The Lakers' bench unit is performing exceptionally well

Harry How

The Lakers took care of business at home against an undermanned Timberwolves team, and it is endearing that this team has finally turned games against inferior opponents into a straightforward experience. At the forefront of this was a remarkable performance by the Lakers' reserves, a singular bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season.

The highlight reels will tell you that Kobe Bryant led the way with another ridiculous performance and they would be right, but a fair chunk of the plaudits also belong to what has emerged as a rather intriguing bench unit for the Lakers. Of course, it still remains incomplete so long as Pau Gasol is nursing a foot injury, but Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, and Jodie Meeks have each emerged as intriguing contributors in what has become a very cohesive unit. To put a cliche to work, they play better than the sum of their parts, as Blake dishes without mistakes and spaces the floor, Jamison slips screens and finds ways to get open around the basket, and Meeks nails shots from the perimeter. They've integrated their respective talents remarkably well given how long it's taken the Lakers to settle on a consistent rotation -- much of which, we should add, has been as a result of every other player dropping out of the lineup with injury every few weeks or so -- and it's rather visible since they have to rely on superior execution to get buckets. Major kudos go to Blake, who has been out of the lineup for most of the year and yet has adapted seamlessly into Mike D'Antoni's system.

The wrinkle in all of this is what happens when Pau comes back. We might be overthinking this given that Pau is the paragon of providing chemistry and getting other guys involved, but you always have to be tentative about messing with a good thing, especially since there will be precious little time until the playoffs to develop a new rotation for the tenth time or so this season. You have to expect a few speed bumps as Pau gets back into the swing of things, although given that the alternative has been masquerading Earl Clark as a center, whatever remote issues that result from a newfound rotation likely won't be too burdensome. The biggest thing is that Pau's return shouldn't kick Jamison out of the rotation, as some combination of Metta World Peace, Jamison, and Clark will have to lose minutes.

Frequent readers of this column can probably guess as to whom yours truly thinks should lose minutes, as Metta has been awful for such an extended period, the Minnesota game included, that reducing his minute load would help the team a great deal. Clark can spend more time at his natural forward spots and should be much more comfortable spotting up and cutting as either a three or a four. Meanwhile, Jamison will keep his spot as the primary backup at the four, although him losing minutes to Pau is largely inevitable. The Lakers would thus have a much more balanced rotation and it gives D'Antoni a fair amount of flexibility in terms of matchups and different units to throw onto the floor. One wonders at how well the Lakers could have played with going big, small, or otherwise with everyone healthy, but this season has unfortunately robbed us of that opportunity.

Beast

  • Kobe Bryant -- One keeps on expecting Deadpsin to break a story of how Kobe made a Faustian bargain in Germany to retain his explosiveness, as he uncorked a set of nice dunks on a Minny defense that lacked both the perimeter and interior defense to do anything about them. Also helping Kobe is that he's rediscovered his ability to hit threes, including the ridiculous five feet behind the line with a guy in his face ones that no human being as any right to hit. As a result, we get a remarkably efficient Kobe who is giving us a very pretty shot chart with lots of threes, shots at the rim, and the occasional midrange shot that he fires up after trying to juke his defender out with half-a-dozen shot fakes. To put it simply, it's really hard to stop the Lakers' offense when Kobe is on this much of a tear, as it opens up the rest of the floor for shooters and cutters, whom Kobe was still able to hit with five dimes when he took a break from his scoring exploits. The recent three-point accuracy is likely as much reversion to the mean as the incredibly bad shooting that preceded it, so we shouldn't expect it to continue, but it's nice to see Kobe regain his effectiveness in this area.
  • Steve Blake -- If you do a search for every Laker guard who has ever gotten 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers in a game, you get a lot of hits that start with "Kobe" or "Magic," and even one that ends with "Cooper," so it's somewhat incongruous to add Blake to that rather distinguished pantheon. But it tells you how good he's been ever since he's taken up stewardship over the bench unit, especially since he got those points on a ridiculously good 94.5 TS%. He's seeing the floor well, constantly probing the defense, and best of all, doesn't make major mistakes that compromise the offense. The chemistry for the bench unit as a whole plays a role here, but Blake is certainly a big part of that since he offers that calming presence that allows that unit to work. Watch him drop a perfect pocket pass to Jamison as he slips the screen, an alley-oop to Dwight when he spins off his defender, or just make the simple pass around the perimeter to the open man that is a big part of D'Antoni's offense. We would all be remiss if this was the Steve Blake we were imagining when he was signed as Jordan Farmar's replacement, but it certainly is doing an awful lot to make up for the last two years of his play.
  • Dwight Howard -- Acute observers will know why the entirety of the Inside the NBA panel, notably Shaq -- although this is hardly anything new -- were entirely wrong in calling out Howard for not getting touches because he worked damn hard to put himself in position to get them. If there was any critique to be made of how the Lakers went about their business against Minnesota, it was a failure to feed Dwight consistently in the deep post since he was rim running every single time and backing his defender completely under the hoop. This was further complicated by Minnesota running a zone for most of the game that made straightforward post-ups difficult. Give Dwight a lot of credit, however, as he never stopped working on both ends, tallying ten defensive rebounds and four blocks as he controlled the interior and limited Minnesota's offense to a lot of jump shots. This is the Dwight we want in a nutshell and it behooves the team to reward him for his activity.
  • Antawn Jamison -- Jamison's game is all about being in the right place in the right time, as he turns broken plays and awkward sequences into buckets by his ability to free himself off the ball and position himself for optimal success. He bails out Kobe drives, spaces the floor, and has become Blake's favorite passing target in the pick-and-roll and elsewhere much like Matt Barnes was the past two years. As usual, there's not much else to write about him because he's been doing what he does with a great deal of consistency since he cemented a spot in the rotation. Although Pau definitely needs his minutes once he fully recovers and Jamison will have to give up some minutes, it would be hugely remiss for Jamison to be marginalized as a result.
  • Jodie Meeks -- Shooters need confidence and Meeks has an awful lot of that now, although it shouldn't extend to anything inside the arc. Thankfully, Meeks' shot chart is very acceptable: nine of his eleven field goal attempts were from behind the arc and his usual exuberance in other areas was generally restrained. He's gotten particularly good at using the pick-and-roll to create space for his jumper, something the team might want to try with Dwight every now and then when the bench is out there considering how much space it opens for Nash in the same circumstances. Otherwise, Meeks looks good: he's playing the role we need him to fill on offense and his defense is respectable enough that he can play extended minutes if need be. He's not particularly quick laterally, but he competes and doesn't gamble, which is all you can really ask of your backup guards.
  • Earl Clark -- Clark had one of those nights that doesn't show up a lot on the box score: he set good screens, rotated well on defense, made smart passes especially against Minny's zone, and acted much like the stereotypical glue guy that every team can benefit from. That might be his ultimate role when Pau returns, but at the same time, all of those spot-up opportunities that he currently can't enjoy because of the minutes he has to play at the five will be much more available at his natural forward spots. Clark is at his best when he can work off other players, as his dismal attempts to post-up, drive to the rim, and otherwise helpfully displayed in garbage time. It might be something for him to continue to refine in the offseason as he continues his development, but as of now, he is what he is.
  • Honorable mention to Steve Nash, who had a great game in most every respect other than some wayward shooting. Seven dimes against no turnovers is great no matter who is manning the position and you're thankful for nights such as these when Nash can get a breather. This rings true considering that he was working especially hard on defense against Minny's multi-guard lineups, although the Lakers didn't do a good job of helping him when he was screened to allow his man -- usually Luke Ridnour -- to get an open jumper, seeing as this was Minny's only source of offense all night.
Burden
  • Metta World Peace -- At this point, there's about one shot that we're probably comfortable seeing Metta shoot and that's spot-up threes with his feet set, but even then, he can elicit sighs of exasperation. It's one thing to shoot when you're open and another to ignore arguably the greatest shooter of all time in Nash who is also open if you deigned to throw a simple skip pass. Same thing applies when he's trying to bully the ball into the post and Dwight works his rear off to create space for a passing angle and Metta acts like he doesn't exist. In an offense predicated on ball movement and making the pass to the open man, Metta is the antithesis to this concept, a rather painful black hole that isn't conducive to the overall offensive flow. This isn't to say that he's alone in this regard, but he doesn't have Kobe's otherworldly ability to back up whatever insane thing he does on any given possession. One only has to look at MWP's cratering assist rate (10.0), which is a far cry from the marks he's posted the previous four years (19.9, 17.8, 19.3). He can definitely still contribute to the team, but he definitely needs a new approach than what he's been doing right now.
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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