting the offense moving, and feeding Bynum in post position. Gasol is another player who should be benefited by Sessions, as Pau's proclivity for slipping into open spaces for jumpers and on cuts should be rewarded by Sessions' court vision.
Burden
  • Kobe Bryant -- The weird thing about evaluating Kobe's game against Utah was that nearly all of his shots were ones that we want him to take. For the most part, they were within the offense, from his favored spots, and would have resulted in a 12/20 line on a more regular night. On the other side of the court, however, Kobe all but took out a matador's cape and yelled "Ole" as opposing two guards walked right past him from the perimeter, on backdoor cuts, and on rebounds. For as many excuses as we can make for Kobe's offensive game, his defensive game is just as inexcusable. There's a big difference between "saving your energy for offense" and "not caring and actively hurting your team." Kobe still shows his All-Defense credentials from time to time, especially pressuring players off the ball, but like last year, it is increasingly difficult to defend him earning a spot on the All-Defense squad over much more deserving candidates. A modicum of effort on Kobe's part is all that we ask, but that is a far cry from what he displayed against Utah.
  • Steve Blake -- As with Kobe, looking at Blake's problems is odd because they shouldn't be a problem. Brown has inserted Blake plenty of times with the starters, especially in crunch time, to great effect and in recognition of his superior production over Derek Fisher. Against Utah, he seemingly reverted to '10-'11 Blake: overly tentative to take shots and too deferential to his teammates. It is a role reversal from the one Blake had with the bench unit, during which he was used to pushing the pace, hitting Barnes on cuts, and passing to other shooters rather than simply looking for whomever of the big three was posting up. Regardless, Blake's play has only fueled the notion that Sessions deserves more minutes, although we certainly need a larger sample size before saying that Blake is truly uncomfortable with his new role.
  • Andrew Goudelock -- The sharp-shooting, hyper-confident player with swag that started the season has seemingly hit the rookie wall, as Goudelock's effectiveness has declined drastically recently. He still nails his nice teardrop floater, but he has been far less able to nail shots from outside. Some rookies react better to defenses adjusting to them, and that clearly is something that Goudelock will have to deal with. To his credit, he has performed admirably for a rookie in a shortened season with a limited training camp and almost no practices, and we should expect him to perform better after a summer of training and skill workouts, but right now, he is benefiting the team less and less. If there is any addition to the team to fill the fifteenth roster spot, bet on it being a two guard to replace Goudelock's meager production.
  • (Dis)honorable mention goes to the mediocre defense against Utah, which extended beyond Bynum's and Kobe's lapses. We can forgive lapses from time to time, but with the playoffs coming up, it would behoove the Lakers to start tightening the screws on that end. One way to start in that regard would be giving new acquisition Jordan Hill some more minutes, as Josh McRoberts looked terribly outmatched against Enes Kanter, and Hill's size, length, and energy would be a benefit on that end.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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