March 29, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17), forward Metta World Peace (15), guard Kobe Bryant (24), forward Pau Gasol (16), head coach Mike Brown and point guard Ramon Sessions (7) talk during a time out in the first half of the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Alas, the Lakers were one win away from nailing my prediction made in December for a 42-24 season, and likely would have if Kobe Bryant had decided to shoot for the scoring title. This twist fits well, however, with a season that has had nothing but dramatic ups and downs for a team that has been in flux ever since the aborted Chris Paul trade. The true worth of this season will only be ascertained in the coming weeks, but at least right now, we can look at how how the players dealt with the shortened season, surpassed our expectations, or miserably failed to reach them. A full evaluation is difficult because of the limited practice time, a lack of a real training camp, and in-season trade that changed how the team approaches the offense, but the core, for the most part, remained consistent throughout the season and we certainly have enough of a sample size with which to analyze them. Considering all the aforementioned issues, it would be hard to label this season a disappointment, especially since it came so close with my expectations, but this is still a very, very good core that certainly could have performed better than this. We can only hope that they show in the playoffs that such potential existed in the first place.
- Andrew Bynum -- Most of that optimism lies with Bynum, who surpassed expectations this year despite a five point uptick in his usage rate and an expectation that he was going to be a big contributor night in and night out. He seemingly broke out new post moves every other week, dominated some of the best post defenders the league has to offer, and proved that he was a worthy second to Dwight Howard in the league's center rankings. He even attempted to match Howard in the lack of maturity category, although Howard appears to be ahead by virtue of his trade fiasco and backstabbing his coach. Bynum has certainly been petulant occasionally this season and his effort has come and gone, but for the most part, no one can doubt that he has secured a firm hold on the second banana status on the team. In terms of advanced statistics, he finally surpassed his breakout 2007-08 season, and holds the top mark on the team with a 23 PER. Assuming Bynum is dialed in for the playoffs, that is a mark he easily could blow past.
- Kobe Bryant -- Kobe continues to amaze with his endurance and longevity. Despite playing a ridiculous amount of minutes this season, dealing with a wrist injury that would have sidelined lesser men, and having to carry a team that looked toothless outside of its top options on most nights, he kept plugging on and came within a hair's breadth of claiming his third scoring title even though he was a decade older than his closest competitor in Kevin Durant. In that time, he had to contend with dramatic changes in his role as the season progressed. With his bad handle due to the wrist injury, he started to play more off the ball and get shots off curls. After it healed, Bynum's emergence required him to adjust to his presence, culminating in the much-discussed deferring to Bynum during crunch time against the Celtics. Finally, the trade for Ramon Sessions forced Kobe into a role he has not filled for most of his career as a pure two guard operating off the ball. He even started setting picks for Sessions in what has been a very effective 1-2 pick-and-roll that no doubt will continue to be used during the playoffs. Altogether, Kobe has continued, as he always has, to be one of the team's mainstays and of all the players on this squad, his legacy is the one most tied to this playoff run.
- Matt Barnes -- No player has been as consistent in his designated role than Barnes has all season. He started the year out of the rotation due to Mike Brown's surprising decision to begin the year with Devin Ebanks as his starter and not only regained his playing time, but showed that he was the best member of what has otherwise been a dismal bench unit. Play after play, he was seemingly the only person on the floor who understood the concept of moving off the ball, and his relentless assault of the offensive boards kept countless plays alive during the season. The end result was a career best in PER (15.55) and hell of a lot of appreciation for what is looking like a particularly inspired pickup in the 2010 offseason. He made us believe for a few months that Steve Blake was a real point guard due to the synergy the two had with each other and then revealed that it probably had to do more with his own qualities when he did the same thing with Ramon Sessions. Every good playoff team has always had good bench contributors and we can safely say that Barnes will play that role for the Lakers this year.
- Honorable mention to Pau Gasol, who has had to deal with a hugely changed role due to Bynum becoming the primary post option. Restricted to the high post, Pau hit long two after long two as the release valve from the post and eventually as Ramon Sessions' primary pick-and-roll partner. Arguably the most effective play he was involved in was the 2-4-5 sequence during which Pau would throw a lob to Bynum following a pass from Kobe off pick-and-roll action, a nice symbol for how he had been subordinated in the Lakers' offensive system. Make no doubt though: even though Pau's stats suffered -- a 20.51 PER, the lowest since his rookie season (19.5), which should tell you how ridiculously good Pau has been for his career -- he has played an integral role on the team as a integral glue guy capable of playing several different roles as a scorer, distributor, defender and rebounder, and for the most part, he did well in all those areas. And this was all done with Pau constantly being in trade rumors, something that he handled with professionalism, quite unlike a certain other forward who has done quite poorly in Dallas this season.
- Steve Blake -- For a few months, Blake had us convinced that he was a halfway serviceable point guard who could consistently run the more conventional offense that Brown instituted. Perhaps it was the fact he was being compared to Derek Fisher or the weight of all those years of bad point guard play making us search for any possible positives, but Blake definitely looked terrible after Sessions arrived. Suddenly his passes were tentative, his handle was questionable, and he was passing up shots in his ever-aggravating show of passiveness. He also must have the most ineffective shot contests in the league, as backup guards consistently burned him, especially after Brown made the less-than-inspired decision to have him check backup two guards. Now, Blake has had some nice games this year, the latest being his performance against Oklahoma City in which he hit quite a few timely threes to help the Lakers back into the game. Luckily for the team, that likely will be his role in the playoffs as Sessions and Kobe will handle the grand majority of the ballhandling responsibilities while Blake spots up. For the most part, however, any minutes he plays will be those during which Sessions and Kobe are not on the floor, and no doubt we will be dreading most of them.
- Metta World Peace -- Even if we ignore elbow-gate, MWP's stellar finish to the season does not excuse the fact that he was a painfully bad player for most of the season. He couldn't make a three, his lateral quickness was shot, and he wasn't making plays consistently on defense. The last part was particularly troubling since it was the only thing justifying his contract, and there was no real doubt that the amnesty axe was coming in the offseason. As such, it would have taken hell of a reversal to get us to change our minds, and MWP did that in April, scoring at a prodigious rate for his standards, knocking ball after ball loose with his lightning quick hands, and he was so spry that he was dunking in transition. All that came to an end with his vicious elbow on Harden, something so disappointing not only due to his stellar play, but how well he had behaved in L.A. despite being, well, Ron Artest. There is a very high bar for drama in the City of Angels and most issues and whatnot barely register on the radar of most fans so long as those players are showing their stuff on the court. This, however, crossed the line, especially since he will miss critical time in the playoffs, a time where he would be expected to shine.
- Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy -- Both of them were supposed to be our hedge against losing Lamar Odom. None of us expected them to replace his stellar Sixth Man of the Year numbers, but at least give the Lakers a solid frontcourt rotation. McRoberts in particular had high expectations as a player who had just come off a 16 PER season with Indiana and looked like a do-it-all utility frontcourt player. For the Lakers, he looked shockingly limited when he wasn't near the basket and despite some nice passing from the high post, he rarely had an impact on the court, something that no doubt compelled Brown to play Bynum and Gasol such high minutes this season. This also applies for Murphy, who was supposed to provide floor spacing, but had a Blake-esque aversion to shooting and was about as bad on defense as advertised. With the Lakers highly limited in how they can improve the roster through free agency, they basically struck out on all their acquisitions in Jason Kapono, McRoberts and Murphy, a black mark for a team that has had such poor depth recently. Given how well Jordan Hill acquitted himself when given minutes, it is doubtful that either of them see non-garbage time play and there is little doubt that this arrangement benefits the team as a whole.
- Dishonorable mention goes to Mike Brown, who no doubt has had to deal with an insanely difficult situation this year. He had no real training camp with which to implement new systems on both ends, including not having a real point guard to run his more conventional offense. Outside of Barnes, the bench was terrible, the aforementioned free agents all flopped badly, and the carousel rotation was, at least initially, a justified search for something feasible from what otherwise was a pile of garbage. Practically every player on the roster save Luke Walton got real playing time at some point during the season and to his credit, Brown was choosing his rotation based on what appeared to be a merit-based system. The flip side is that after Sessions arrived and proved without a doubt his superiority over Blake, the awkward rotations started to become a liability. Brown seemingly had great difficulty in matching up players that were most effective with one another and appeared to solve most things by throwing Kobe, Gasol and Bynum out there an inordinate amount of minutes, although that too is explainable given the faults of the rest of the roster. The biggest quibble, however, was that Brown was brought in to implement a soul-crushing defense that would keep the Lakers at the top of the league, but the team finished thirteenth in defensive efficiency, a rather damning statistic for a supposed defensive mind. All this noted, the real evaluation of Brown starts now, but one can be excused for having real reservations about the true extent of his ability.