Scene: After backing into the playoffs last year as a 7th seed in the Western Conference and being quickly dispatched, the Los Angeles Lakers had a terrible off-season filled with drama. At the dawn of this new season, nobody knows quite what to expect, but they don't expect much from the representatives of this once proud franchise.
The Lakers start the season with a game against the reigning Pacific division champions, a team with championship aspirations, and the Lakers' starting lineup looks awful. This game should be a loss, and quite possibly a blow out. Instead, the Lakers bench, orchestrated by a composed performance from Jordan Farmar, catches their opponents completely by surprise. No starter plays more than 28 minutes. No starter even sees the court in the fourth quarter. No starter needs to. The Lakers ride their bench performance all the way to a comfortable victory as Mike D'Antoni, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash all watch from their court side seats in amazement. What a way to start the 2007-2008 season.
Oh, I'm sorry, did you think I was talking about last night?
It was impossible to watch last night's demolition of the Los Angeles Clippers without fondly remembering that night in early November, 2007. Watching Vladomir Radmanovic and Sasha Vujacic rain down threes against the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, watching Andrew Bynum dominate the paint, blessedly free of any crazy injury history, was one of the most enjoyable regular season experiences in my memory. It was magical, but I clearly remember thinking it was a one-off thing. I don't think too many fans thought much of the long term implications of that performance.
They should have. The Lakers bench, a weak spot for the team even during the championship winning years of the early 2000s, suddenly morphed into a source of strength that played a key role in the Lakers stunningly turning into championship contenders by season's end. We couldn't have known it at the time, but the Lakers bench was laying down a marker in Phoenix that night. The bench mob was born.
The parallels between that night and last night's contest are rather stunning, but they are incomplete. That game was on the road, not at home. It was the second game of the year instead of the first, coming two nights after an opening night loss at home against the Houston Rockets. Finally, the tumult of that year's off-season (in which Kobe Bryant demanded a trade, amongst other events) did not actually result in any superstar defections, nor a tangible overhaul of the roster. Still, watching the bench play such a key role in demolishing a high quality opponent warmed the heart in the same way. There's just one other key difference: Last night's bench performance was much, much more impressive.
Last night, the Lakers starters didn't sit out the fourth quarter because the game was comfortably won and the coach decided to give them a rest. The Lakers starters sat out the fourth quarter because the Lakers bench played better, faster basketball that had their opponent on their heels. The Lakers entered the final quarter down four points. DeAndre Jordan re-entered the game at the 11 minute mark with the Clippers still up two. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul entered the game at the nine minute mark, with the Lakers sporting just a two point lead. So, when the bench unit of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill ripped off a 23-8 run (from the 9 minute mark to Jordan Hill's game sealing banked in 20 footer with three minutes to play), they were doing so against something pretty close to the best lineup the Clippers can put on the court.
Was it a fluke? Of course it was. The Lakers can't expect their bench to shoot better than 50% from 3 point range every game. They can't expect Xavier Henry to be so successful with his drives to the basket or his long range shooting. They can't expect Jodie Meeks to convert three point plays. They can't expect other teams to play them with as little passion as the Clippers did last night. And they sure as hell can't expect the bench to score 76 points a night, a total the Lakers bench hasn't surpassed since the 1980s.
However, just because the performance was a fluke doesn't mean there isn't a solid base of truth to it. The original bench mob didn't score 60 points a night after their debut performance. In fact, I don't recall them ever playing as well again that season as they did that night. But they were good the whole year. They did (quite suddenly) turn from a weakness into an asset. That night was a harbinger of things to come, both for the bench unit and for the team. The bench mob laid down a marker, and spent the entire rest of the season making good on it.
Can this year's collection do the same? Obviously, it's far too early to tell. It would seem absurd for this collection of players to collectively make such a jump; most of these guys are cast-offs, busted lottery picks that other teams were more than willing to give up on, and role players who have never been relied upon for more than bit parts. But then, it seemed absurd then, too. There was no indication that Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Andrew Bynum and company were all ready to make significant leaps forward in their progress as players at the same time, but that is exactly what happened in 2008. The one thing all those guys had in common, the one quality they all shared which allowed them to grow so fast together, was youth. Well, nobody who played for the Lakers in the fourth quarter last night is older than Farmar, who is 27. It is a (relatively) young group. It is an athletic group. We can't know whether these guys can grow into something special, but we can know, by virtue of their youth and relative inexperience, that they have the room for that growth.
Who their coach is should inspire further confidence in the possibility of such a transformation. Mike D'Antoni might not be the best coach in the world, but he deserves a ton of credit for letting the bench do their thing and not interrupting their momentum by replacing any of them with (theoretically) better players. In fact, the Lakers did not have a single substitution in the fourth quarter. After Jordan Hill replaced Chris Kaman at the 1:39 mark of the 3rd quarter, Farmar, Meeks, Henry, Johnson and Hill all played the rest of the way. I don't know what D'Antoni's reputation is as a player development coach, but I do know that the five players he played at the end of last night's game represent the kind of team he wants to play with: Fast, athletic, small, with shooters all over the court. If that unit can play anywhere near the level they achieved last night on a regular basis, you can be damn sure they will get plenty of time together with which to further grow, because it would take the Lakers as a team in a direction that Mike D'Antoni very much wants to go.
The opportunity is there. The room for growth is there. After last night, you'd be hard-pressed not to say the talent is there, too. Just like the last season in which the Los Angeles Lakers entered a season with low expectations, the Lakers bench just laid down a marker, telling the world just how good they can be.
All that remains now is to see if they can make good ... again.