How will the Lakers' bench perform under Mike Brown?
The questions surrounding the Mike Brown hire centers on a few fundamental questions.
First and foremost, there's hand-wringing over whether he's the right man to coach the Lakers. Fueled partly by Kobe Bryant's refusal to comment on the hire and by the widely held perception that the Cavaliers fired him in 2010 to appease LeBron James, many wonder how Brown will work with the Lakers' superstar.
Because of Brown's hope to have a faster-paced offense and mostly scrap the triangle system, many believe that Derek Fisher will have a reduced role. And with Brown's hope to have an offense centered on Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum receiving looks off pick-and-rolls, many wonder how that philosophy will mix with Brown wanting to still ensure Bryant receives a high volume of shots in his sweet spots.
There's also one significant area that will determine Mike Brown's success on the Lakers, the team's bench. It's difficult to fully evaluate this issue because the Lakers' roster might be different when the 2011-12 season actually starts, if it starts at all. In light of an uncertain collective bargaining agreement and the Lakers' long-term deals to their core roster, both owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak have continuously said they want to make "tweaks" to the roster, a code word that acknowledges the Lakers' financial limitations and the likelihood that any changes will be made among the reserves rather than the starters.
And there's some uncertainty regarding who from the 2010-11 Lakers bench will return, including Lamar Odom (whose two-year, $17-million contract is an attractive option for other teams), Shannon Brown (who opted out of his $2.37-million contract), Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks (both of whom have team options for $788,872) and rookies Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock and Ater Majok (each of which has received no guarantee from Kupchak that he will make the actual roster).
After the jump is my take on which of the Lakers reserves are likely to remain on the team and how they will fare under Brown.
Even though it wouldn't be surprising if the Lakers traded him, my hunch based on nothing but my own opinion is that he'll stay on the team. Odom's well past the inconsistent stage of his career where only showed glimpses of his true potential. So I don't expect Odom to suddenly revert to those habits just because Phil Jackson won't be there anymore. But Odom might experience an adjustment period under Brown because he might be asked to assume a higher responsibility in bringing the ball up the floor.
Of course, Odom's biggest strength involves his versatility and ability to adapt to any role. Handling point guard duties isn't exactly a novel concept. He's done that in situational settings with the Lakers, even assumed that responsibility during the 2008 exhibition season and once spent half a season with the Clippers fulfilling that role.
But doing that on a routine basis consists of plenty of pros and cons. Odom, who's 6-10, could post up smaller guards, but he wouldn't provide the same offensive rebounding punch that makes him a valuable forward. With a team that had communication issues on defense, the high amount of switching on defense would likely only exacerbate those matters. And then there's the whole manner of opposing defenses have an easier time to adjust if Odom's locked into one specific role. That's why it'd be much better if Odom is asked to simply help out more at point guard, but not make that the central part of his responsibility.
Barnes correctly noted two weeks ago at the ESPY Awards that an NBA lockout would be the best thing that could happen to him because it gave him more time to rehab his surgically repaired right knee. He said at the time that he was only two weeks away from participating in five-on-five drills, meaning he could start as early as sometime this week. As much anxiety as there might be because of a shortened or lost season and whether NBA players should actually go overseas, the lockout will ensure that Barnes will return to full form.
Before he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee Jan. 7 against the Hornets, Barnes proved to be the team's second-most consistent bench player outside of Odom. He scored by making efficient cuts into the lane and timely putbacks off missed shots. He mostly became reliable on defense by making hustle plays and peskily getting into the face of opponents much like how he did two seasons ago when he defended Kobe Bryant with the Orlando Magic.
But after the injury Barnes appeared extremely tentative and began taking shortcuts, such as forcing up shots, playing a tad too physical on defense and no longer playing as aggressively as he once did. Barnes proved reliable in the first half of the season despite having limited knowledge of the triangle offense because his basketball instincts made up for it. So with a new offense that relies more on those instincts, there shouldn't be any adjustment for Barnes as long as his rehab goes according to plan.
For far too long, Blake appeared uncomfortable in many facets of the game. He looked uncomfortable with his shot, as his 35.9% clip marked the lowest single-season shooting percentage for the 10-year veteran since the 2006-07 campaign. He looked uncomfortable with his role, showing a vast understanding of the offense but sapping its options because of his deliberate tempo, inconsistent shooting and desire to delegate to the veteran-laden roster. And he looked uncomfortable on defense, proving to be unreliable in helping the Lakers solve their backcourt problems on that end and only occasionally showing the peskiness that made the Lakers attracted to him.
Blake always had a good attitude and genuinely put in the work to improve, so I think it's safe to believe he'll improve next season. He should also flourish in an offense that plays more to a traditional point guard role. But that might only take him so far. His struggles last season had little to do with the system itself. He impressed Phil Jackson's coaching staff and teammates so much at the beginning of training camp in running the offense that they figured he would fit in seamlessly. But he proved otherwise with his drop-off in actual production.
Blake might have an elevated role because of the possibility that Fisher sees a reduced role, but the success will hinge more on whether Blake corrected the aforementioned problems that plagued him last season than how he actually fits into Brown's system.
Even though they gave him limited playing time, the Lakers remained high on Ebanks because of his youth, athleticism and work ethic. It's not exactly guaranteed if he'll be back next season because of his team option, but my hunch is that he will return. The Lakers' front office told him to work more on the guard spot this season, a role that appears more likely because of Brown's decision to exercise his player option.
Ebanks should thrive in Brown's system because of his penchant for defense and the fact that he relied mostly on his athleticism and instincts.
If Walton was frustrated last season over a lack of playing time, he's really going to be frustrated under the Brown era. Walton filled a very specific and often limited role under Phil Jackson because of his understanding of the triangle. But beyond being a solid practice player and a fun locker room presence, I don't see how Walton's going to fit in a system that's going to be predicated on pushing the ball up the floor. Sorry Laker fans. It's next to impossible they can unload Walton's two-year, $11.48 million contract to any team unless it's held to gun point.
Morris doesn't exactly address the Lakers' problems at point guard. With the team strapped because of an uncertain labor scenario, overall finances and a weak free agency talent pool, however, Morris provides a passing role that remained largely absent for the Lakers last season.
Morris showed a huge improvement in that department at the University of Michigan from his freshman to sophomore seasons, jumping drastically in points per game (4.4 to 15), field-goal percentage (40.6% to 48.9%), assists (2.6 to 6.7) and minutes (24.3 to 34.8). Though his outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired, Morris provides a solid presence everywhere else, including defense, passing and hustle plays, to land him a roster spot, AnnArbor.com's Michael Rothstein argued recently.
In what speaks both to Goudelock's strong outside shooting and the Lakers' poor mark in that area, Goudelock could become the team's best three-point shooter should he crack the Lakers' roster. Goudelock averaged 23.7 points on 45.5% shooting as a senior last season, continuing a pattern in which he increased his scoring average by at least three points and set a school record in points (2,571) and fourth-best in assists (424). He shot 40.7% from three-point range, suggesting he should already bolster the Lakers' 35.2% average from last season. And even if he has self-admitted issues on defense, Goudelock's distinguishable skillset from the perimeter and his inexpensive price tag should prompt the Lakers to keep him.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Lakers Coach Mike Brown assumes a bench that proved largely inconsistent last season; Lakers forward Lamar Odom; Lakers forward Matt Barnes; Lakers guard Steve Blake; Lakers forward Devin Ebanks. Credits: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times; Jayne Kamin-Oncea / U.S. Presswire; Andreu Dalmau / EPA