April 9, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (right) and power forward Pau Gasol (left) stand for a timeout during the first quarter against the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena. The Lakers defeated the Hornets 93-91. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE
Playing without your top option is usually a test of not only your team's depth, but the players' trust in the system the coach has created for them. Naturally, in a compressed season, such comparisons are difficult, but two years ago, the Lakers found themselves in a similar predicament with Kobe Bryant out of the lineup, and hardly appeared to lose a step. Of course, Lamar Odom was present, as was a bench that was markedly better than this one, but either way, it is fairly clear that this bunch still has a ways to go before championship contention becomes a reasonable expectation. One could say that they are really dogging it in non-marquee games, as this team has been prone to do in the past and the level of effort against say Phoenix on a back-to-back can't really be compared against the Clippers at home, a game that featured some of the best execution we've seen for a while. Still, sans Kobe, the team has had trouble executing on both ends, emphasizing not only the top heavy nature of the roster but also perhaps a greater problem with the system as a whole.
- Pau Gasol -- No player has better stepped up his game with Kobe out and Pau has shown the synergy he has with the rest of the roster, especially Sessions, with whom he works exceptionally well as a release valve on his drives and has a pick-and-pop partner. His post game still only intermittently shows up from time to time and he will miss some awfully easy hooks near the basket, but his amazingly accurate midrange game has been a huge boon to the Lakers' offense, as it has been all season. One wishes the Lakers would utilize Pau more as a distributor, notably for Bynum, who has had trouble creating offense due to increased double teams and a sudden unwillingness among the referees to blow the whistle. The utter disappearance of the pick-and-roll sets on the wing in which Pau receives the ball and tosses a lob to Drew are disconcerting, as are the 4-5 pick-and-roll sets that accomplish much of the same thing, but that owes itself to coaching more than anything. Still, given the likelihood that Pau will be shipped off in the offseason, he's doing an awfully good job assuaging the fears of any team who doesn't think that he can't be a primary contributor for them.
- Ramon Sessions -- Sessions has slowed down slightly from a production standpoint, but that was to be expected as teams adapted to the Lakers' new offensive attack and he's still a very effective player on the court. When you average 16.0 points per game on 50.8% shooting along with 8.3 assists and five rebounds a game in the month of April despite playing six games in nine days with a bum shoulder, you are doing pretty well for yourself. One wishes that he would be even more assertive in attacking the rim with Kobe out, but again, it is hard to complain with his production, although his increased willingness lately to take long twos off the dribble should be stamped out unless he has a significant amount of space and can set his feet for the shot. Mike Brown's baffling unwillingness to match him on two guards when the backups come in is another puzzling decision given that is what Sessions has done in his career with Daniel Gibson in Cleveland and Luke Ridnour in Minnesota, and Sessions retains a Shannon Brown-esque tendency to go under screens, but altogether, the loss of Kobe has not impaired him at all.
- Metta World Peace -- Perhaps the most endearing development from a long-term perspective was MWP picking up the slack recently, especially with Kobe out, as he became a bona fide offensive threat against Houston and Phoenix. The nutty long twos off the dribble are aggravating, but in general, MWP is conducting the offense well and not making a lot of mistakes out there. He has become especially adept at running baseline when the ball is on a post-up and sealing his man in the deep post for an easy bucket. His defensive focus wanes whenever he lacks a premier scorer to lock down, as it has in the past, but he remains one of the few disruptive defenders on the team and given the Lakers' utter inability to force turnovers, it would be hugely beneficial if he used his insanely quick hands to attack ballhandlers more.
- Honorable mention goes to Devin Ebanks, who did an admirable job filling in for Kobe after sitting practically the entire season as a victim of Brown's lineup adjustments. His outside shot has not availed him recently, although he did flash a very good midrange jumper to start the season, but he has looked very much like another version of Matt Barnes by attacking the rim on cuts and aggressively getting to the boards. Given that his length allowed him to be a serviceable defender, there really is no reason for him not to become a regular part of the rotation once Kobe returns and in light of the ridiculous minute totals that Kobe has accrued this season, why he has been sitting is another question altogether.
- Steve Blake -- Why he has been playing boggles the imagination. It seems as if it has been an age since we yearned for Blake's presence due to Derek Fisher starting in front of him, but now that we have a very competent point guard in Sessions, Blake's shortcomings are becoming all too visible. He is not a threat on penetration, lacks confidence to shoot open threes, and in general, his only real contribution on the court is to throw entry passes to Gasol and Bynum. This is further accentuated by his utterly dismal defense, as backup point guards have seemingly scored on will against him. He also appears to have adopted Fisher's maddening tendency to help off his man against a post threat when he is not needed, and again, Brown's inexplicable decision to match him against two guards when Sessions is on the court makes absolutely no sense at all. His solid finish in the New Orleans game notwithstanding, there is precious little reason for him to be playing over Andrew Goudelock, and as Ebanks has shown, the young players have something to provide on the roster.
- Mike Brown -- It has become untenable. Yours truly was a strong Mike Brown defender from the time of his hiring through most of the season, but the combined weight of all his foibles have broken that sentiment. Inconsistent lineups, an unwillingness to go with what is most effective on offense, and a toothless defense despite his supposed wizardry at that end have sapped a good deal of the optimism one can have about Brown. While switching between say Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts is less of a problem, his management of the backcourt situation has been simply awful. Goudelock sitting in lieu of Blake has been the most prominent issue, especially when Brown has sat players in the past for far better performances than the ones Blake has recently graced us with, and his "explanation" for Goudelock not playing due to his defensive troubles and lack of size loses all credibility given Blake's putrid defensive showing. As previously mentioned, Ebanks coming in and performing well despite a long layoff brings one to wonder why exactly Kobe was playing 38 minutes a game, and Brown's statement that he will not play when Kobe returns is unbelievably aggravating. All of this, moreover, is further aggravated by his inability to match players with those they are most effective with, such as Sessions with Barnes and Pau to maximize the efficacy of his pick-and-roll and drive game and limiting Blake's minutes -- should he play at all -- to being with Bynum so he can be limited to throwing entry passes. The fact that the box score at the half of the New Orleans game had Blake playing more minutes than Sessions was the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. Bring on Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy, or any number of coaches who would like to be coaching the purple and gold. Brown certainly isn't the one I want at the helm.
- Andrew Bynum -- Bynum's problem revolve primarily around the fact that the refs have seen fit to forget that they have whistles in their mouths and allow defenses to pound the bejeezus out of Bynum in the low post. On one hand, he has every right to be frustrated, notably after the Clippers game during which the entirety of the Clippers' frontcourt could do nothing but foul him and that has been the modus operandi of every defense since. The flip side is that he has to adjust regardless and he made steps towards doing that against New Orleans by being more willing to utilize his re-post option, which invariably gets him better position in spite of whatever the defense is trying to do. Tiredness has no doubt played a factor in Bynum slowing down slightly, as he has plowed through whatever defenses have thrown at him in the past, but again, there are still things he can do to compensate for that. On the other end, Bynum has picked up his effort in rebounding, and while his help is still slow, he is doing a better job in straight-up matchups and on switches. Once Kobe returns, the floor should open up significantly for Bynum again, and we can go back to his routine dominance of opposing post defenders.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy, both of whom have been rather underwhelming on the court lately. To his credit, McRoberts has been rebounding well, but his offense is so anemic that he ends up being a negative regardless. As for Murphy, his unwillingness to shoot is perhaps his most aggravating attribute, especially since that is his sole utility on the court. If Jordan Hill was healthy, he easily should be taking minutes away from both, but given that Brown failed to play him at all since his arrival, one can hardly have that much hope.
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