Poor bench play remains an issue, but alternatives are limited
For far too long, the Lakers' bench have had trouble securing leads, establishing consistency, fitting in the triangle offense, staying sharp on defense and pretty much living up to the supposed "Bench Mob" reputation it once owned.
And the inconsistency surely hasn't sat well with the team. Lakers forward Lamar Odom has taken it personally when the bench blows double-digit leads. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has reacted in visible anger during the team's recent 2-3 trip at least partly because of the reserves' play. And Lakers Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged to reporters before the team's 109-92 loss Wednesday to the Atlanta Hawks that the bench's performances "makes me want to throw up sometimes."
Jackson specifically said he felt that way during the Lakers' 108-100 loss Monday to the New Orleans where the reserves were outscored 42-12. But Jackson could've easily been talking about many performances this season, or on the latest trip for that matter, raising questions on whether Jackson really has brought a waste basket by the coaching bench in case his stomach starts upsetting him.
Against Atlanta, the Hawks' reserves outscored the Lakers' bench 48-22, a number that would actually be lower had Jordan Farmar hadn't scored 16 points. But let it be known that 11 of those points came in the fourth quarter when the game was already out of reach. It also didn't overshadow the fact Farmar made poor decisions within the offense in the second quarter. Against Oklahoma City, Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic had such a heated argument that assistant Brian Shaw that Jackson has decided Vujacic's minutes are going to be severely reduced. Though this move depletes the unit even more, it's every right for Jackson to support the coaching staff and to send a message that behavior won't be tolerated. And during this whole trip, Lakers forward Lamar Odom has moved to the starting rotation because Andrew Bynum has been hurt with a strained left Achilles' tendon.
The Lakers bench has presented problems for most of the season. In a four-game stretch from mid to late November, the reserves were outscored in every fourth quarter. In a Christmas Day 102-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the bench allowed a 13-13 tie to balloon to a 19-point deficit before Jackson yanked his reserves late in the second quarter. Three days later in a 118-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers bench was outscored, 52-31. In the same month, the reserves allowed a 21-point lead against the Detroit Pistons to evaporate to within eight points in the fourth quarter, prompting the starters to come back in to secure the victory.
There's been similar problems in March. The bench combined for only one point on zero of eight shooting in the second quarter March 16 against Sacramento. The reserves nearly blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead March 21 against Washington. And on the team's recent five-game trip, the reserves were outscored in three of the five contests.
You can argue Odom could return to the bench even during Bynum's absence since his leadership has largely been valuable to the reserves. But that wouldn't do much beyond making the Lakers a more guard oriented team, a bad strategy considering the length Odom and Pau Gasol have inside and the teams' poor outside shooting.
You can argue Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar could replace Derek Fisher at the starting point guard spot. But what would that do? Fisher (7.5 points per game on 37.1% shooting), Farmar (7.6 points per game on 43.6% shooting) and Brown (7.3 points per game on 38.5% shooting) have similar numbers this month. Some may say Farmar's better shooting percentage trumps Fisher's leadership within the locker room? Some fans bristle at that because leadership sounds cliche and is hard to quantify. But it actually isn't. Fisher holds clout in the locker room and teammates have credited his speeches during games and at practice for helping them get through the season. And with the playoffs quickly approaching, the Lakers will surely value Fisher's experience.
So how do the Lakers move forward? Well, The Times' Mike Bresnahan recently reported Bynum may return as early as April 8 against Denver, but the timetable isn't exactly definitive. I had noted earlier that Bynum's absence hasn't just created a void inside; it's also exacerbated problems the Lakers had when he was in the lineup. One of those problems include the bench.
In another hint of good news, Lakers forward Luke Walton plans to play Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs after playing in only 24 games because of a pinched nerve in his lower back. Before you break out the pitchforks and wonder why Walton (2.4 points in 8.3 minutes per game) coming back will help anything, let this be known. The Lakers, with all the assorted injuries and the starters' heavy minutes, will welcome any return because it adds at least another body to the rotation. And though the Lakers' offense won't suddenly become utterly unstoppable, a strong case can be made that Walton will at least improve the flow of the triangle offense.
Still, neither the return of Bynum or Walton will fully solve the Lakers' bench problems. That problem won't necessarily make or break the Lakers' chances of repeating. After all, they won a title last season without much of a bench. But with a team already decimated with chemistry issues and defensive inconsistency, the depleted bench only brings more fragility. But at this point, the alternatives are pretty limited.
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