LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: Metta World Peace #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers leaves the court after being ejected for hitting James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on April 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 114-106 in double overtime. 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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Prior to his maniacal turn in Sunday's contest against the OKC Thunder, Metta World Peace had been providing the Los Angeles Lakers with a dynamic force over the past weeks. His play in the month of April far surpassed what he provided at any other point during the season. Now, the Lakers will be without their poorly named and troubled behemoth for the next seven games, the majority of which will be lost in the playoffs. How will the Lakers be able to cope with his absence?
It really shouldn't be too big of a problem. Metta is a small forward, and small forward happens to be the deepest position on the roster. We shouldn't confuse depth with excellence, mind you. Actually, in this case it is the exact opposite. According to 82games.com, only the point guard position has been producing less than the small forward position, and with the addition of Ramon Sessions, I think it's safe to say that may no longer be the case in terms of expected production in the playoffs. But the Lakers started the season with 5 small forwards, and while two (really, really bad) forwards have been jettisoned, the Lakers still have two guys to play the position in Metta's absence.
The first guy is Matt Barnes, and Matt Barnes is not a bad guy to have as the primary player at small forward. The man as seemingly endless reserves of energy, rebounds extremely well for his position (especially on the offensive glass) and cuts constantly. Other than the two Lakers giants, I would be surprised if anybody on the team gets as many easy baskets as Matt Barnes does. He's nursing a sprained ankle which will hold him out of Thursday's game, but I don't think its significant enough to affect him in the postseason.
On the season, Barnes has produced far more on the offensive end than Metta World Peace has, although Metta's production over the past month has rendered the "on the season" argument somewhat moot. Still, Barnes has increased his contributions as of late almost as much as MWP. After shooting terrible for the first three months of the season, Barnes connection rate from distance has hovered around 37-38% in March and April, and enhanced spacing for the starting 5 would be a welcome addition. His cutting also helps the offensive flow significantly, punishing his man for any attempts to double the Lakers ballhandler. Defensively, Barnes is a downgrade from Metta (especially the more inspired, energetic version of MWP that has been around lately) but Barnes is an able and scrappy defender.
The other man who will be sopping up minutes in MWP's absence is a bit of an enigma. Devin Ebanks was actually the starter at the beginning of the season, and seemed to play alright for the four games he was trusted with that position. Then, he was suddenly the odd man out, finding himself so far down the depth chart that he spent some time with the NBDL D-Fenders and picked quite a few DNP-CDs. Both MWP and Barnes have more chops than Ebanks, so its not surprising that those two would gobble up most of the minutes at the 3, but Ebanks' play hardly seemed deserving of such a precipitous drop in playing time.
To make matters more confusing, when Kobe Bryant took his absence in dealing with his injured shin, Coach Mike Brown brought Ebanks out of nowhere to be the starting shooting guard, and Ebanks again performed well enough to justify the decision. Then, after MWP's ejection, Ebanks was called on for the entire 4th quarter and both overtimes to guard Kevin Durant as the Lakers mounted their comeback and his defense against Durant was inspired. Durant was ready to help; KD's stroke was not to the level we've come to expect from him. But any time you hold Durant to 5-17 shooting (as Ebanks did in the 4th and OTs on Sunday), you've done something pretty darned great. Ebanks is an unknown, both because he hasn't played very much this year (or ever) and because even when he's seemingly played well when asked to, he still hasn't gotten much trust from the coaching staff. But, if the past couple weeks, Sunday especially, is any indication, Ebanks can fill in as spot duty just fine. I wouldn't even be surprised if Brown stared Ebanks over Barnes, just because coach really seems to prefer Barnes runs with the 2nd unit.
The major consequence of MWP's absence, of course, is that he will miss most, and probably all, of the Lakers 1st round playoff series. Metta would only be available in a hypothetical game 7. If the Lakers take care of business any sooner than that, MWP would miss the entire first round. If the Lakers get taken out in six games or less, Metta's season will be over. So how does MWP's absence hurt the Lakers in a matchup against prospective opponents? The Lakers will face either the Dallas Mavericks or the Denver Nuggets in the 1st round, and to be honest, Metta's impact against either opponent is somewhat limited. First of all, neither Denver or Dallas have that elite perimeter scorer for which Metta is designed, the Kevin Durant or LeBron James type. Denver's wing, Danilo Gallinari, is plenty talented, but Barnes and Ebanks should be just fine checking him. In fact, against Denver's run and gun attack, Barnes and Ebanks might be slightly more effective than Metta would have been, because they are both higher energy players with slightly better quickness.
Dallas is a different story, but with the same overall feeling that Metta's absence will be more heard than felt. The Mavericks toss out Shawn Marion as their starting SF, and Marion is big enough and able enough to be able to potentially punish Barnes and Ebank in the post, though that strategy isn't necessarily one the Mavericks use on a regular basis, preferring to run most of their offense through the pick and roll and Dirk Nowitzki. Where Metta's absence might hurt the Lakers the most is on Nowitzki himself. Metta did not guard Nowitzki much in the regular season, and he's too short to handle Dirk regularly, but losing him as a defensive option against Dirk when Pau Gasol isn't available definitely gives the Lakers one less defensive option against a guy you want to be able to throw the book at. Still, its hard to imagine that Metta's absence will be the difference maker.
Bottom line, the Lakers have plenty of depth and, unless Ebanks retreats on the progress he's shown in limited minutes the past few weeks, decent ability at the small forward position even with MWP out, and neither opponent the Lakers might face in the first round has the type of player who MWP is perfectly suited to attack. The Lakers could very well find themselves at home after the first round of the playoffs, especially if they show the wrong habits in the postseason, but MWP's presence, or lack thereof, is unlikely to be the reason why the Lakers do or don't advance.
Which brings us to the real looming question of this whole ordeal (aside from the obvious ones like "Can MWP control himself" and "Will James Harden be OK"): Which Metta World Peace will be there when the man is able to rejoin his team on the court? Will it be the sometimes dominant force that has been on display in the month of April, or the more reserved, more disappointing player that meandered through the rest of the season? If MWP comes back in the same form he's been in recent weeks, but without any more trips down "crazy" road, the Lakers as a team should be able to survive his suspension without any major effect on their title hopes. But, if either because of a lack of real time basketball, or because he needs to put that side of himself away to make sure there will be no more behavioral problems, then the Lakers will be significantly weakened by the loss of MWP, because it will last far longer than the seven games he won't be on the court.