The Lakers' role players will have to continue to play well

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers eked out a tough game against Brooklyn on the road despite losing Pau Gasol. Don't look now, but we might actually have some momentum here.

[furiously knocks on wood]

Well, now that that's out the way, we can appreciate that this team finally looks like they're playing in a consistent manner. The role players are producing even though the stars they nominally were supposed to be depending on have been in and out of the lineup, and the team didn't let Pau Gasol's absence faze them down the stretch against Brooklyn. More often than not, it's been lineups filled with the Lakers' reserves running Mike D'Antoni's sets that are getting the leads for the Lakers and that's a great thing for a squad that not only was supposed to be top heavy, but as previously mentioned, suffering from so many lost opportunities to develop ideal chemistry due to the parade of injuries. And although the Lakers benefited from some truly horrific execution on the part of their opponents, especially from the normally solid decision-making of Deron Williams, they did their part to put away Brooklyn and we were treated to an expanding lead instead of continued heartbreak such as in the Detroit game.

This would all be really endearing if we didn't have to deal with the notion of losing both Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard for the near future, as the Lakers are now dangerously thin in the frontcourt. The only healthy bigs are Robert Sacre, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, and Metta World Peace and three of those names are also part of the wing rotation. We might be able to get away with this by moving everyone up a position in the rotation such as increasing the time Kobe Bryant spends at the three, but this is a really small team right now, not a position this team is used to occupying. If Jordan Hill was healthy, this might be a problem the team could skate on until either Pau or Dwight got healthy, but that's not the case and it's asking a lot of Sacre to fill a big spot in the rotation.

The problem is that there isn't a lot the Lakers can do about this. You don't want to throw away the fifteenth spot on the roster that the team would like to have for flexibility reasons at the trade deadline. As much as we think it's unlikely that a big trade happens in the middle of the season, you never know what might happen and it would be shortsighted to sign someone for the rest of the season just to fill what hopefully will just be a temporary obstacle. So that rules out a veteran like Kenyon Martin, who would likely demand to be signed for the rest of the year, but it does open the door for a ten day contract just for insurance reasons. The issue is that there really isn't anyone capable of taking rotation minutes available for that purpose. The top-rated D-League big is former Knicks draft pick Jerome Jordan, so perhaps the Lakers go in that direction. We will likely just have to survive with a lot of Clark at center and Sacre taking his bumps, although we should emphasize that the latter does a lot of good things on the court. The role players will have to step up and we've had them do that quite a lot this year.

Beast

  • Earl Clark -- Hello, poster boy for that above concept. Seriously, there probably isn't anyone on the roster whose expectations at the start of the year are so completely at odds with his current state. Yours truly thought, not without reason, that he was a huge bust and wasn't going to contribute in any meaningful way this year. And here we are with him getting double-double after double-double, covering five positions on the floor, and being a genuine positive for the team on the floor. D'Antoni might be getting a little too carried away with him as a defensive stopper, seeing that Joe Johnson was able to take advantage of him on a few sequences -- although the help wasn't that great -- and Clark still has a lot of difficulty going through screens. Still, he nabbed ten defensive boards and didn't make any egregious mistakes while hitting clutch jumpers to bury Brooklyn on the other end. There's no denying what he is right now: a consistent contributor who is a bona fide starter. Congrats, Clark. You put in the work and made it. Please sign with us for cheap in the offseason.
  • Steve Nash -- Now this is the Nash we want to see more often. You want to see him using the pick-and-roll to look for his shot a healthy amount and use mismatches to attack the rim. The quintessential example of this was when he got Brook Lopez on a switch, took him off the dribble, and hit an absolutely filthy moving hook shot over him. Shockingly, he also reciprocated on the other end, as he played very serviceable defense against Williams, although as noted above, Williams didn't do himself a lot of favors with a bunch of half-hearted isos and a general lack of aggressiveness. In any case, one hopes that Nash's own aggressiveness continues, as without both Pau and Dwight, it puts a greater impetus on Nash to create offense for himself to make up for the rest of the players on the floor.
  • Steve Blake -- Uh, where did that scoring outburst come from? Didn't know that Blake had transformed into a big bench scorer in the fourth quarter, when he bizarrely was taking fadeaway jumpers after probing the defense and nailing back-breaking threes. Helps that he continues to not turn the ball over and run the offense competently, an attribute D'Antoni has appreciated enough to throw him out there with Nash in two guard lineups. And this year, it is working out much better than last year with Mike Brown partly because Nash isn't Derek Fisher, but also since it works much better in an offense that rewards you for having more pick-and-roll ballhandlers on the floor. One wishes that D'Antoni would sub Blake in for Nash in purely defensive situations, as the former is much more adept than the latter, but that's a discussion for another day.
  • Antawn Jamison -- Jamison does his thing: slips off the screen and cuts to the rim and spots up every now and then. It's becoming as consistent as clockwork and is something nice to have off the bench. There are a lot worse things than having a guy who takes good shots, puts pressure on the defense, and doesn't need plays called for him. Of course, Jamison's poor defense is also a consistent presence, which limits his overall effectiveness, but he's fulfilling the role that we wanted him to fill. This might change if he has to play more minutes given the Lakers injury situation, but he's finally found a comfort zone in which he can help the team and that's very valuable.
  • Honorable mention to Robert Sacre, who is about to be tested by fire. His limitations on both ends are about to exposed, as much as he tries to do smart things on both ends. He knows where to set screens, where to roll to, and where he's supposed to receive the ball, but is limited by really terrible hands and a limited offensive repertoire. On defense, this kind of intelligent play is a bit more successful despite his physical limitations since the act of being in the right place tends to produce results in and of itself. This noted, he's going to have to become much more polished in both aspects to be an effective rotation player, especially on offense, where he's going to have to get at least one consistent weapon to rely on.
Burden
  • Kobe Bryant -- Will say it again: Kobe either needs to be more efficient or more of a playmaker. Doesn't help that it's becoming increasingly clear that he needs to attack the rim more since his outside shot has appeared to have abandoned him. So even though he destroyed the Internet last night when he hopped in a time machine back to 2000, there were a lot of possessions that were tough, long jumpers against the defense of Gerald Wallace. That he was able to blow past Wallace for the dunk in the first place indicates that he really was taking a lot of unnecessary shots. On the flip side, Kobe's free safety defense was justified for once against Wallace, a mediocre at best outside shooter that you want to take shots away from the rest of Brooklyn's options, although Kobe lost Wallace a lot on the weak side going to the rim, not really a new development.
  • Pau Gasol -- Pau had a lot of good offensive sequences, but the bad defense and missed shots start adding up after a point. Lopez was getting whatever he wanted against him and the limited rebounding while manning the pivot doesn't help either. His injury might have been steadily worsening over the course of the game, but that's the reality of his play last night. Regardless, one has to really question what future Pau has with the squad now that his injury will take him out through the trade deadline, although the nature of his injury will supposedly help with his previous foot pain. The Lakers will have to tread water while other players step up, which they have for a good portion of the year, but this is an especially hazardous time for the Lakers' playoff prospects.
This is part of the "Beast or Burden" series covering recent trends from the Lakers' games. Players who performed well relative to expectations are placed in the "Beast" column and those who did less so are indicated in the "Burden" section. It is intended to be a means of reviewing the team's progress and how individual players are contributing week to week. Read previous columns in this series here.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.
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