Lamenting the Lakers' lost reserves from the 2010 NBA title team points to 20/20 hindsight
Throughout each exit interview, every Laker dropped a morsel suggesting the missing piece to the championship puzzle.
Coach Phil Jackson lamented the team's lack of speed. Center Andrew Bynum wished the team practiced with more intensity. And nearly everyone acknowledged in some form that the heavy basketball mileage accumulated through three consecutive NBA Finals appearances finally caught up to them.
Interestingly enough, some of the Lakers from the 2010 championship team fit that description before parting ways. Jordan Farmar, who accepted a three-year, $12-million offer with the New Jersey Nets, provided plenty of speed as a backup point guard. Sasha Vujacic, whom the Lakers traded to the New Jersey Nets for Joe Smith, earned a reputation for playing with full intensity in practice and in games. DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell provided enough minutes to keep the Lakers' front line fresh, but the Lakers' failure to re-sign them resulted in Mbenga and Powell joining the New Orleans Hornets and Atlanta Hawks, respectively.
The Lakers could have used all those missing ingredients, but fans shouldn't criticize Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak for replacing that bench with a veteran-laden reserve unit. Kupchak hardly expressed much satisfaction with the team's bench, citing Steve Blake's feeling uncomfortable on the floor, Matt Barnes' lateral meniscus tear limiting him and Theo Ratliff's arthroscopic surgery on his left knee happening only eight games into the season. But no one could've anticipated the worst-case scenario involving the newly signed players to unfold.
Sure, I found it risky for the Lakers to sign a 37-year-old Ratliff because of the uncertainty about how long he would last. Sure, I found it a little odd that little effort was made to give Smith a role to play after lamenting the team's lack of support in helping Pau Gasol absorb Andrew Bynum's minutes while Bynum recovered from offseason surgery. And sure, the Lakers at some point are going to have to inject youth into the team to make the transition seamless when the contracts of Kobe Bryant (2013-14), Gasol (2013-14), Ron Artest (2013-14), Lamar Odom (2012-13) and Derek Fisher (2012-13) run out. But criticizing Lakers' front-office decisions during the 2010 offseason only points to 20/20 hindsight.
Remember why the Lakers didn't keep these players in the first place.
Farmar often lamented during his four-year tenure with the Lakers his lack of playing time, how the triangle offense limited his game and how there never seemed to be enough opportunities for him to succeed. Much of Farmar's inconsistency with the Lakers pointed more to his poor decision-making and poor effort on defense than limited opportunities. Most of Farmar's impressive performances with the Lakers happened in waves, making it hard to predict whether more chances would have resulted in a steady line graph or just more peaks and valleys.
Vujacic made shots all the time in practice and even helped the Lakers secure the 2010 NBA title with two clutch free throws in Game 7 of the Finals. But Vujacic showed no signs of progressing since posting an impressive 8.8 points on 45.4% shooting in the 2007-08 season. The clutch shots he made in practice hardly translated into games, where he always wanted to jam 20 minutes worth of production into a five-minute span. His hustle in practice sparked more annoyance on the court where his emotions altered his focus and alienated his teammates. And his hunger for the game -- an ingredient that seemed mostly missing -- was inappropriately channeled into fretting over small stuff, leading into arguments with coaches and teammates.
Mbenga provided enough hustle and athleticism to make Jackson comfortable enough to give Gasol and Bynum a breather. But he wanted a larger role that the Lakers couldn't guarantee, considering the team's frontline depth. Powell's work ethic and positive attitude resonated so well within the Lakers locker room that he became a close friend of Bryant. But rarely did any of those qualities actually resonate in game situations.
That's why plenty of Laker fans felt giddy with the team's off-season movement last year. Signing Blake to a four-year, $16-million deal looked like the answer to shortening Fisher's minutes, providing the team some necessary outside shooting and having ensuring strong ball movement within the offense. Signing Matt Barnes to a two-year, $3.77 million deal looked like the answer to the add onto the toughness Artest brought and the need to have a legitimate backup who can produce garbage points and hustle plays. And signing Ratliff to a one-year, $1.35-million deal seemed to be the answer in finding a defensive stalwart content with any role thrown his way.
While the Lakers' previously young bench seemed more fixated on individual production than actually playing within the team concept, the more veteran bench players appeared more than willing to sacrifice their roles for a shot at their first ring. But that trade-off backfired. Blake's shooting and overall play fizzled out after a strong first month. Barnes' surgery on his right knee took away his aggressive knack for cutting into the lane and making easy baskets. And Ratliff provided next to nothing when he was needed to provide five to eight minutes during Bynum's rehab to prevent Gasol from falling to fatigue.
There's no doubt the Lakers plan to fix those problems during the current offseason. The language from both Kupchak and Jerry Buss about making "tweaks" to the team's roster surely points to the bench since the team is locked into long-term contracts with the core lineup. But that doesn't mean the Lakers should regret allowing those other reserves to leave.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: New Laker draft pick Jordan Farmar and General Manager Mitch Kupchak pose for photos during a press conference. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / June 29, 2006
Photo: Lakers center DJ Mbenga provided plenty of athleticism, but didn't have much to offer on offense. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / April 23, 2008