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Category: 2011 Report Cards

Lakers Report Card: Phil Jackson

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In the 15th edition of the Lakers Report Card, we focus on Coach Phil Jackson.

Grade: B-

While the Lakers sulked immediately following their 122-86 Game 4 eliminating loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, Phil Jackson smiled. While the Lakers walked off the floor with their heads hung low, Jackson held his head high. And while the Lakers lamented their season ending a month too short, Jackson actually expressed relief that it was over.

"It feels really good to be ending the season, to be honest with you," Jackson said. "I came back this year with trepidation."

It's not exactly the answer fans would expect or like to hear, but there's no escaping the fact that Jackson was reluctant to return. He had thought about retiring after collecting his 11th championship, with the 2010 NBA Finals, mostly due to health concerns. All the travel and stress wore on him. Chronic pain in his knees and hip was burdensome. Still, he struggled with walking away from the game, having made attempts to do so in both 1998 and 2004. But he returned after much cajoling -- from longtime girlfriend Jeanie Buss, who is Lakers executive vice president; co-captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher; Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak; and owner Jerry Buss -- even though Jackson got a $2-million paycut, from $12 million to $10 million. 

It would be easy to say Jackson's heart was never in this season and that he didn't fully prepare the Lakers for the rigors that a three-peat would demand. And though Jackson has 11 championship rings in 19 seasons, he's not immune from criticism. Jackson, like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, laid out a blueprint for maintaining a big-picture perspective, but oftentimes that approach meant that bad habits continued, accompanied by a lack of focus.  Still, although Jackson could've adjusted better, this is more a case of his players not heeding the wisdom of an 11-time NBA champion than Jackson suddenly becoming ineffective.

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Lakers Report Card: Joe Smith

6a00d8341c506253ef014e86b164b8970d-320wiIn this the 13th edition of the Lakers Report Card we focus on reserve forward Joe Smith.

Grade: D

Everywhere he went, Lakers forward Joe Smith wore a smile on his face.

He smiled when he shook hands with the Laker starters during introductions. He smiled as he wore his headphones in the locker room, shaking his head to various rap songs. And he smiled anytime he interacted with a teammate, team official or reporter.

But a cheerful expression was about all the Lakers got out of Smith, whom they acquired Dec. 15, 2010, from New Jersey for Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 first-round draft pick. All accounts say he practiced hard. He didn't drastically mess up in the 3.7 minutes per game that he averaged. And the 15-year veteran brought the right attitude, getting along with everyone and providing positive energy.

But that won't make a big difference in his grade. What struck me about Smith was that he seemed perfectly content with his lot -- a 1995 NBA Draft pick who became a moving part in the league, holding the NBA record for most franchises played for (12): the Golden State Warriors (1995-98), Philadelphia 76ers (1998), Minnesota Timberwolves (1999-2000), Detroit Pistons (2000-01), Timberwolves again (2001-03), Milwaukee Bucks (2003-06), Denver Nuggets (2006), Chicago Bulls (2007-08), Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-09), Cleveland Cavaliers (2008-09), Atlanta Hawks (2009-10) and New Jersey Nets (2010). Likewise, the Lakers appeared in no rush to get him acclimated with the triangle offense and to be able to eat up serious minutes so that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum could rest. 

From a practical standpoint, the Lakers whiffed on trading Vujacic and the team's first-round pick. The team could've used Vujacic's intensity in practice and ability to be an irritant at defense since the team didn't have much of an edge all season. The Lakers could surely use that first-round pick to bolster their roster following a disappointing playoff finish in a four-game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. At the time, I lauded the move -- I thought the Lakers would make better use of Smith to help handle their dwindling frontline depth, and also I believed Vujacic had become irritating to many in the Lakers  organization.

There's no denying the Lakers' main motivation in acquiring Smith. The trade, in which the Nets also sent Terrence Williams to Houston, allowed the Lakers to save money. Vujacic was making $5.5 million in the last season of a three-year, $15-million contract he signed in 2008 with the Lakers; Smith's salary was $1.4 million this season. But for all the bemoaning regarding Pau Gasol's increased fatigue level during Andrew Bynum's rehab, the Lakers surely had an opportunity to develop Smith so he could help offset that problem.

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Lakers Report Cards: Theo Ratliff

56852166This is the 12th edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on reserve center Theo Ratliff.

Grade: F

Every step looked painful. Every movement seemed slow. And every injury update kept prolonging deeper and deeper into the season. 

There's frankly not much to analyze when it comes to Ratliff's season, which consisted mostly of him of sitting on the sideline while rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee. After playing in the first eight games, posting two points on one-of-six shooting, 12 rebounds and five blocks, Ratliff remained sidelined for nearly 4 1/2 months before returning to the court. The next three appearances in the Lakers' 110-82 victory March 31 over Dallas, the Lakers' 102-93 victory April 12 over San Antonio and the Lakers' 109-100 Game 1 first-round loss April 17 to New Orleans served nothing more than garbage time, combining for zero points and one rebound in five minutes. 

There's little use dissecting those performances because the small sample size shows that, at age 37, the 15-year-old veteran has little left in the tank. Once such a defensive stalwart that he averaged more than three blocks a game six times in a seven-year run during the prime of his career and even made an All-Star appearance in 2001, it was painful to see Ratliff hobble up and down the court. Ratliff didn't talk to reporters after his exit interview, but it was clear General Manager Mitch Kupchak had some second thoughts about signing Ratliff last offseason to a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum of $1.35 million.

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Lakers Report Cards: Lamar Odom

Photo: Lakers forward Lamar Odom proved to be the team's most consistent player during the regular season. But he proved unreliable once the playoffs start. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times This is the 11th edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on reserve forward Lamar Odom.

Grade: B+

Sitting on the team plane, plenty of thoughts raced around Lamar Odom's mind. 

The Lakers just lost in a four-game sweep to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, officially ending the defending champions' chance to three-peat. He had ended that effort in embarrassing fashion, committing a flagrant foul on Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter, a defining moment that symbolized the Lakers' loss of composure. And then Odom's thoughts quickly raced about his improved individual season, where his third-best 14.4 points on 53% shooting and a third-best 8.7 rebounds earned him the NBA sixth man of the year and coincided with his increased celebrity brand, most notably featuring he and wife Khloe Kardashian starring in a reality television show dubbed "Khloe and Lamar," and the launching of a unisex fragrance line titled "Unbreakable."

But Odom's emotions on the team plane provided more compelling drama than anything that reality television might capture and brought into question the validity of the name of his fragrance. 

"That’s what kind of broke me down," Odom said about the plane ride back from Dallas. "When I was with Derek [Fisher], I was talking to him about individual success. After experiencing championships, to hell with it. You go through so many things in life. The one year I get noticed, get accolades or get to work with my wife with reality show and fragrance is the year my team comes up short and we lose. It’s just the way it is."

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Lakers Report Cards: Pau Gasol

Top photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson got tough with some players, including Pau Gasol, during the Game 3 loss to Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times This is the 10th edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on starting power forward Pau Gasol.

Grade: B-

Any Laker fan who goes through their DVR can find countless clips documenting Pau Gasol's lackluster showing in the playoffs.

There's the dramatic: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson berating Gasol and thumping him on his chest during a timeout in the team's Game 3 loss to Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals. Gasol expressed frustration whenever Dirk Nowitzki nailed a difficult jumper over him; when his (Gasol's) shooting slump continued or when he missed a defensive rotation.

There's the execution: Gasol appeared passive on offense and avoided contact in the lane. He mostly gave up on defense. And he left most of the rebounding duties to Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest

And there's the ongoing commentary regarding Gasol's poor play: He continuously owned up to his shortcomings and provided rambling analysis on how and why he would improve things. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson initially called him out publicly in a constructive manner and then avoided piling on the negativity. And then, of course, there were the persistent and strongly disputed Internet reports suggesting relationship problems involving his girlfriend, Bryant and Bryant's wife, Vanessa. 

By the time the next training camp starts, whenever that is, the legacy behind Gasol's 2010-2011 season will boil down to a simplistic rendition of  him single-handedly bringing down the Lakers in a four-game sweep in the Western Conference semifinals to Dallas and teammates promptly downplaying his struggles. Lakers guard Derek Fisher provided that framework in a spirited defense of Gasol in his exit interview. 

"I wish we could have done something to make it better, not because we thought he was struggling and he was causing us problems," Fisher said, "but so we could've done something so that all that would've just shut up. If we had kept winning, there wouldn't be much for people to say."

Fisher certainly has a point about the unfair and inaccurate stories involving Gasol's personal life. Fisher also proved correct in clarifying there were other mitigating factors that led to the Lakers' postseason struggles, which, in my mind, included the team's situational attitude, Bryant's late-game struggles, Fisher's lacking clutchness, Lamar Odom's sudden inconsistency, Ron Artest's unpredictability, reserves' continual unreliability and Dallas' impressive play. But Gasol's poor play provided a trickle-down effect in plenty of other areas plaguing the Lakers, including poor defensive rotations and lacking size advantage. Gasol's poor grade doesn't just reflect his tepid 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting in postseason, as much as that is important with determining a players' worth to the Lakers. It also points to Gasol's sudden pendulum swing in performances throughout the season. 

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Lakers Report Cards: Derek Fisher

61124191This is the ninth edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on starting point guard Derek Fisher.

Grade: C+

Even through his offensive shortcomings, Lakers guard Derek Fisher quieted those sentiments most seasons with clutch playoff performances. Even through his increased age and declining speed, Fisher made up for it with intangible leadership and his assistance to team chemistry. And even through the constant questioning of Fisher's overall value, notable figures such as Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson unequivocally appreciated Fisher's presence. Those qualities didn't suddenly evaporate, but they hardly made up for the shortcomings of Fisher's 2010-2011 season. Nor did they make as much of a difference as they had in past seasons.

It showed in Fisher's playoff performances. He may have exceeded his regular-season average, going from 6.8 points per game on 38.9% shooting to 9.3 points on 52.6% shooting in the playoffs, but his numbers in the Lakers' Western Conference semifinals sweep by Dallas dropped to 6.5 points per game on 31% shooting. He offered no late-game clutch play  in the postseason, an obvious missing piece considering Bryant's sudden ineffectiveness late in the game and Pau Gasol's complete disappearing act.

It showed in Fisher's defensive effort. Of course, the 36-year-old Fisher will struggle keeping up with quick guards on screen-and-rolls, just as every player struggles doing so in the NBA. But his continuous fighting through picks, ability to get deflections and strength in organizing the team's defense didn't translate to a unit that continuously blamed each other on missed assignments, sagged on rotations and rarely helped each other. 

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Lakers Report Cards: Andrew Bynum

61376481This is the eighth edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on starting center Andrew Bynum.

Grade: A-

In the midst of the All-Star afterparties, Blake Griffin's electrifying slam dunk performance and Kobe Bryant collecting his fourth All-Star MVP, Andrew Bynum's conversation with Phil Jackson during the break helped lay the groundwork for what became a career-building season for the 23-year-old center.

After missing the first 24 games of the season because of off-season surgery on his right knee, Bynum at the time lamented his role in the offensive system and his two-of-12 outing in the Lakers' most embarrassing regular-season loss to Cleveland. That's when Jackson implored him to take ownership of the Lakers' defensive scheme that emphasized funneling players into the lane so the frontline could disrupt their opponents' shots. Bynum laid out the perfect blueprint, averaging 11.2 points and a Western Conference leading 12.3 rebounds and 2.36 blocks per game after the All-Star break, disrupting passing lanes and significantly altering the shots he didn't block.

Of course, Bynum also provided that presence when he returned from off-season surgery and when he grinded his way through the 2010 NBA playoffs while nursing a lateral meniscus tear on his right knee. The difference this time around was Bynum's willingness to embrace this responsibility as his primary role and that he avoided a major injury throughout the rest of the season.

Certainly, there were some blips on his resume this season. His flagrant foul on Dallas guard J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the Lakers-Mavericks playoff series soured an otherwise impressive season and earned him a five-game suspension next season as well as a $25,000 fine for taking off his jersey. Although Bynum avoided major injury, he collided his knees twice late in the regular season, he avoided further damage because of the 18-inch brace he wears on his right knee. And even if Bynum's honest revelation that the team had "trust issues" after the Lakers' Game 2 loss to Dallas, many in the Lakers organization viewed that as finger pointing rather than displaying any heightened sense of leadership. 

But Bynum earned his high grade because his 24-game absence easily could have resulted in a slow transition period for him coming back to full form. It may be debatable whether Bynum's decision to delay surgery was warranted. It also may be indisputable that his absence created a trickle effect on the Lakers' struggles, most notably on Pau Gasol. But it's also clear that long-term rehab finally paid off in providing Bynum the opportunity to show his true potential when he's healthy.

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Lakers Report Cards: Derrick Caracter

56841880This is the seventh edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on rookie forward/center Derrick Caracter.

Grade: D-

The weight continues to hold him back. The off-the-court issues continue to plague him. And his commitment level continues to be questioned.

Derrick Caracter's rookie year was supposed to be another benchmark in the long progression he's made since transferring from Louisville to Texas-El Paso for perceived off-the-court issues. After losing 28 pounds since leaving the Miners, this season was supposed to mark another step in slimming down. And after pledging he'd take advantage of the few opportunities a veteran and front-line-heavy team would afford a 58th pick out of the NBA draft, Caracter failed to take the proper steps.

"I need to work and be ready for the next year," Caracter summed up of his exit interview.

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Lakers Report Cards: Devin Ebanks

6a00d8341c506253ef014e87427170970d-320wiThis is the sixth edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on rookie forward Devin Ebanks.

Grade: C

Given that a fractured left tibia left him sidelined for the last two months, he only appeared in 20 games while averaging 3.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 5.9 minutes a contest and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson often compares rookies to whale feces, the grade assigned to Ebanks is by no means an indictment on his performance level.

It points to the equivalent of Ebanks taking an advanced class, making the best circumstances of playing with a talented and veteran-heavy roster, nursing a long-term injury and receiving little playing time. But Ebanks impressed the Lakers enough that Jackson and players universally lauded his work ethic, defensive tenacity, calm demeanor and unassuming nature. Unlike some of the reserves, Ebanks improved as the season progressed and he possesses enough talent that the team's contention that his "time will come" goes beyond just trying to provide encouraging words. He soaked everything in, ranging from studying more video with Jackson, seeking advice from Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Derek Fisher as well as bonding with rookie Derrick Caracter. And though Jackson and Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak instructed him to work on his ball handling and shooting, that suggestion also points to the fact that they're envisioning him to play more at shooting guard than at small forward.

Considering the uncertainty of whether Shannon Brown will opt out of his contract this offseason, it's plausible that Ebanks would play directly behind Bryant next season at shooting guard. In fact, had Ebanks not gotten injured, he likely would've been ahead of Luke Walton in the depth chart behind Ron Artest and Matt Barnes at small forward.  But there's still plenty of work to do and it's not guaranteed the Lakers will keep Ebanks after this season. Despite all the potential he showed with his athleticism, quickness, defense and work ethic, Ebanks still appears raw with his shooting stroke (41.2%) and understanding of the triangle offense. His six-game stint with the Bakersfield Jam, where he averaged 27.7 minutes, 16.0 points and 7.7 rebounds, including 25- and 26-point performances in his last two contests, shows that these problems are all correctible with time and experience.

"This is my first year so I take it as a learning process," Ebanks said. "I'll come back and be ready to play."

--Mark Medina

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

Photo: Lakers forward Devin Ebanks tries to score against the defense of FC Barcelona forward Boniface Ndong in an exhibition game. Credit: Andreu Dalmau / EPA

Lakers Report Cards: Kobe Bryant

Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant continuously took a measured approach during the 2010-2011 season because of his injuries. Credit: Mark D. Smith / US Presswire / February 27, 2011 This is the fifth edition of Lakers Report Cards, focusing today on guard Kobe Bryant.

Grade: B+

One day removed from his scintillating All-Star performance where he collected his fourth All-Star MVP, threw down a thunderous slam over LeBron James, and showcased his superiority among the league's best, Kobe Bryant stood outside the Lakers' training room relishing the "elder statesmen" role the eager and idolizing 20-something-year-old All-Stars bestowed on him.

He embraced giving them advice over unspecified parts of their game. He admitted feeling humbled to seeing Russell Westbrook mimic a pull-up jumper that Bryant had imitated from Michael Jordan. And he expressed sentiments that the state of the NBA will be in good hands with the likes of Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love running the show. But since when has the uber-competitive Bryant allowed any opponent any sort of an edge? 

"I don't give a ....," Bryant said matter-of-factly. "You can't beat me in June."

Obviously, Bryant couldn't prove that this year with the Lakers falling to the Dallas Mavericks in an embarrassing Western Conference semifinal sweep. But in the Lakers' 2010 NBA championship, Bryant didn't exactly prove that he's invincible in June, either. His six of 24 Game 7 shooting performance proved he's vulnerable with his energy and assorted injuries, but with the combination of a strong supporting cast and his endless determination, he'd find a way. 

There's no argument that Bryant's play isn't as dominant as it once was. Bryant's regular-season averages of 25.3 points in 33.9 minutes per game marked his lowest statistical output since the 2003-04 season. His playoff averages of 22.9 points in 35.4 minutes marked his lowest mark since the 1999-2000 season. And his missed potential game winner in the series opener against Dallas preceded a 19 points per game average in the final three games.

Even with those numbers, Bryant proved to be the team's best player, will still be relied on to close games and will still earn plaudits from opposing players and coaches as the league's best player. But with the standard remaining high for Bryant, his grade drops to a B + because of ongoing complications managing his injuries and his mixed leadership approach. 

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