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The Laker Role Players: A Critical Assessment

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As the Lakers have rampaged through the league over the past month, each of their stars has had his moment in the headlines. Andrew Bynum, when not in the penalty box, has been a primal, destructive force on defense and the glass. Pau Gasol long ago put his midseason languor behind him and is back to All-NBA form. Ron Artest is hitting threes, getting under the skin of opposing scorers and theatrically flexing his biceps. Kobe Bryant has remained productive despite a bad ankle and an occasionally off-target shooting stroke. And Lamar Odom, his ill-timed foul of Channing Frye notwithstanding, has been brilliant in all aspects of the game. Since the All-Star break, Kobe has been maybe the fourth-best player on the Lakers, which speaks volumes about the high-end play of the bros around him.

What's gone less noticed is the performance of the supporting cast. Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes: these are the secondary guys who will round out Phil Jackson's playoff rotayshe. The next layer below them - Luke Walton, Joe Smith, Derrick Caracter and the rest - are strictly "Break Glass in Case of Emergency." But the three B's and Fish... for better or worse, there will be big moments when we'll need them to come through.

So how are they looking these days? How much have they contributed to this 13-1 run? Who's been part of the solution, and who's still part of the problem? Let's tick through them one by and one and try to assess how well they're rounding into postseason form.

Derek Fisher: Fish is... you know, he's Fish. At this point in his career, there's no big mystery about what you're going to get. Earlier in the year, it looked like he was putting together a historically awful campaign, but over the past couple months his production has recovered and stabilized. The key is that he's making threes at a respectable clip. From long range he's shooting a touch over 37% since the break and a touch under 40% for the season. That means he doesn't totally kill you when he's on the court.

What frustrates me about Fish - well, one of the things that frustrates me - is that he could become so much more useful by doing one simple thing: cut down on the two-point attempts. He's just such an inefficient shooter when he's inside the arc: 38% on the season, 37% post-All Star break. How many times do we see Fish catch the ball in three-point land, pump fake the defender, take one dribble inside the arc and shoot? It feels like this happens at least a couple times a game. And it seems like he's creating an open shot, but for Fish, that one step inside the three-point line is the difference between a good look and a bad one. Unless he's wide open under the basket or it's the end of the shot clock, a possession that ends in a Fish two-point attempt can almost always be put to better use.

To his credit, Fish has been OK on defense lately. The Lakers haven't faced too many high-octane point guards since the break, and a number of bad PG matchups potentially lurk in the playoffs, but for the time being, Fish isn't getting eviscerated. And on those rare occasions when the Lakers play competent transition D, Fish has usually been in the middle of it.

Steve Blake: Speaking of guys who can't make two-point shots. Since the break, Blake is a sinus-clearing 3 for 17 on two-pointers. Dude... SORT. IT! Either get your accuracy above 20%, or stop taking them.

In other respects, though, Blake is contributing nicely, if a bit unevenly. He has plenty of games where he's a nonfactor, but when he comes through, there's a lot to like. He's made over 41% of his threes since the break and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 4-to-1. And it seems like he's settling into a nice role on the team. He's not hesitating with his shot so much, and he's showing a smart tendency to flash to the corner on fast breaks. As with Fish, I worry about his defense against top penetrators, but on the whole I think we should feel pretty comfortable with Blake heading into the playoffs.

Shannon Brown: Perhaps we all went a little overboard lavishing praise on Shannon when he blew up last November. Turns out he didn't quite transform into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate overnight. But you know, the guy's still having a solid campaign. Since the break he's scoring over 14 points per 36 minutes on over 50% true shooting, which isn't amazing but isn't bad for a bench player. He's also taking good care of the rock and appears to have cured some of his more infuriating defensive habits.

Is there any reason for concern here? Not really, so far as I can tell. Shannon's been a Laker now for over two years. He knows his place on this team, and the team knows what he can and can't do. With 45 career playoff games under his belt, he won't shrink from the May-June pressure.

A fun tidbit about Shannon: he hasn't missed a free throw since the All-Star break. He's converted all 14 of his attempts in that stretch, and his free-throw accuracy is above 90% for the season.

Matt Barnes: There are two, equally valid ways to appreciate Matt Barnes. One is to take note of all the positive things he brings to the table. He's fast and aggressive. He's a prodigious offensive rebounder. He finishes well around the hoop. He's probably better than anyone on the team at moving without the ball and firing to the basket at the right time. Since returning from injury, his numbers have been splendid: per 36 minutes he's scoring 14.3 points on 59% true shooting and collecting 7.4 rebounds and 2.9 steals. Tasty stuff.

The other way to appreciate Matt is to note that he is not Luke Walton.

Look, I don't mean to pile on Luke, but he's not a guy who should be in a playoff rotation at this point, and everyone knows it. Having Barnes healthy and productive means Phil doesn't need to choose between the two very bad options of either using Luke as his backup three or forcing heavier-than-usual minutes on Kobe. This is a terrific luxury Phil didn't have the last couple seasons.

I think the reason there hasn't been a lot of talk about these secondary guys is that they've just been steady. They're not fueling huge runs that swing games, but they're not (generally speaking, with the triple-OT game against Phoenix being a rare exception) stumbling over their own feet and needing the stars to rescue them. And really, that's all the Lakers need. Right now they've got four dudes who are playing at an All-Star level, and that gives them a big leg up on just about every team they'll face. The supporting cast doesn't need to be spectacular. Each of them just needs to hold the fort at his position for 15 to 18 minutes a night, which is exactly what they've been doing, and the champs will be fine.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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