Breaking down the Lakers roster entering the playoffs
Forward Ron Artest
When he wasn't celebrating the 2010 NBA championship, Artest spent plenty of time this off-season slimming down to 250 pounds and limiting his alcohol consumption in the hopes he could keep up with speedy players such as Kevin Durant. That effort has proven to be a mixed bag, but the way he defends the opposing team's best player will likely prove to be the X factor in a series.
It's crucial that Artest play the game the right way. When he doesn't have a superstar player to defend, Artest sometimes appears bored on team defense. When he is defending a top scorer, sometimes the matchup distracts him from basic duties, such as help defense. Then there's of course the offense, where running a fast break and any shot attempt immediately prompts Staples Center to let out a collective gasp.
But there have been spurts, particularly since the All-Star break where Artest has played the right way. Aside from his tenacious and aggressive defense, he's become a more reliable option offensively since the All-Star break with his points per game and shooting percentage eclipsing his season average. It all points to Artest becoming more aware and appearing more engaged. Strangely enough, Artest thrives more when he's not over-thinking what he has to do on the court. As everyone knows with Artest, he's a wild card and it'll be hard to gauge what he'll truly bring. There's no point in unraveling the enigma that is Ron Artest, but for better and/or worse, his playoff performances will surely be memorable.
Forward Matt Barnes
Barnes is expected to return to the lineup in time to appear in Game 1 of the Lakers-Hornets first round matchup on Sunday after experiencing soreness in his right knee. Barnes is a good player to have as an enforcer, acting as protection to a teammate getting picked on to the one delivering the hard fouls on the other end. Barnes never fails to disappoint in that department, and it will be entertaining to see how he responds to Jason Terry should the Lakers meet the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals after he earned an ejection two weeks ago for getting in a shoving match with Terry after he pushed Steve Blake to the ground.
It remains uncertain whether Barnes will be able to fill the role he provided before suffering a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in the Lakers' 101-97 victory Jan. 7 against New Orleans. Before that, Barnes remained a consistent option on the bench by providing hustle plays, making easy putbacks and cutting effectively so that he received open looks. Ever since Barnes returned to the lineup in early March, he hasn't shown that same adaptability. He's appeared extremely tentative. Part of that surely points to his concern about his knee, but he can still find ways to remain aggressive and find close-range shots without sacrificing his health.
Guard Steve Blake
He's considered questionable for the Lakers' first-round series because of chicken pox, something the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases says is more serious for adults than children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported just two adult deaths from chicken pox in the last decade, but the rash usually appears 10 to 21 days after infection.
The most pressing concerns obviously point to Blake's health. Should he recover in time to return, there will be an inevitable adjustment period in getting acclimated in the lineup. Blake has a basketball IQ so that shouldn't take very long. But where he left off before getting sick remains troubling. As well as he's run the offense, particularly for a newcomer, he's been extremely tentative in shooting. Blake has had great intentions. He's usually the first to come out during pre-game warmups to work on his shooting, and he looks great during those sessions. But that hasn't translated on the court.
Considering the bench's inconsistency, it'd be counterproductive for Blake to shoot his way out of a slump, something he's largely avoided doing. But there's no reason why he should play as if he's unsure of his role. The Lakers universally like his presence and team-first mentality and they have given him the green light to make plays. He just needs more confidence in doing that.
Guard Shannon Brown
Whenever Brown sees an open shot, he should think twice before taking it. Brown's shooting has been downright awful, and his shot selection, inability to create open looks and constant dribbling hasn't helped matters either. Brown entered the 2010-2011 season very aware that he's strictly seen as a dunker and that he wanted to mold his game into a complete player. The constant hours in the gym seemed to have paid off with a strong shooting stroke at the beginning of the season. Ever since defenses have keyed on him, he hasn't been the same. Brown shouldn't shoot himself out of those struggles during the playoffs because Lakers Coach Phil Jackson won't let him.
I understand Brown doesn't want to be just a dunker. But there's no reason he needs to shy away from that when he's open on the fast break, and he surely hasn't. He can use his energy defensively instead of worrying more about his offensive production. It'll help his cause in becoming a complete player and provide more value in a department that often points to effort.
Guard Kobe Bryant
Bryant is entering the 2011 postseason under much better circumstances than last year's playoffs. Sure, he has plenty of injuries to worry about, ranging from his surgically repaired right knee, sprained left ankle and arthritis on his right index finger, among others. But they're at least not as painful as they were last year. Bryant's surely going to crank up the intensity, no longer needing to worry to pace his body so it doesn't break down. So expect many game-winners, amazing shots and a competitive streak no one else can match. It's crucial, though, that when opposing teams goad him into shooting the entire time, he makes the defense pay by getting others involved. The Lakers are a much better team when he initially takes charge because it helps set the tone, but he has to be true to his word that he'll take what the defense gives him because there are too many times he hasn't lived up to that mantra.
Center Andrew Bynum
Sure, Bryant's the most talented player, but Bynum will be the main variable that will determine whether the Lakers three-peat. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, considering Bynum has a bone bruise on his surgically repaired right knee and Jackson expressed uncertainty on what he could expect out of him. We'll have a much clearer idea Friday since Bynum tweeted "he's looking forward to a hard practice." Bynum's value can't be overstated enough. He's the lynch pin behind the Lakers' defensive resurgence during their 17-1 start after the All-Star break, which consisted of per-game averages of 11.2 points, 12.3 rebounds (trailing only Dwight Howard's 14.7) and 2.36 blocks (trailing Howard's three and JaVale McGee's 2.57).
The Lakers will flourish more with Bynum fully healthy, considering that will allow him to be fully aggressive, while his presence will relieve Pau Gasol's minutes and have Lamar Odom lead the bench. Should Bynum's injury be more serious than indicated or should he suffer even another injury, a limited Bynum will still prove valuable. One only has to look back at the 2010 NBA Finals to know why. Despite needing to get his knees drained, Bynum's presence alone caused matchup problems, discouraged opponents from driving to the basket and provided another option for easy rebounds and putbacks, resulting in an of average of 7.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 25 minutes against Boston. It's a formula that will work again this time around, so long as Bynum remains healthy enough to play.
Forward-Center Derrick Caracter
Sorry, Derrick. Your time on the floor will be little to none. But soak in the atmosphere. Observe and ask for advice. Give Bynum a good challenge in practice. Just make sure you don't cause any more injuries. And most importantly, be sure the water bottles and towels are removed from the practice floor.
Guard Derek Fisher
Get ready for clutch shots, pre-game and halftime speeches, fans saying they were wrong all along about Fisher and people like me writing that I've preached this all along. The playoffs are Fisher's moment to shine and there's no reason the 2011 NBA postseason should be any different. The Lakers' first-round meeting with New Orleans will feature Fisher having the daunting task of guarding Chris Paul, but he's actually shown enough tenacity in fighting through the Hornets' pick-and-rolls to at least minimize the damage. Besides, this matchup will mostly put the onus on the Lakers' defensive scheme that funnels drivers to the basket to make sure Paul doesn't get easy looks in the lane.
Forward Devin Ebanks
He's following Caracter's fate, so there's no use repeating. But here's a few additional things. He can use the practice time to help strengthen his left tibia, a much better alternative than remaining on the sidelines in street clothes. Ebanks also needs to step his game up on the rookie duties. Caracter accused him of ducking out of them and citing his injury as a convenient excuse. He needs to put that immediate perception to bed or else the veterans will only add more tasks for him.
Forward Pau Gasol
The chemistry between Bryant and Gasol will be crucial to how effective they display the balance between nurturing Bryant's scoring mentality and Gasol's sizable advantage inside. They have a good relationship, but Bryant occasionally shies away from him when he wants to score and Gasol occasionally doesn't establish enough post position. Gasol will knock down midrange jumpers and hook shots with ease, using his effective footwork to draw defenders off balance. But Gasol will also be needed defensively, particularly if Bynum is limited. He's displayed that effort on an inconsistent basis, often delegating to Bynum to make defensive stops and taking his time in getting back on transition defense.
Guard Trey Johnson
Clearly, Johnson is needed to carry the Lakers on his back, make game winners and become the team's spokesman. There's really no telling what an NBA championship will do to his legacy. Actually, Johnson should just enjoy the ride. After the Lakers acquired him from the Bakersfield Jam because of Blake's absence, Johnson displayed a tremendous amount of aggressiveness and athleticism, scoring six points in the season finale against Sacramento. This is a chance to impress the Lakers with his attitude and hustle in practice. Plus, he can stock up on free Kobe shoes. But Johnson can't just be freeloading off the Black Mamba. He's got to bring something in return, such as taking care of Bryant's errands while he gets into playoff mode.
Forward Lamar Odom
Odom's been the most consistent player and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue. He stayed remarkably focused and hungry even when the reality television camera crews were around. There's no doubt Odom will provide that versatile presence off the bench. He'll likely be called to fill in various spots, considering Bynum's possible limitation. But he's also going to need to be more assertive as a reserve. This isn't a knock on his game whatsover, but with the bench's inconsistency Odom will sometimes need to take over. Odom prides himself on being part of what he calls momentum plays, whether it be a key defensive stop, outlet pass or running the break. He should still perfect those sequences, but there will be times Odom needs to simply take over because of Jackson's tightened rotation on the reserves during the postseason.
Center Theo Ratliff
Ratliff has been extremely limited because of his surgically repaired left knee, poor conditioning and mobility. But he's a smart basketball player. If he's able to provide five minutes per game, that'll be good enough in the Lakers' eyes. It'll give Bynum and Gasol a breather and help them keep sharp late in the game.
Forward Joe Smith
Smith provides a similar role to Ratliff, but he also has another important function. Smith greets the starters during pre-game introductions and often provides encouraging words. It's a small role that goes a long way. Smith seems to be the most up-to-date on hip hop music so he needs to make sure everyone's iPod has all the latest songs.
Forward Luke Walton
Walton needs to minimize mistakes so the live chat and comment threads don't become flooded with jabs about his worth to the team. But contrary to popular belief, Walton actually serves a valuable role. I'm not a fan of his shot selection or his athleticism, but Walton runs the system well and always makes the extra pass. It'd be best to pair him up with some starters since they're more likely to hit the shots off of his passes than the inconsistent reserves.
Photos, from top: Lakers forward Lamar Odom has the ball knocked from his grasp by the defense of Hornets big men DJ Mbenga and David Andersen February in New Orleans. Credit: Derick E. Hingle / US Presswire; Kobe Bryant pulls up for a jumper over the double-team defense of Hornets center DJ Mbenga and guard Willie Green in a regular-season game this year in New Orleans Credit: Misty McElroy / Reuters; Lakers guard Derek Fisher fouls Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook after he made a steal earlier this season at Staples Center. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 10, 2011.