The Lakers' injury situation has grown to comical heights. Until at least after this weekend, the team will have as little as nine available players, with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar all sitting out. A strange situation like last Wednesday's game against Cleveland isn't out of the question at any point, with guys like Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Jordan Hill all trying to overcome nagging injuries.
There's no doubt that Kobe Bryant's absence has affected the team's performance most deeply. As we approach the All-Star break, besides Kobe, which player's injury do you think has most affected the Lakers's fortunes?
The Great Mambino
Let's get this out of the way: Kobe Bryant, even with his defensive limitations and sometimes offensive peculiarities, is still the player the Lakers miss the most. His positional versatility, one-on-one scoring prowess and immaculate post game are simply too valuable for a team that look at times completely. Bryant, even at age 35, can still act as quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back all at once.
The player they're missing the most after KB is a two-way tie between the Steves, both Blake and Nash. This Lakers team is completely dependent on production at the point guard position to survive, as evidenced by their time with Kendall Marshall as the lone ball distributor on the active roster. For that stretch, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young and Xavier Henry all took turns trying to run Mike D'Antoni's offense, to little avail. The second unit would often run with long scoring droughts, clumsily throwing about errant passes and dribbling for 22 seconds only to get a highly contested fadeaway jump shot.
With the Steves, the Lakers are at least a proficient offensive unit, and at best a scrappy scoring squad that can compete with the best teams in the league with the game on the line. The Lakers, as currently constructed, were never going to be more than a decent defensive team. There is no player on the roster, active or injured, that could have changed that. However, the team had a shot to be one of the league's great offenses. Without Blake and Nash, they simply do not have the personnel to make that a reality.
No doubt a Kobe Bryant operating at the same ridiculous level he reached last year for a player of his age would have made by far the biggest difference for this iteration of the Lakers, but for the purposes of this season, the answer to this question has to be Steve Blake. Mike D'Antoni's offense is driven by dynamic point guard play and to begin the year the Lakers had three of those guys in Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, and Blake. Heck, Nash didn't play all that well in the first place and it didn't matter since Blake and Farmar were the engine that powered the Lakers to a 10-9 start. One can argue that Farmar was more effective than Blake for an efficiency standpoint, but Blake gets extra brownie points for being asked most of the time to play both guard positions in this offense, a nice touch given the emergence of Kendall Marshall as both an adept point man and floor spacer. Farmar also was and still is more of a direct scoring threat with the ball in his hands, whereas Blake filled multiple roles as a shooter and distributor, as well as defending both guard spots well.
Blake, moreover, acts as an effective embodiment of the very spirit of this Lakers team at its best: a gritty, us-against-the-world outfit that punches way above their weight class and claws their way to victories late through sheer effort. The near-constant praise that D'Antoni heaps on Blake for his plucky play and how it drives the rest of the roster, even when his compatriots are performing better statistically than him, is testament enough. Just observe how much harder the team has played with Blake, who nearly always makes the multiple efforts on defense that has been lacking on a roster mostly devoid of superlative defensive talents, recently and how just Blake alone with no Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant in the mix has been one of the bigger factors in how this Laker team operates.
The point guard glut on the team might ultimately induce the front office to seriously consider moving Blake--if only to help kickstart the tanking effort; seriously, it can't be emphasized how much of a night and day effect his return has had on the team--seeing that of the Lakers' point guards, all four should be getting minutes and only Nash and Marshall are signed past this season. But at this point, he appears to have such a greater value in this particular context with this team and system that he might be kept around solely because he's simply too much of a good rotation piece to let go. It's a bit of an odd reason given the aforementioned point guard glut, especially with Marshall having more of his formative years ahead of him despite already posting insane shooting numbers from range and superb assist totals, but it might be a good enough reason for the front office to keep him around. That this is even a consideration with the point guard spot the strongest on a roster that desperately needs a talent injection everywhere else shows how much Blake means to the team from the front office's and coaching staff's perspective and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out at the trade deadline.
Other than the absence of Bryant, the injury that's hurt this team the most has to be Steve Blake's torn ligament in his right elbow. Prior to the injury, Blake was averaging close to 10 points and a career-high 7.7 assists per game. If I'm not mistaken, the Lakers are playing .500 ball this year with Blake in the lineup (12-12) - there's no denying his impact on the team, both offensively and defensively. The guy notched a triple double his first game back since being sidelined on Dec. 10. Whether or not every on/off statistic for Blake says so or not, the Lakers are much better off with him in the lineup than not.
While the nagging injuries to Nash have been just as demoralizing for a team in need of healthy bodies, Blake's never-ending intensity is imperative for a roster filled with youth and inexperience. D'Antoni noted last week that Blake's health was also a huge factor in the team making a comeback in the second-half of last season. Going back to Blake's Maryland days, that Juan Dixon-Steve Blake lineup was one of the most exciting backcourt duos I've ever had the opportunity to watch and I will be the first to admit that I never expected a pro career highlighted by such longevity and consistency from Blake.
While no one expected this team to be a defensive juggernaut, there was some hope that they could be in the middle of the pack when it came to defensive efficiency. Having a healthy Steve Blake was a huge part of that potential, given the lack of defensive prowess elsewhere on the roster. Minus Bryant's overall impact on the team, Blake's energy on defense has been the second largest absence.
Kobe Bryant is far and away the Lakers best player--no doubt about it. Not only is he the Lakers best scoring option, but he can also be the best passer if he has to. Missing the one guy who can do it all--besides play defense--is a huge blow to any team. Obviously he's not going to be the same after the two injuries, but the Black Mamba is still the heart of this Lakers team.
Since Kobe isn't an option, the answer has to be Steve Blake. I'm going to be honest, I did not see this coming at all. Blake has had a pretty great year thus far. He's averaging a career high 7.8 assists, which blows away his previous career high of 5.1. He's been able to run the offense when the team doesn't have Nash, while also playing off the ball and shooting 40.3 percent from three on almost five attempts a game. Although his field goal percentage leaves a lot to be desired, his ability to control the offense more than makes up for it.
There have been other injuries, such as Steve Nash and Jordan Farmar who could possibly be more important, but the way Blake has played this season, he has to be in the lead. Hopefully we won't have to be talking about this for much longer with a few of the guys returning for injury. Of course, that'll take a miracle with this team.