Preseason question of the day: Will the Lakers manage to rest their starters enough this season for the playoffs?
Whenever I hear the tired argument that Phil Jackson has won 11 championship rings simply because he's coached some of the league's best players, I offer a litany of responses.
Jackson knows how to manage egos: he properly assesses which players need their space, which players need positive reinforcement and which players respond well to criticism. Jackson knows how to keep his team relaxed: he properly assesses when to keep an even keel, when to express anger and when to maintain his sense of humor. And most importantly, Jackson knows how to get his team looking its best once the postseason begins: He properly assesses how to pace the team through the regular-season grind, when to dial the intensity down and when to raise the level up.
Surprisingly enough, the Lakers actually entered the 2010 postseason looking far from their best. Kobe Bryant (sprained right knee), Andrew Bynum (strained left Achilles tendon) and Sasha Vujacic (sprained left ankle) entered the postseason with significant injuries. The team had limped into the playoffs with a 4-7 mark in the last 11 regular season games. And because of the bench's inconsistency, it was unclear whether the Lakers would really have the depth to absorb injuries during the postseason.
Fortunately for the Lakers, everything turned out all right. They won the 2010 championship and the Lakers proved healthy enough to slog through June. It can't be stressed enough how instrumental the weeklong rest between the West semifinals (Utah) and the West finals (Phoenix) became in the Lakers' title run. After getting his knee drained following Game 5 of the first-round series against Oklahoma City, Bryant sat out practices entirely for the rest of the postseason. So did Bynum, who had torn cartilage in his right knee and eventually drained his knee twice during the playoffs. And everyone else on the roster at least enjoyed catching their breath and recovering from the numerous dings they absorbed throughout the season.
It's a good thing they rested then because the Lakers didn't have the same luxury during the regular season. Although the team overcame that challenge, it's something they would much rather avoid doing. That's without a doubt one of the biggest preseason questions: how much rest will the Lakers starters receive during the regular season so they're at their full strength during the playoffs?
As I mentioned before, one of Jackson's biggest strengths typically involves making sure his players feel more rested than burned out once the postseason begins. Then once the playoffs start, Jackson increases the pressure and worries more about winning the game itself than becoming fixated the team's overall development. Even with the aforementioned challenges the team experienced last season, Jackson still managed to hold the starters' regular-season minutes lower than their playoff average: Bryant (38.8, 40.1), Pau Gasol (36.9, 39.7 ), Ron Artest (33.8, 36.5) and Derek Fisher (27.15, 32.8,). The only exception points to Bynum, who averaged 30.4 minutes per game during the regular season and 24.4 in the postseason, with the latter statistic reflecting the team's conservative approach in having him play through his sprained right knee.
To perhaps limit the starters' minutes even more this season, it's important that the Lakers completely dominate the early part of the season. That doesn't mean they should burn themselves out. It's just that the more times the starters build a comfortable enough lead to warrant rest, the more times the bench will have opportunities. That needs to happen more at the beginning of the season because I imagine Jackson would feel more comfortable giving the bench chances to shed the starters' minutes since the stakes aren't so high. When the standings races heat up and the games' outcome proves more significant, Jackson won't be as tolerant for any bench mistakes and will want his starters in as much as possible to secure the win.
Case in point: despite the bench giving up a large second-quarter lead in a March regular-season game against Sacramento, Jackson still gave them a chance to secure the victory in the fourth quarter. He wouldn't give the bench, as a whole, that kind of opportunity later on when the games meant more. Jackson had good reason to feel uncomfortable. The Lakers' bench allowed a 21-point lead against the Detroit Pistons in December to evaporate to within eight points in the fourth quarter, forcing the starters to secure the victory. There was a four-game stretch from mid- to late November when the reserves were outscored in every fourth quarter. There was the Christmas Day 102-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, with a 13-13 tie ballooning to a 19-point deficit before Jackson yanked his reserves late in the second quarter. And there was the 118-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns three days later in a game that featured the reserves being outscored 52-31.
That's why the answer to this question doesn't just hinge on the starters building up sizable leads early in the season. It also depends how the reserves sustain it. The Lakers made a major upgrade to their bench in acquiring Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, while losing Jordan Farmar, D.J. Mbenga, Josh Powell and Adam Morrison.
As a whole, I foresee a few major improvements. Blake's skill set at point guard in setting up teammates and on team defense should be an upgrade and help keep Fisher's minutes down. But I'm curious how Brown and Vujacic respond to their changed role with Blake in the lineup. As Brown and Vujacic have demonstrated in the past, sometimes they have to go through the learning pains to adapt. I thought Barnes would immediately bolster the team's defense, but I'm curious how his court date next month (because of his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence) will affect his play. I don't know him enough to have a definitive answer, but it at least increases any doubts that he'll go through a few rough patches before feeling fully comfortable. That factor could create more time for Luke Walton and Ebanks, but that only raises more uncertainty because of Walton's back and Ebanks' inexperience. Ratliff could provide a solid run, if needed, because of his defensive size and leadership, but I don't foresee Caracter getting a major minutes in significant games.
This all goes back to the original point -- that the beginning of the season will bode the most significance in ironing out all the new additions and seeing where they fit in with the team. The starters' rest and the team's success depends on it.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Ron Artest, left, Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom enjoy a laugh on the bench. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Bryant and forward Pau Gasol share a laugh during a regular-season game in 2008. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Lakers Derek Fisher, Bryant, Odom, Andrew Bynum and Gasol cool down with ice on their knees during the final minutes of a regular-season game in January 2009. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times.