Breaking down the Lakers roster at the halfway point of the season
Forward Ron Artest
Outlook: His preseason performances suggested Artest showed a stronger understanding of the triangle and that slimming down to 250 pounds improved his mobility to guard quicker scorers. It turned out it was a mirage. Artest has appeared similarly disjointed on offense and a few impressive defensive performances against the likes of Portland's Brandon Roy, Golden State's Monta Ellis, the Clippers' Blake Griffin and Minnesota's Michael Beasley rarely bolstered the Lakers' team defense.
Artest at times acknowledged the tough balancing act between remaining focused on the Lakers and promoting his championship ring raffle. He was surely well intentioned and remains one of the hardest workers on the team, but as the great John Wooden said, "Don't mistake activity for achievement."
There were some worries that Artest's confrontation with Phil Jackson over the Lakers coach's public criticism of him would be destructive, but it actually has appeared to have a positive effect. Although well intentioned in wanting to motivate Artest, Jackson has since been very deferential toward him when talking to the media. Artest's play has also appeared to improve, as indicated by his late-game shots against Phoenix and Golden State, improved entry passes and some feisty defensive play against New York, which helped set the Lakers' tone defensively as they continue sharpening the new scheme that emphasizes closing out on the perimeter, forcing opponents baseline and the frontcourt remaining close to the basket.
With Matt Barnes expected to miss at least eight weeks because of surgery surrounding the lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, Artest has an opportunity to prove himself again. That doesn't mean he has to score a certain number of points. In addition to remaining a consistent defensive presence, Artest needs to improve on not disrupting the offense by standing idly on the corner. He came through in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals because of calmed nerves and proper spacing within the offense.
Forward Matt Barnes
Outlook: The Lakers are surely going to miss his presence as he begins rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee. But his wanting to expedite his return to the floor without exposing his knee to further injury reveals the same determination that's made him so successful thus far with the Lakers.
As with any newcomer, there are inevitable adjustments in learning the triangle and figuring out a role. But Barnes has fit in seamlessly by finding ways to compensate for the learning curve. While learning the triangle, he relied on his basketball instincts and made sure he was cutting properly into open spaces and converting on hustle plays. He's been very deferential to the veterans both with public comments and on-court actions. Even though he's eaten into Artest's minutes, the two have set up a mutual system where one will raise his hand when he feels he's tired and needs a break. The fact that Barnes is devoting part of his rehab to further study nuances of the triangle shows his hunger level and desire to find ways to offer something productive.
Guard Steve Blake
Outlook: Blake's learning of the triangle offense has been seamless. In one of the first days of training camp, the coaching staff noticed his quick acclimation, which they credited to his high basketball IQ and feel for the game. His shooting stroke, on the other hand, has created a few concerns particularly when you note the clear drop-off in numbers between November and December. He's not going to have to carry a team offensively, but role players such as himself can't go through such a long stretch.
Not only has his shot been off, it appears that Blake has been reluctant to take open shots; instead, he passes to a teammate, a sure sign that confidence remains an issue. Blake stuck around after Thursday's practice to work on his jumper, and he made many of those shots. For now, the Lakers should be very pleased they have a dependable backup playmaker who's bought into the team concepts. It's helped him fit in the team and establish a niche without stealing too much thunder from anyone else.
Guard Shannon Brown
Outlook: He entered the season wanting to show his skillset goes beyond just throwing down alley-oop lobs and fast-break dunks. Brown certainly showed that by shooting at 48% in November, enough to warrant early talk about being among the league's candidates for most improved player. Then the shooting slump started where he shot 40% in December.
No shooter is immune to a slump, but what matters is how they compensate for their shortcomings. Continuing to fire the same shots won't work. Avoiding taking shots won't work either. But it appears Brown has taken the right approach in finding other ways to contribute until his strong shooting touch returns, including hustling on defense, hitting close-range shots and, yes, also throwing in a few dunks.
Guard Kobe Bryant
Outlook: As Bryant entered the season, the main concern was his health. Surely, that's remained the primary focus considering he has a fractured right index finger, sprained right pinkie and sprained left middle finger. He also admitted to the New York Post's Peter Vecsey that he has "very little cartilage under my right kneecap, it’s almost bone on bone.” And surely, Bryant's health will largely determine how the Lakers fare in the postseason; it's also why he's sat out most practices.
Whatever body parts may be ailing Bryant these days, he's not showing strong signs that his health is affecting his game. No, what's standing out more involves his leadership. He's evolved since the 2007-08 season into a player more trusting of his teammates; the talent around him no longer made him feel as impatient and compelled to do everything on his own. But what's been an ongoing adjustment this season for Bryant entails knowing where to pick his spots.
He was consistently even-keeled through the November, maintaining the same stoic and hungry demeanor after a win or loss. But that all went out the window following the Lakers' Christmas Day loss against Miami, when he publicly criticized the team and vowed to "kick ... in practice," something he's rarely done all season, coinciding with stretches where he took a large number of shots at the expense of team chemistry. He then retreated into a more subtle approach, during which encouraged the media to criticize the team. His wish was granted, with the usual analysis along with reports on Artest confronting Jackson and ones that revealed a few Lakers, including Pau Gasol, showed up late to a shootaround. During the Lakers' six-game winning streak, Bryant kept his competitive streak going while striking a perfect balance that enables him to ride the hot hand while also ensuring the offense moves with precision and balance.
Center Andrew Bynum
Outlook: Laker fans are split on whether Bynum's offseason surgery pointed to his selfishness in wanting to attend the World Cup -- either a franchise-wide tactical mistake in holding off surgery until July 28, or not an issue at all considering Bynum needed time before surgery to mentally recharge. What isn't in dispute is how much different the Lakers have become since he's returned to the floor. The Lakers have gone 12-4 since he returned to the lineup Dec. 14 against Washington and 8-1 since he returned to the starting lineup Dec. 29 against New Orleans. Why? Well, the defensive rotations have been sharper, his frontcourt partners haven't had to play as many minutes, and he's been putting up some numbers, too.
As Bynum eased his way back in with his conditioning, timing and jumping, he proved he didn't just need touches to remain effective. He cleaned the glass, made easy putbacks, clogged the lane, blocked shots, provided matchup problems and became a main ingredient in improving the Lakers' defensive scheme. His game is going to continue to flourish through the rest of the season if he stays healthy, a qualifier that has surely frustrated Lakers fans for quite some time.
Forward-center Derrick Caracter
Outlook: The team plans to ship Caracter to the Bakersfield Jam of the Development League once Theo Ratliff returns after rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee, which Ratliff is to do before the end of the month. Caracter survived the test by showing promise with his post presence, rebounding and overall work ethic, while going through some growing pains with game preparation, ball-handling, decision-making and overall confidence. A stint with Bakersfield should give him a shot of confidence, considering his playing time and scoring will increase. So long as he remains eager to learn and work, Caracter should eventually flourish, although it's not guaranteed the Lakers will re-sign him after this season.
Guard Derek Fisher
Outlook: After displaying a surprisingly efficient shooting stroke to start the season, Fisher reverted back to the regular-season form that frustrates some Laker fans. But as with anything regarding Fisher, it's necessary to view within the context of what his role on the team provides. He offered a few team speeches, made a game-winning shot against the Clippers and has worked well with Bryant in dividing up the leadership good cop-bad cop roles and has been very instrumental in deflecting passes and drawing charges in the lane.
As far as the weaknesses of his game, there's a few things necessary to address. His defense isn't as troubling as you'd think. Surely he's not going to win any Defensive Player of the Year awards for defending quick young guards, but those players have proven hard to stop to almost anybody in the league, and his teammates' unwillingness to play help defense contributed more to the easy drives to the basket. No, what's more troubling involves his shot selection. There have been plenty of shots Fisher has taken that are in rhythm that simply don't go in. But his drives to the basket and runners in the lane often prove unnecessary and disruptive to the team's offense.
Forward Devin Ebanks
Outlook: Ebanks recently remarked that his six-game stint with the Jam was an "eye-opener" and sparked him to want to work harder after the Lakers recalled him last week following Barnes' injury. But hunger has hardly been an issue with Ebanks, whose unassuming nature and willingness to listen to coach and player advice has earned him praise. It's unclear how much of an increased role he will have, but Jackson expects to give him a bigger opportunity during Barnes' absence.
Before his stint with Bakersfield, Ebanks appeared incredibly disciplined and intense on defense. But he still appeared hesitant with his shot and overall feel for the triangle. Perhaps his 16.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in 27.7 minutes per game with Bakersfield will carry over. Perhaps not. But Ebanks is making the right steps in improving his game.
Forward Pau Gasol
Outlook: It appeared nothing was stopping Gasol at the beginning the season, which he opened with with the remarkable efficiency and consistency that has defined his game since he joined the Lakers in February 2008. But then Gasol suddenly hit the brakes, with the heavy minutes he logged during Bynum's absence appearing to catch up to him. Considering he rested this summer after appearing in three consecutive NBA Finals and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it's a tad surprising Gasol couldn't absorb that high mileage. It remained even more head-scratching that Gasol's sluggish play continued once Bynum returned. He appeared tentative, eager to cut corners on defense and generally passive whenever confronted physically. When Gasol's shot didn't fall, he rarely found ways to try to remain effective, and the drop in production severely hurt the Lakers. Since Bynum's return to the starting lineup, Gasol's game has improved, however, and appears to be coming back to normal.
Forward Lamar Odom
Outlook: Odom was the team's best player to start off the season, showing consistent numbers, sharp conditioning (a carryover from the FIBA World Championships) and an ability to adapt to any circumstance. He managed to log heavy minutes during Bynum's absence. He played through foot and shoulder injuries without complaint. He gracefully accepted a bench role in the past eight games, and has flourished in it. And it doesn't appear that his busy lifestyle, including an about-to-be filmed reality television show with wife Khloe Kardashian, has distracted him at all.
If anything, Odom's intense schedule and constant basketball activity has kept him sharp and hungry throughout the season. That hasn't always been the case with Odom, who kept Laker fans guessing as to whether they'd see the versatile and team-first player on the floor or the one who just goes through the motions. This season, he's maintained the fine art of playing aggressively while also taking a back seat to Bryant, Gasol and Bynum. But it's his play that's proved to be the best thus far.
Center Theo Ratliff
Outlook: Considering he only played eight games before having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, there's not much of a sample size. When Ratliff was in the lineup, however, he was extremely limited by his poor mobility and speed. That's not going to cause major problems for the Lakers, considering they only expect him to play five to eight minutes per night and he hasn't made major mistakes. But it's surely reduced the team's comfort level in giving him heavier minutes should the team need it. Ratliff is expected to return to full practice after the team's two-game trip, to Dallas on Wednesday and Denver on Friday, which would then result in Caracter going to the Development League.
Forward Joe Smith
Outlook: Since the Nets traded Smith to the Lakers for Sasha Vujacic on Dec. 15, Smith has only played 5.7 minutes per game in three contests. It's doubtful he'll get much playing time except garbage minutes. But he's held a relentlessly positive attitude, appearing friendly to teammates and coaches, stressing he's not worried about playing time and trying to pick up the triangle as fast as he can. So it's probably more realistic to say that he'll provide more in practice than in games. Smith said he's still trying to nail down the triangle offense's terminology and building a comfort level with his teammates. The 15-year veteran could surely be somebody who pushes the team along in practice.
Forward Luke Walton
Outlook: Jackson expressed confidence in giving Walton an increased role during Barnes' injury, not because of favoritism (as many like to allege), but because he plays within his role in facilitating the offense. When Walton has done that, the chemistry has been solid. When he's attempted shots, it's led to ugly results, including a 30% mark from field-goal range, transition baskets and, of course, overflow comments on the live chat about his worth on the team. There's at least one positive note: His back has remained healthy so far this season.
-- Mark Medina
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