Beast or Burden: Answering the Call

Apr 13, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (right) talks with forward Metta World Peace (15) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

When playing without your best player, a team either demonstrates the strength of its depth and commitment to the coach's system by performing well or generally performs poorly due to a lack of the aforementioned items. If you had told me ten days ago that the Lakers would be 4-1 without Kobe Bryant, including three consecutive wins against Western conference playoff teams, yours truly would have been incredulous. The bench had been a glaring weakness on the team and even after the acquisition of Ramon Sessions, the loss of Kobe appeared to constitute a huge neutering of the Lakers' perimeter attack. Mike Brown, moreover, had demonstrated a tenuous ability to handle rotations and there were apparent flaws in his offensive and defensive strategies. Well, a week and a half later, the Lakers have received contributions from areas many least expected it to come from, and altogether, one could safely argue that the team has risen to the occasion. Should the Lakers' role players continue this high level of play when Kobe returns, Laker fans can have much greater hopes for the team's prospects during the playoffs.

Beast

  • Metta World Peace -- No player has bucked the level of expectations like MWP has. For most the season and even previous ones, consistent performances from MWP were considered minor miracles. Yet here he is in the month of April averaging 14.9 points per game on 49% shooting. He has regained confidence in his jumper (35.7% from beyond the arc), is nailing fadeaway shots over his man on post-ups with gusto, and even finishing at the rim in transition (!). His scintillating 26 points against San Antonio were almost as much of a sight as Andrew Bynum's 30 rebounds. At the other end, he has also seemingly regained some of his defensive presence, as his lighting quick hands will filch the ball away from an offensive defender a few times a game nowadays. It has become a tired saying to point out the Lakers' weakness at the small forward position, particularly in light of the huge improvement at the point with Sessions' arrival, were the most pressing problem on the team, but MWP's return to his old form, whether due to his apparent healing from a long-standing injury or not, has greatly alleviated those concerns.
  • Andrew Bynum -- Without Kobe, Bynum has been forced to suffer through increased double teams -- and as regularly mentioned, an increased willingness by the referees to consider him the next coming of Shaq and give wide latitude to defenders in fouling the crap out of him -- and his percentages have suffered as a result, but these days have also seen the return of much of the defensive gusto that characterized his surge following the All-Star break last year. He is attacking the boards much more aggressively, averaging 12.6 rebounds this month, and becoming a greater deterrent in the lane to penetration. He weirdly is also the only big on the team who has no fear in switching onto players off the pick-and-roll, a newly aggravating habit the defense has picked up, as his huge stature and long arms have enabled him to play off his man while still contesting jumpers well. His 30 rebound performance noted above was naturally his most noticeable feat of late, but the general resurgence of his play on defense has to be the most endearing aspect of his recent play. His offensive game will have its own resurgence once Kobe returns and defenses are forced to respect him on the perimeter rather than his current replacement in Devin Ebanks.
  • Matt Barnes -- Barnes has always been relatively solid this year as the bench's most consistent performer, but along with MWP, he has performed especially well in Kobe's absence. His 24 point, 10 rebound line against Denver was likely his most impressive game in a Lakers uniform and he followed that up by nearly notching a triple double against Dallas. You have to wonder whether his recent three point shooting (41.4% in April) is a well-timed fluke or just a result of receiving the ball in rhythm better from a real point guard in Sessions, but it certainly has provided a well-needed element to the Lakers' perimeter attack. As the Dallas game indicates, Barnes simply impacts every area of the floor when he is out there, from going after boards to making smart passes on offense. He even did an excellent job when switched onto Dirk Nowitzki on the defensive end, hearkening back to his days in Golden State and Dallas when he was called upon to play as a smallball four.
  • Honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol, whose deft passing and overall game has, along with MWP's and Barnes' uptake in productivity, helped to withstand the loss of Kobe on offense. He continues to be Sessions' best partner on the pick-and-roll because of his ability to stretch the floor -- although the two clutch threes he nailed in overtime against Dallas were a pleasant surprise -- and his affinity for nailing cutters and shooters from the high post has greatly benefited players like Ebanks. The perplexing disappearance of his hook shot arsenal around the basket remains disconcerting, especially given the additional room in the post to operate with Kobe gone, but his impact in other areas have more than compensated.
Burden
  • Steve Blake -- Blake has actually been relatively decent by his standards recently, cracking double digits in points for the first time since February, and his running of the offense has become much smoother. His defense has also improved, seemingly coinciding with Hubie Brown's labeling of him as a "feisty" defender. Still, he continues to take an inordinate amount of minutes from Sessions, he will give up a shockingly bad turnover or two every game, and he must have the most ineffectual shot contests in basketball, as even picture perfect defense appears to do little to deter his man from nailing his attempt regardless. In addition, Blake's maddening refusal to take open threes has popped up from time to time, and given his respectable 38.1% mark from downtown this month, it would behoove him to increase his overall utility by taking more.
  • Josh McRoberts -- McRoberts' problem is not necessarily that he is performing all that badly, but rather that he isn't having that much of an impact. He will clean up the boards, play decent defense, make a spectacular dunk or two, and throw some really nifty passes, but when he's not cutting to the rim or looking for boards, he simply appears very limited. For a guy who flashed a decent 40% mark on long twos last year with Indiana, he has shown basically no range beyond the basket, which is unfortunate considering his good ballhandling abilities and the possible threat of a face-up game. As Brown appears to have designated McRoberts as the primary frontcourt backup in an eight man rotation. one would hope that he could show more than what he has right now.
  • Devin Ebanks -- Like Blake and McRoberts, Ebanks has generally acquitted himself well after being plucked from the end of the bench into the starting lineup. For a guy who has barely played since December, he provided energy, got after the boards and at least showed that he is deserving of future development. On defense in particular, despite a lot of missteps one could attribute to simply not having enough playing time to get used to the system, he makes things happen because of his long seven foot wingspan, much like doppelganger Trevor Ariza did with his. These mistakes are prominent enough that Ebanks isn't getting a lot of playing time by any measure, but during his 24.4 minutes per game, he certainly isn't an overly large liability. The only real quibble has been his inability to make threes, especially on open ones from the corner that the offense creates, something surprising given his good shooting on long twos to start the year.
  • No (dis)honorable mention this time around, although Sessions might have earned it for a pair of poor -- by his standards at any rate -- performances against San Antonio and Denver before he basically carried the Lakers in the stretch against Dallas on Sunday.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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