Five ways to improve the Lakers' bench
Sorting through all the offensive and defensive issues that's plaguing the Lakers' reserves, Lamar Odom came to a painful conclusion.
"If I had to grade it," he said, "the last 10 games would be a C and close to an F."
Odom shared that sentiment following Saturday's practice at El Segundo in his typically laid-back and straight forward manner. But his admission last season that he takes personal offense when the bench plays poorly surely means he's not satisfied one bit. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson acknowledged he's addressed the bench's inconsistency frequently during practice, but without being overly dramatic about it considering the Lakers (52-20) enter Sunday's game against New Orleans (42-31) with a 14-1 mark since the All-Star break.
Once the playoffs start, Jackson also won't rely as much on his reserves. He'll instead hand out more minutes to his starters, changing his approach from developing the team to ensuring victories. Still, a key variable determining how well the Lakers will look entering the postseason hinges on their health and energy level, two variables the bench can alleviate with more consistent play.
"If there's a good thing out of this, it's that you have time to fix it," Lakers reserve guard Steve Blake said. "We have 10 games left for the playoffs to get it out of our system."
Below the jump are five ideas how to do just that.
1. Maintain leads. Even with the Lakers nursing a 22-point fourth-quarter lead March 6 against San Antonio, Jackson grew tired of the Spurs making a late run while the reserves settled for outside shots. So he yanked the reserves out of the lineup in favor of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher with 5:57 remaining, sending a clear message that Jackson's tolerance for mistakes and poor decision making won't be as much tolerated as they make a late-season push. The bench may have gotten the message, but it hasn't consistently shown it can reverse poor habits. Jackson lamented the bench's performance in the Lakers' 112-104 victory Friday over the Clippers for blowing a 21-point lead and opening the second half with three turnovers.
2. Find other ways to contribute on offense through shooting slumps: The beginning of the Lakers' season featured a bench seemingly able to adapt right away. The reasons pointed to Steve Blake's instant understanding of the triangle, Matt Barnes' ability to slash through the lane and make hustle plays and Shannon Brown's renewed outside shooting. Blake's shooting went 41.7% in November to 33.% to December, jumped to 43.8% in January and then spiked down to 33.3% in February and 29.3% in March. The poor marks has caused him to remain passive in shooting the ball and making himself less threatening as a passer.
Brown's shooting mark from November (48%) to December (40.2%), jumped slightly in January (43%) and then fell again in February (41.1%) and March (41.4%). He's maintained his aggressiveness and athleticism that helps him remain a Staples Center favorite, but he hasn't tempered his shot selection in settling for outside jumpers. Blake and Brown are often seeing in pre-game warmups so they have the right attitude in fixing it, but the extra work hasn't translated on the court.
Meanwhile, Barnes hasn't been able to replicate the 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds he averaged per contest before tearing his lateral meniscus in his right knee Jan. 7 against New Orleans, an injury that kept him sidelined for 26 games. Since then, Barnes has only scored in double digits in one game, settles for open jumpers and doesn't maintain the same aggressiveness he had prior to his injury.
The aftermath of the Lakers' 94-88 loss March 10 to the Miami Heat correctly centered on Bryant's eight of 21 shooting and two late turnovers, Andrew Bynum's one first-half rebound and Ron Artest's missed layup in the final minute. But it also featured The Killer B's scoring only five points and failing to record a field goal in 33 minutes.
3. Make defensive stops. The Lakers changed their identity after the All-Star break into a more defensive oriented team, allowing only 87 points per contest before last week's games. The Lakers' defensive identity this season has mostly rested on the Lakers' starters, however, ranging from Bynum's rebounding, shot blocking and paint presence, Artest's steals and one-on-one defense and Derek Fisher's charges and deflections. No where has that presence been felt from the reserves.
4. Slow the pace down: In turn, part of the reserves struggles defensively has correlated to their never-ending want to push the pace. As fun as it is to see Odom finish on coast-to-coast drives, Brown to slam home a dunk or Blake to set someone up on the break, the reserves have often forced this style of the play at the expense of making good decisions.
5. Odom should take charge: His 14.4 points on 53.7% shooting and 8.8 rebounds per game have come pretty consistently. After assuming the starter's role during Bynum's two-game absence, Odom's return to the bench featured nine points on three-of-nine shooting, hardly the kind of performance the Lakers want from him. This is a minor issue at best, but taking immediate control of the unit should help kickstart them. After all, he's the one handing out the grade.
Summed up Jackson: "They have to develop an identity for themselves."
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