Beast or Burden: Baby Steps

USA TODAY Sports

After a number of defeats caused by injury and the team's general discombobulation, getting a win against a bottom feeder at home was necessary, and while the level of opponent makes it difficult to take anything significant from the game, you can't blame the team for taking care of business either.

This very likely won't be the win we look back upon as the time at which the Lakers turned the proverbial switch and became the team we expected them to be at the outset of the season. The team's problems are too pervasive to be undone by merely one good performance and especially so when the chief square peg in round hole guy in Pau Gasol sits on the sidelines. The Cavs offered little resistance to the Lakers' attack with their underrated defensive anchor in Anderson Varejao absent, and the only time the game was in doubt was when the Lakers were deep in a morass of overpassing and turnovers. The rest of the Cavs' roster aside from Kyrie Irving hardly resembles a team that intends to be competitive anytime in the near future, and a blowout victory with Dwight Howard returning to the rotation is hardly a big accomplishment as a result.

Still, you can only face the opponent that is scheduled any given night, and given how poorly this season has gone, to have a solid performance on both ends is a bright sign no matter what color the opposing uniforms are. Despite our skepticism on whether this performance can translate into future contests, the team seemed to treat it as Mike D'Antoni's cliche of the start of the Lakers' season. Kobe Bryant took the lead and played very able defense on a bona fide elite point guard who checks every box with regards to the point guards who have shredded the Lakers in the past. Earl Clark continued his emergence as a solid rotation player and combined with Dwight to form a very intriguing defensive frontcourt that features a ton of athleticism. And although this was a turnover heavy contest, they were mostly good errors caused by attempting to find the right man and so forth, all things that you can work out as chemistry develops on the court. The bottom line is that this team needed a win in the worst way and whether it will prove to be a catharsis is something we will borne out in the future.

Beast

  • Earl Clark -- Before we even go into whether his shooting, Clark's morphing into a midrange assassin in particular, is sustainable, he's now produced at least nine rebounds and three assists in every game since he's joined the rotation and that doesn't look like it's going to change anytime soon. Combine that with his solid defense on and off the ball and he provides a lot of value even if his shot, one that has very good form one must note, isn't falling. What will be essential for Clark is to incorporate the other parts of his skill set into his overall game as defenses move to take away his jumper, and we have seen glimpses of it as he dives from the high post on cuts or drives from that area to score or dish to open shooters or guys waiting on the baseline. As has been studiously noted by the Los Angeles media scene, Clark has a lot of guard skills for a guy of his size and carried the point forward label with him from Louisville, so his ability to hit from outside should be the basis around which he constructs the rest of his game. As with Lamar Odom, the moment he gets the ball on the floor at the high post, defenses should fear him for his shot, his drive, or the pass he can throw at that spot. That's certainly a tall order for a guy who has deservedly been labeled a bust for most of his career, but it is also an image than can be actualized with his talent.
  • Steve Nash -- At a certain point, you almost wonder whether one should set a timer for Nash when he probes the interior of a defense looking for the right pass and just force him to shoot the ball when it expires. He has a ridiculously effective assortment of tools from more or less every spot on the floor and he uses it so sparingly it seems wasteful. It is fine and dandy to ensure that the offense is running well and that guys are moving to their correct spots, the role of a traditional point guard that Nash embraces wholeheartedly, but this is a league that is increasingly predicated on point guards who do the simple act of putting the ball in the basket. No one would complain if he had more field goal attempts than everyone on the roster other than Dwight and Kobe because frankly, there isn't a bad shot for Nash to take. Against Cleveland, practically all of his turnovers were caused by excessive probing and a refusal to put a shot up against a defense that had took away the other options on the floor and was inviting him to shoot.
  • Dwight Howard -- The flip side of Nash's predilection towards passing is that we got to see a lot of Dwight finishing near the rim as Nash fed him over and over again on the pick-and-roll. Dwight's torn labrum didn't seem to bother him as he scored from various angles on the roll and received a healthy share of the team's overall offense. Granted, the Cavs trotted out Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson to stop him and one would think that the efforts of Varejao, a superlative pick-and-roll defender, would have had an impact in this category, but Dwight gaining synergy with Nash in the context of the pick-and-roll is important nevertheless. On the other end, the previously mentioned combination of Dwight and Clark is an interesting one because it gives the Lakers two solid help defenders who can both cover a lot of ground and check the pick-and-roll, which is something they haven't had all year. On nights in which the Lakers' perimeter defense approaches something resembling respectability, this has quite the effect.
  • Kobe Bryant -- Well, as poorly as Kobe has played defense as a whole this year, give him credit for showing up whenever he takes it upon himself to cover an elite scorer at the point guard spot. Kobe displayed some of his excellent off ball denial on Irving, did a good job chasing him through screens, and in general, forced him into a bunch of shots that Irving hit anyways because he's awesome, but it was a solid performance from Kobe in this regard. This carried over into his offense, as whenever the three ball is falling for Kobe, it is very hard for him not to have a super efficient night. For the most part, his threes weren't insane chucks from five feet behind the line with a defender draped over him, but came in the context of the offense on the secondary break or similar. While Kobe certainly has fallen a lot from what originally appeared to be a surreal 50/40/90 season, continuing to hit the three at a healthy rate does wonders for the rest of his offensive game.
  • Darius Morris -- You watch Morris finish at the rim deftly on cuts and drives and wonder how he could have experienced such difficulty at doing so earlier in the year, as he certainly has the hops and ability to do so consistently. As awkward as he looks attempting to run the offense, Morris can contribute so long as he is scoring efficiently from range and near the rim due to his decent defense. The latter item in particular is what appears to be distinguishing him from Jodie Meeks, his most direct competition for minutes, as the primary backup wing. There is little reason to play a three-point specialist if a three-and-D guy is also available on the roster. If Morris can hit the three ball on a regular basis, he may push Meeks out of the rotation entirely.
  • Antawn Jamison -- One starts to see a constant theme here. Hit your threes in this system and you can have what more or less amounts to a permanent place in the rotation. Of course, this isn't the forte of the scoop shot loving Jamison, whom one would ideally want to see on cuts or in the post. The presence of Clark may make this possible, however, as the two were able to switch defensive assignments frequently because of Clark's athleticism and versatility. Furthermore, it is a lot easier to account for Jamison with two active help defenders in Howard and Clark on the floor. As a result, the dreaded Jamison at the three experiment that sank Mike Brown may have some relevance here to allow him to capitalize on smaller defenders in the post or on cuts, although using hard positions as a frame of reference in this situation holds less weight than the roles each play on offense and defense.
  • Metta World Peace -- Although it was entertaining to say the least to witness MWP take it upon himself to carry part of the offensive load with essentially the entire frontcourt out with injury, one can take comfort in a game such as the one he had against Cleveland: a quietly efficient night paired with some solid defense. And in a Lakers defense whose complexion has been changed by Clark, MWP has also been effective by raiding the passing lanes and coming up with steals, as he has sixteen (!) in the past four games. Put more effective help defenders into the mix and you allow guys who gamble to have a lot more freedom to do their work. While MWP's lateral quickness may be a shadow of his former self, he still has lightning quick hands to knock the ball free and his own help has been generally effective at the three and the four. So long as he isn't continuing completely rogue on offense -- only three assists in the past four games too -- there's a definite role for MWP to play.
  • Honorable mention to Chris Duhon, who continues to do an under-the-radar job of running the offense and slipping out of sight on our television screens as he spots up from thirty feet and more. Frankly, given the affinity of Laker point guards for shooting long twos with a foot on the line, yours truly will take Duhon's quirk and the extra point that comes with a make any day of the week over that of his predecessors. The issue for Duhon is whether he can reclaim some of the defensive mojo he acquired a reputation for earlier in his career, as that remains Steve Blake's principal advantage over him when he comes back from injury. Given the lengths D'Antoni has gone to push more defensive-minded options such as Morris over Meeks and Hill over Jamison, one would think that this continues to be a point in Blake's favor.
Burden
  • Jodie Meeks -- How he has fallen. Once treated as a godsend on a team that featured multiple stars he could play off and shoot threes all day long, he has failed to fulfill that role recently. Naturally, we return to his cringe-inducing tendency to drive at the rim despite having no hops or finishing ability, but all of this highlights the limitations of what a specialist can offer when he's not providing his chosen function. To illustrate, while Morris has to be effective on offense to retain his rotation spot, he can always fall back onto his defensive effort as his bulwark. Meeks has no such thing, as his ballhandling ability is lackluster, his defense is serviceable but not above average, and quite simply, there's not a whole lot of positive things he does on the court aside from shooting from range. He's certainly good enough to find his way back into the rotation, but those jumpers will have to start falling for him to do so.
  • Robert Sacre -- Again, we have to emphasize that Sacre was the sixtieth pick of the draft and is providing non-terrible rotation minutes. He does two things that will be very conducive to him having a ten year career as a fifth big: he hustles and he knows where to be on the court on both ends. Of course, this would mean more on offense if he didn't have Kwame-esque hands and could hit an eight foot jumper, but he certainly is trying. And while he is old for a rookie -- he's a year-and-a-half older than Morris, for instance -- he definitely still has room to grow as a player. For a guy who hit 76.1% of his free throws in his final year at Gonzaga, he should be able to make those midrange shots that he is currently clanking. On defense, he seems to have gained a liking for taking charges, which is a good way to counteract his previously rampant fouling. Take that with his good positioning and you get a guy who can give you value on defense even if his hops are limited.
Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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