LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 17: Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts a shot on Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on April 17, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
With three games left in the season, two against the West's top seeds, one would be tempted to consider this a barometer of where the Lakers are on the verge of the playoffs, but we likely will be contented with a confirmation that a certain Kobe Bryant is ready to lead this team to the promised land. Kobe's return forces an adjustment in a dynamic that has resulted in various Laker role players raising their games in order to keep the team above water, as some beautiful sequences of inside-out play have kept the offensive flowing well. Will Kobe disturb this? Not really as long as he commits to being the off ball threat that he started to become since the team dealt for Ramon Sessions. With Kobe in motion, it becomes harder to devote as much attention to the Lakers' post players, driving and passing lanes suddenly become open, and in general, everything functions more smoothly. Make no doubt: the Lakers are a supremely better squad with Kobe in the mix, but in turn, that requires both Kobe and to the team to accept what is most effective and how Kobe can best integrate into what is starting to look like a very dangerous playoff team.
- Pau Gasol -- The biggest change for Gasol will simply be a lack of touches. Moving Kobe back into the lineup means that Pau is back to being the third or even fourth option on a lot of possessions during which he will mostly be shooting jumpers from the high post, throwing some passes around to cutters and shooters, and getting a post-up once in a while. There's little chance that could replicate his stellar triple double against Golden State, for instance, although the passing acumen he demonstrated will assuredly continue to be useful. He definitely is the best pick-and-roll partner for either Kobe or Sessions on the team and is excellent at acting as a release valve on post-ups or penetration, things that will become more prevalent with Kobe taking more attention from opposing defenses. One also hopes that the team revives the Kobe-Gasol-Bynum connections -- Kobe/Gasol on the 2-4 pick-and-roll, Kobe passes to Gasol, who pops out and throws the alley-oop pass Bynum after Bynum's defender has to move over to cover a suddenly open Pau -- that worked so well in the past. In all, Pau will act much more as the glue guy between the Lakers' perimeter and post players and it is important for him to still keep the aggression level high.
- Andrew Bynum -- Bynum is likely just thankful that the heavy doubles he has constantly faced since Kobe went out are likely going to end very quickly. It is one thing to bring an additional defender when Devin Ebanks is in motion and quite another to leave Kobe Bryant unmolested in the heart of your defense. Against single coverage, Bynum consistently dominates and a soft double usually amounts to largely the same thing because of Bynum's size, length and ability to use both hands in his post arsenal. Kobe coming back certainly does not mean that Bynum gets a free pass from using his re-post option consistently, something that has been up and down recently, but altogether, things should be much easier for Bynum now that he is complemented by a real perimeter threat. On the other end, Bynum simply has to maintain much of the same intensity that has characterized his recent defense, especially with the team on the verge of the playoffs.
- Metta World Peace -- As Dex noted the other day, the player that might face the greatest adjustment is MWP, whose presence on offense is all but certain to diminish with Kobe taking back a lion's share of the possessions. That noted, MWP's resurgence has been as much about the fact that he looks very spry on the court as it as been his greater volume of shots. So long as he continues to get good deep post position, distribute the ball well from the interior, and show good touch on his jumper, he certainly can continue to succeed even with a much smaller usage rate. As with Gasol, it would be a disservice to reduce MWP to solely a spot up shooter on the wing when Kobe returns, as it simply is not the best way to make use of his resurgent offensive game. With four players in the starting lineup capable of posting up successfully and passing from that position, it would serve the Lakers well to maximize that advantage.
- Honorable mention should go to Matt Barnes, who has performed ably as always, but with Kobe likely consigning him to an end-of-the-bench role, let us give a shout out to Devin Ebanks, who did good work in Kobe's absence. Ebanks was in many ways another version of Barnes, attacking the offensive glass, cutting well to the rim -- he and Pau had particularly good synergy in this aspect -- and doing good work on defense. The playoffs will almost certainly mean that he never plays because of the shortened rotations and heavier minutes for the starters, but he looks like a nice piece Mitch Kupchak can keep around for the future.
- Steve Blake -- About the only good thing we can say here is that having Kobe back means that Blake will handle the ball less and be more of a spot up shooter, which is about the sole positive thing Blake is bringing on the court nowadays. It also limits the amount of time Blake plays at the two with Sessions on the court, definitely not one of Mike Brown's more inspired decisions. You even have to question whether Blake is going to get more than a 12-15 minute backup role in the playoffs. Sessions and Kobe both should play at least 38-40 minutes depending on how the games go, and giving Matt Barnes the backup two guard minutes seems like an astute decision given that his role would be downsized otherwise. Given MWP's resurgence, moreover, Blake has moved to the forefront in any amnesty discussions, especially given that Sessions appears destined for a decent payday from the Lakers in the offseason.
- Ramon Sessions -- Sessions has slipped from the lofty heights he began his Laker tenure with, as his superb performance against Dallas notwithstanding, he has looked somewhat pensive on the floor recently. With Kobe's return, however, the 1-2 pick-and-roll should also find its way back into the Lakers' playbook, and much of the burden to create on the perimeter should be lifted from Sessions' shoulders. This should allow Sessions to penetrate with greater freedom and have much more easy spot-up opportunities from behind the line. All too often Sessions had to put up a contested long two or similar off the dribble to salvage possessions, and that simply will not be necessary with Kobe as his backcourt partner, whether due to the better offensive flow or the fact that Kobe tends to take those kinds of bailout shots. Either way, this will be the first visit to the postseason for Sessions in his career after toiling for bottom feeders in Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Cleveland, so he has a lot to play for.
- Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy -- As noted above with Blake, the playoffs mean that neither will be in the game all that much and given how well MWP and Barnes have played, their playing time might be further decreased in favor of having MWP or Barnes as smallball fours. While it certainly cannot be said that Lamar Odom's trade was overly harmful to the Lakers this season due to Odom's struggles in Dallas, the back end of the frontcourt rotation has to be considered a priority going into this offseason. McRoberts has definitely been the better of the two, but that's faint praise for a player who has declined so drastically from his Indiana days -- 16.08 PER to 10.30, 60.8 TS% to 50.0%. It won't hurt the Lakers in the playoffs, but what was once a luxury for the team with Odom has turned into quite the liability.