The offseason renovation of the Lakers' roster by Mitch Kupchak had three parts to it. The attention of the outside world is focused on the two most visible parts - star point guard Steve Nash and new franchise center Dwight Howard - but the thinking Lakers' fan has realized all along that the third component, the revamped bench, could prove nearly as crucial. Aside from brief stretches that typically involved flukey-hot shooting by Shannon Brown, the bench has never been a team strength for the Lakers in the modern era. It's been good for supplying unintentional comedy (Ammo!) and the occasional cult fan favorite (Mbenga!) but its primary line of business has been blowing leads and forcing Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to play far more minutes than they should. In his downtime between landing future Hall of Famers, Kupchak deftly filled out the depth chart with good-looking acquisitions that have the Lakers, for the first time in a while, resembling a complete, well-rounded team.
Gone are forwards Matt Barnes, Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts. Arriving in town are shooting guard Jodie Meeks and swing forward Antawn Jamison. Jordan Hill was re-signed to be the primary big-man reserve. Devin Ebanks is still around and will get another shot to claim small-forward minutes. At the point Steve Blake and Darius Morris will fight to back up Nash. Chris Duhon and Earl Clark were snagged in the Howard trade. And Andrew Goudelock, Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre are milling about on nonguaranteed deals. There's an interesting mix of talent here. As always, the Lakers don't need their bench to be world-beaters. They just need guys who can fill discrete roles, soak up minutes and hold leads in garbage time.
Which of these reserves will be individually most critical to the Lakers this season? That's the question I put to this week's roundtable. Answers, analysis and talks of mozzarella sticks follow.
The most important bench player this season is Steve Blake. Or maybe Chris Duhon. The actual player doesn't matter, but the concept sure as hell does. The Lakers desperately need a point guard that can play quality minutes coming off of their bench, because for the first time in two decades, they have an elite point guard starting the game. An elite point guard who is 38 years old and has been able to stay at a super high level and avoid too many injuries because his minutes have been heavily regimented at 31 to 33 per game. The Lakers happen to have another superstar guard who recently had his minutes similarly regimented. Two seasons ago, under Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant's minutes dropped to less than 34 minutes per contest, and the result was a level of efficiency that rivaled his MVP caliber campaigns of 2008-2009. Then Mike Brown took over, the Lakers found themselves without a solid backup two guard, and Kobe was right back to playing nearly 39 minutes a contest. He was fourth in minutes played per game... in his 16th season in the league. Pau Gasol was similarly overused, second in the NBA in minutes played last season. He and Kobe were the only guys over 30 in the top 20 in minutes played, all as the games came faster than usual because of the lockout. The lesson in all these numbers? Mike Brown's not afraid of using his big guns for as long as he deems necessary. He does not appear to be a man who keeps one eye on the future.
Last year, the Lakers didn't have any depth. They didn't have a backup two guard at all. They didn't have any decent backup big men until Jordan Hill suddenly showed his usefulness in the playoffs. Now they have a decent backup two in Jodie Meeks, they have Hill back for a full season and training camp, and sixth man Antawn Jamison can deputize at the power forward spot as well. But their point guards are the same guy who was ineffective last year and a new guy whose sub-10 PER scores the last two seasons fit right in with a legacy of bad Lakers point guards in the post-Magic Johnson era. Steve Blake and Chris Duhon are the only guys standing between Steve Nash and the kind of minutes that will grind him into the ground come playoff time. Nash is the only guy on the entire team who MUST be regimented at all times. Blake, or Duhon, must give Mike Brown the confidence to allow them to play, so that Nash doesn't have to.
Over the last few years role players have come and gone for the Lakers. The likes of Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom immediately come to mind. During the three-year period that the Lakers advanced to the Finals the roster had clear cut roles for their bench players. What's changed the most for the Lakers (aside from Phil Jackson no longer coaching) over the last few years? The bench. The starting lineup has been close to identical over the last four or five seasons, but the results have varied for the worse these last two.
The Lakers front office has done a phenomenal job this offseason, and the bench being upgraded in almost every facet is the icing on the Howard/Nash cake. Jordan Hill will be a great big off the bench, and his ability to play both the power forward and center position will give Mike Brown flexibility with his minute allotments, which will be paramount while Dwight Howard rehabs from his back injury. Antawn Jamison gives the Lakers a scorer off the bench who already knows Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense, and at the veteran minimum is as low-risk as they come. Even adding Chris Duhon into the fold was a smart move considering how poorly Steve Blake has played in his time with the Lakers. But, in the end, Jodie Meeks playing minutes behind Kobe Bryant will be the ace up the Lakers' sleeve.
In the 2010-2011 season Kobe Bryant played 33.9 minutes per game as he was heavily monitored by Phil Jackson. At the time, Shannon Brown was playing behind Kobe and putting in 19.1 minutes per game. Last season Kobe averaged 38.5 minutes, and while Mike Brown received plenty of criticism in his handling of the Mamba's minutes, his options were severely limited. Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock and Steve Blake simply couldn't muster valuable playing time as the backup shooting guard. So, when faced with this problem, the option of keeping Kobe was the most painless way to keep the Lakers floating. This all changes with Meeks hopping on board as the three-point specialist off the bench. He's flirted with 40% from beyond the arc in his career already once (his career year was 39.7%), and that was without having a point guard like Steve Nash, who is a savant when it comes to hitting the open man with a well-placed pass. Then of course, there's Dwight Howard, who isn't allergic when it comes to passing out of the post (hey, I'm not naming any Bynums). And as heavily drummed upon in these parts, the Princeton offense relies on players who can spread the floor. The Lakers need to add the dimension of having a perimeter threat from deep, and Jodie Meeks can be the hero they not only deserve, but the hero they need as well.
Another fold to this is that if Meeks plays well as the backup shooting guard, a new magical door of a possibility can be opened: Kobe Bryant, the small forward. No, not on a permanent basis, as Kobe will have a hard time defending the elite small forwards in the league. But on a situational premise? Yeah, I can buy into that. Kobe is no stranger to slotting in at the small forward position, and a lineup of Howard-Gasol-Bryant-Meeks-Nash can be downright dirty if Meeks is the sharpshooter he has the potential to become. The Lakers did a whole lotta right this offseason, but the one piece that they definitely missed was finding a serviceable small forward to come in off the bench. Devin Ebanks has the position by default, but if that doesn't go well his minutes out on the court could severely hamper a team that has championship expectations. A solution to this? Bryant at the three, Meeks playing more minutes at the two.
Hill, Jamison, and the rest of the bench are all just the marinara dipping sauce, while Meeks is the mozzarella stick of the appetizing bench that has been popped into the oven by the Lakers' front office.
I'm picking Jodie Meeks as well. Good arguments can be made for three or four different guys, but I see Meeks as the linchpin. His three-point stroke directly addresses the Lakers' greatest weakness from the past couple seasons: disastrous outside shooting that dragged down the offense and led to countless opponent fast breaks. I'm hopeful Meeks will get plenty of time on the court with Nash and Howard, as he's precisely the kind of spot-up shooter that those two played alongside in Phoenix and Orlando. Meeks's shooting will punish opponents from doubling down on Howard or sagging into the lane to stop Nash. His yearlong presence will help keep Kobe fresh for the postseason. His signing might be the NBA's most underrated pickup of 2012.
The Great Mambino
After how spectacularly mediocre the bench was during the 2011-2012 season, it's hard to pinpoint the most valuable contributor out of the bunch. The Lakers' subs were some of the least productive players in the league last year. Thus, when examining any of Mike Brown's second unit, the canyon-like holes they are filling from last year's vacuum of basketball output make them all feel incredibly important.
However, the bench's MVP will be Jordan Hill. The biggest reason? Scarcity of position. Hill won't be the biggest contributor on offense; that's almost a certainty. Shooters like Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison will be scoring more often in an offense revolving around the inside presence of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, while even backup guards Steve Blake and Chris Duhon figure to get plenty of touches with Steve Nash limited to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 minutes per game. Hill is still raw offensively, and if he ever hit a 15-foot jumper I think I'd lose all feeling in my extremities.
However, Hill will face the unenviable task of being the first "true" big off the bench. Of course, prospective Sixth Man of the Year Antawn Jamison is slotted in as a power forward, but these days he mostly serves as a stretch offensive player. Hill currently is the only forward/center on the Lakers roster able to rebound and defend the rim efficiently with any type of substantive NBA experience. Unlike the backcourt rotation that is stocked with rotation players, the big man corps responsible for protecting the painted portion of the court is rather thin. Right now, we're looking at a Lakers frontcourt with an All-Star center coming off back surgery and a starting 32 year-old power forward who's quietly had problems with his hamstrings in recent seasons. To start the season, the team will either be without Howard or bringing him along slowly, in which case most of those minutes and perhaps the starting center job will go directly to Jordan Hill. The way I see it, the Lakers should keep Jordan with the starting unit as much as possible just so they can get used to an offense with a defensive pivot in the post. Starting a player like Antawn Jamison alongside Pau could make more sense offensively but is an entirely different look than Gasol and Howard.
Regardless, whenever Dwight returns from injury, he's still a player that's been in the top five in personal fouls four out of the last five seasons. Hill figures to play a lot of minutes whether Howard is healthy or not, especially with few reliable options behind him. Our sample size on the former Wildcat is small, but here's hoping that the stretch between the last few games of the season and the Denver series in which he averaged almost a double-double is the player we're going to get.
The caveats here? We're assuming that the production from Meeks, Blake and Duhon will be sufficient, at the very least. However, I don't think I'm alone in thinking that the trio could be an utter disaster behind Nash, which has nothing to do with everyone's seemingly inexplicable hate just at the sight of Chris Duhon (he just makes me... mad). If that's the case, then perhaps Meeks' or Jamison's presence will be even more important.
I think the most important bench player will be Antawn Jamison. I conveyed in a previous roundtable that my biggest concern offensively may be a lack of spacing, particularly when Gasol and Howard are both on the court together. On paper the frontline duo of Gasol and Howard is easily the best in the league, but so too were Gasol and Bynum. Unfortunately neither of them was capable of stepping behind the three point line and thus the opposition always had two big men near the paint. Here's an interesting fact: the Lakers' offense had an efficiency rating of 105.6 last year, but with the Lakers' three stars on the floor the offensive efficiency was only 104.8. However, when the Lakers removed one of the big men and replaced him with Troy Murphy the offensive improved. Murphy filled the role of floor spacer, making 41.8% of his three point attempts (second highest percentage of his career). Perhaps what is most surprising is that the Lakers' most potent combination offensively was the duo of Gasol and Murphy. Pairing a floor-spacing power forward with a center that can score and pass proved to be the most efficient combination.
The Lakers now possess two centers in Howard and Gasol who are both very capable scorers and passers. Pairing each of them with a floor-spacing power forward may produce a more efficient offense than the supremely talented duo. This is where Jamison will need to contribute. He has been a 35% three-point shooter each of the last five years. He now will be playing alongside at least three other superstars who can pass the ball. He will probably have more open three-point attempts this season than he has seen in all five of those prior seasons combined. If he can convert those open threes at a rate anywhere close to 40%, the Lakers' offense will be one of the more efficient in the league.
I'll go with Jodie Meeks here. While Meeks certainly isn't the most talented member of the bench unit and received nothing close to the publicity of say Antawn Jamison, who got an entire press conference to celebrate his arrival, he might end up playing the most important role among the Lakers' primary five reserves. Past Steve Nash, Meeks is arguably the Lakers' most adept sniper from behind the arc, an area the Lakers desperately need to get much better at in order to become more efficient on offense and put up numbers commensurate with the team's talent level. A good portion of what the Lakers want to run with the Princeton offense depends on having adequate spacing for the cutters to move through the defense, for the post-up players to operate smoothly on the block, and in general, for the offense to flow and hum properly. The ideal scenario is that Meeks ends up looking very similar to Sasha Vujacic circa 2008, as Sasha was not only a knockdown shooter with three-point range, but solid enough of a rotation player that it induced Phil Jackson to put Kobe Bryant at the three and trot out some epic offensive units. Fisher-Sasha-Kobe-Odom-Gasol, to name one such lineup, combined deadly outside shooting with Kobe's and Odom's ability to drive from the perimeter as well as Gasol's excellent post game, and the current iteration of the squad could achieve similar or even better results with a Nash-Meeks-Kobe-Gasol-Howard combination. Meeks simply allows everyone to do their respective jobs better: he is a fifth option the other team has to respect while figuring out which of the Lakers' indomitable top four to cover. Nash can use him as a passing option on pick-and-roll sets, Gasol can throw it to him from the high post, and Kobe, Gasol, and Howard will all appreciate an additional three-point threat on the perimeter when they go down to the block.
The other effect that Meeks has here is that he decreases the importance of the Lakers' small forwards. As many have observed, the new weak link on the team is now at the three, as between Metta World Peace's inconsistent offensive game - although his respectable performance in March following his apparent recovery from a nerve issue in his back does give one hope - and Devin Ebanks' inexperience, the Lakers are dangerously thin at the position. If Meeks pans out in the fashion that many expect him to, however, the amount of time Kobe will be spending at the three in order to fit additional minutes for Meeks into the rotation alleviates some of the concern for how MWP and Ebanks will perform. And should they play up to or exceed expectations, it will further bring down Kobe's workload, which already stands to lessen with Meeks coming aboard and was something of a serious problem last season after it became increasingly obvious that Jason Kapono wasn't a serviceable rotation player.
Although rest would seem to be a concern for most of the Lakers' core, as Kobe and Gasol both dealt with ponderous amounts of playing time last season and it is hard for Nash to play extended minutes with his bad back, there is greater margin for error at every spot besides the Lakers' two guards. The presence of Howard will by default bring down Gasol's minutes since the amount of time the latter will spend at center will decrease, and Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill both give the appearance of providing great big man depth. That the frontcourt rotation goes four deep with two of them capable of operating at either frontcourt spot (Gasol, Hill) and Howard being a big minutes eater reduces the pressure on everyone involved to perform, and we have a fair amount of evidence to proclaim that this isn't a big problem. A similar logic can apply for the point guard spot, as while Steve Blake, Chris Duhon, and Darius Morris don't exactly evoke confidence, there is enough of them that Brown can keep on throwing different players out there until one sticks as the primary backup. For Meeks, however, there is no option besides him on the bench at the two guard spot. On the depth chart, only Andrew Goudelock and Darius Johnson-Odom are behind him and both might not make it through training camp, let alone play real minutes for a championship contender. Ebanks, who was being groomed for Meeks' spot at one point, might be able to pick up the slack if Meeks falters, but at this point, we can safely say that Meeks has quite a burden on his shoulders, as he can elevate the team's play significantly with his shooting and prevent Kobe from undergoing a repeat of last year, something that would be quite detrimental for the Lakers' championship prospects.