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It didn’t look good for Kobe Bryant after three quarters of play in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals. In a game that most thought Kobe would take over with his will, skill and determination, claiming the Lakers’ 16th title and capturing his fifth ring by ripping the hearts out of the Celtics, Bryant was having just about as bad as a shooting night as he has had all-season long. Forced shots, jumpers with two players contesting as he faded to the sideline, impossible attempts that we have seen him make before, but weren’t falling this evening.
Bryant was five-for-20 from the field entering the fourth quarter with his team trailing 57-53. The fact that they were still in the game was nothing short of amazing, with both Kobe and Pau Gasol struggling to score the ball efficiently and the team as a whole shooting well below 40%. It didn’t look good for the Lakers. For 36 minutes, Laker fans had been out of their minds and were electric, waiting and hoping that Kobe would take over.
In the fourth quarter, Bryant would deliver just about as beautiful of a performance as he ever has, and he made just one field goal in the process. Bryant showed that trust in his teammates that everybody had been saying he lacked. Kobe allowed everything in the fourth period to go through Pau Gasol while he funneled Rajon Rondo on the defensive end and worked hard to get his club stops. With 6:11 left in the game, the Lakers were down three. An entry pass went into Pau Gasol in the high post who quickly swung it out to Derek Fisher who nailed the 100th big shot of his career to tie the game. This was the turning point in the game.
After that bucket, the Lakers went to Bryant more often, allowing him to make decisions with the basketball. The Celtics tried to answer with a Rondo floater that resulted in a Bryant rebound and loose ball foul, giving Kobe two free throws. That gave the Lakers an improbable two point lead with just about six minutes to go. Ray Allen missed an 18-footer on the following possession, Kobe grabbed the rebound and nailed an 18-footer from the right wing to put the Lakers up four. Boston called a time out in order to regroup and came out of the break with a Paul Pierce three that he missed, Kobe grabbed yet another rebound, attacked the right side of the floor on offense and finding Pau Gasol who was fouled. He made both free throws and the Lakers found themselves up six with about four minutes to go.
At the 1:30 mark, Gasol made a lay-up over the extended arms of Garnett and Rasheed Wallace to put the Lakers up six but Wallace answered with a three coming out of a timeout to cut the lead in half. This is classic Kobe territory, or at least one would think as much. Bryant would normally take it upon himself to answer that make whether he was taking a high percentage shot or not. But instead, Kobe took a dribble inside the arc, turned and put an on target pass into the chest of the unlikely game seven hero, the same man that was the unlikely hero in game five against the Phoenix Suns at the buzzer, Ron Artest. Artest got the ball, squared up, and shot it. Bang, as Mike Breen would say. Lakers back up six, dagger inserted into the heart of the Celtics. With just a minute left, there was little chance of the Lakers blowing the game.
The Celtics made their push, though. Ray Allen hit a three, answered by two Kobe free throws, then Rondo hit a three after Allen missed, but that was pretty much equalized by a pair of free throws from Sasha Vujacic. Rondo would end up throwing up the final shot of the game. His three came up short, Gasol grabbed his 18th rebound and dished it out to Odom, who tossed the ball down court. Bryant, in a full spring, caught up to the ball and grabbed it as the buzzer sounded. The drive for five was alive and the journey was complete.
So what’s a team that just won back-to-back NBA championships to do during the off-season? Improve their lone team weakness, their bench, of course.
When I previewed the Lakers’ off-season I said signing Steve Blake was the most important move Los Angeles needed to make in order to beef up the roster for next season and they followed through by signing him to a nice deal that was cost effective and allowed them to pursue other free agents.
Blake doesn’t look like a basketball player at first glance and this deal might get lost in the shuffle while the stars like LeBron James attempt to reshape the Eastern Conference by creating a trio of superstars within the coming days but this deal is one of the most impactful signings of the off-season. The triangle offense is a perfect fit for a player like Steve Blake because he isn’t afraid to shoot but he isn’t a shoot first player and he is willing to make the pass that leads to the assist. Also, Blake is a lights out three-point shooter, something the Lakers have lacked since Sasha Vujacic went missing in the 2008 NBA Finals.
The triangle offense creates a lot of open looks from the corners for three-point shots. Ron Artest and Derek Fisher took the majority of those shots last season and needless to say, they were pretty horrid from long range. Blake, however, is one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters from that corner spot. Overall, Blake connected on 40% of his shots from beyond the arc last season and he hit an even higher 46% from the corners.
Blake is also an underrated defensive player. Obviously the stereotype of players of Blake’s frame and, lets face it, ethnicity is that they wouldn’t hold their own against the league’s elite. However, Blake isn’t bad on that end of the floor. He works hard and he is much better within a system defense, which is what the Lakers run. He may not be a stopper but he’s going to deliver the same amount of fight that Derek Fisher did when he was getting torched.
Blake averaged seven points, five assists and two rebounds in about 27 minutes per contest last season between time with the Clippers and Blazers. Per 36 minutes, Steve scored 10 points along with six assists and three rebounds. Within the Lakers system, he could easily be a 12/6 guy with a couple of three’s a night. Blake should probably be the starter, but he can still play the majority of minutes at point guard while coming off the bench.
The Lakers also signed free agent forward Matt Barnes. Barnes took less money, declining much more frivolous offers from Toronto and Cleveland to play for a championship with the Lakers.
At six-foot-seven, Barnes adds a fourth, if you count the drafting of Devin Ebanks as the third, versatile defender that the Lakers can throw out on the better offensive players in the league. When you consider what Miami did with their backcourt, being able to throw Kobe, Ron Artest, Ebanks (who is six-foot-eight), and Barnes at LeBron and Wade for 48 minutes is huge especially considering that they don’t have a back-up. Additionally, having Barnes on the bench with his size and defensive stature, Kobe will not have as heavy of a load during the regular season. Last year, his back-up was considered to be Shannon Brown and he was more a point guard than a two guard, so he was forced to play big minutes every night.
Barnes averaged nine points, six rebounds and two assists with the Magic last season while shooting 49% from the field. Obviously his main contribution will be on the defensive end, but Barnes showed some flashes from three-point range with the Magic (even though he finished with an underwhelming 32%) and playing in the triangle will create multiple open looks for him just Stan Van Gundy’s system did for him in Orlando. Matt is also a pretty good athlete which will help the Lakers with their transition game and was the second best rebounder at the small forward position last season and can play some four for stretches with Bynum out.
The Lakers also agreed to a veteran’s minimum deal with veteran center Theo Ratliff. The addition of Ratliff is not as impactful or as popular as Barnes’ but his signing was something the Lakers needed to do. With Josh Powell heading to Atlanta and DJ Mbenga not getting a contract offer from the Lakers, they needed to add two big men to the roster to ensure a complete 12-man bench, even if all the players are not used. After a strong showing from Derrick Caracter at the NBA Summer League, odds are he is the man that the Lakers use to replace Josh Powell, but Mbenga’s third string center spot was still open.
Ratliff is 37-years old and figures to get just as much run as Mbenga did, which is not much, but having more veteran leadership and a good personality around the clubhouse is never a negative. He’s a good guy and he will fight with everything he’s got whenever he gets onto the floor. Kobe will enjoy having Theo with the team and so will everybody else.
The Lakers also spent some money to keep around key parts to their championship core, mainly veteran Derek Fisher. After flirting with the Heat, Fisher came back to the Lakers and agreed to a deal that benefits both sides. Los Angeles also signed reserve combo guard for a great bargain.
Ever since he arrived in Los Angeles, Shannon has been a fan favorite. His high flying act is truly something special and the energy that his athleticism brings when it is put on display in the form of a tremendous dunk or a spectacular block is guaranteed to get the Staples Center rocking. Brown was nothing but a throw-in in the deal that brought Adam Morrison over from the Charlotte Bobcats two seasons ago but as it turned out, he was the center piece of the deal for the Lakers.
Brown is listed as a point guard, but at six-foot-four Shannon has also spent some time at shooting guard as Kobe’s back-up and was even the starter for a seven-game stretch when Kobe went out with an ankle injury. Brown is definitely most effective as an off-the-dribble player because he is very hard to stop once he is on the attack because of his hops. However, over the last year or so, Brown has shown that he has a solid jump shot from the mid-range and was even able to put up a couple of 20+ point performances this year thanks to his jumper. Last season, Brown shot 40% from 16-23 feet, which was right at the league average, and he has looked even better with his shot during the pre-season.
Its hard to replace the charisma that Brown brings and even more so the advantage he brings in transition, especially for an older team like the Lakers who really have no other great athletes to speak of on the roster, so retaining him was a necessity. At this point, Brown might be the best Laker guard in transition because of Kobe’s knee and ankle issues that have made him more of a grounded player. If he continues to improve his work from the mid-range and continues to stick that open three-pointer when the ball is passed to him out of the post, there is no reason to believe Shannon will not be a valuable role player for Los Angeles for years to come.
Defensively, Shannon isn’t bad. Because he is in between the average height of a point guard and shooting guard, Brown often sees time defending both positions and is the guy Phil Jackson will look towards to defend bigger point guards like Deron Williams. His label when he was acquired was defensive stopper. Though that may be overstating it a bit, when the Lakers went to lockdown mode in the final two games of their season, Shannon stepped up and chased Ray Allen around screens expertly when Derek went out with foul trouble in game six and with an injury in game seven. His size, speed, quickness and athleticism should serve him well. He’s just 24 and he has a lot of room to grow on this side of the ball.
And the Lakers still weren’t done making their team better; Mitch Kupchak was able to come up with two steals in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft.
When Devin Ebanks was drafted, the comparisons between he and Trevor Ariza were made immediately, as both are similar in appearance and in play style. He was a long, rangy defender that wasn’t afraid to guard the other team’s best player at West Virginia. With Artest already in place, the Lakers found themselves a lockdown defender that comes off the bench to pair with Matt Barnes. Not bad for a late second round pick. Offensively, Ebanks has shown a bit more than most thought he had coming out of college. He has a solid jumper and is a great asset in transition thanks to his tremendous leaping ability.
Derrick Caracter was the second steal for the Lakers, so long as his personality issues are long gone. Caracter was the focal point of the offense for the Lakers during Summer League and he was more than impressive. His low-post moves rivaled that of anybody else in Vegas (including 5th overall pick DeMarcus Cousins) and additional work in practice against guys like Gasol and Bynum could make him into an excellent offensive player. There have been some rebounding issues with him as I think he tends to lose control of the basketball more then he should but as long as he is not the center with Sasha Vujacic at power forward, the Lakers could use this 58th overall pick in the Josh Powell role. Not needed unless there is foul trouble but if he is needed, he is a potent force offensive and a big body on defense.
The Lakers were the best team in basketball last season and have only gotten better during the off-season. The only undermined variable that will effect the Lakers as they vie for a three-peat is the health of Kobe Bryant. Kobe’s knee is not quite 100% with his knee and likely won’t be for a couple of weeks. That shouldn’t too big of a detractor, though, because as long as Kobe is 100% come post-season time, then the games won or lost in October won’t matter. Until he is 100% and Andrew Bynum is back, expect for Pau Gasol to shoulder a bigger role within the offense. The Lakers will need him to score a bit more during the first few weeks of the season and it will be interesting to see how Gasol responds to the challenge.
If nothing goes terribly wrong, say, another devastating injury to Bynum or Kobe, expect the Lakers to have yet another parade come June.
Derrick Caracter won’t play a big role with the Lakers this season, though he may see some steady minutes at the beginning of the year with Andrew Bynum out and the big man rotation shortened by one in Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be able to show his abilities on the offensive end in a pinch. Caracter has a great post-up game for a rookie and has a tremendous touch around the basket that will allow him to be effective on the offensive end. He hasn’t shown much of a face-up game but his touches will be limited and he’s more than capable of getting three buckets a night in the post. Caracter is also a a decent rebounder that throws his body around on defense. Caracter has seemingly rid himself of all character issues and has gotten into shape during his off-season with the Lakers. Caracter will be a great power forward for the Lakers down the road.
I’ll spare you the details and save the scouting report for my player profiles page. What I will say is that this will be a heck of a season for Kobe. Once he regains his health, if he can continue to play at the same level he played at last season, he will add yet another impressive season to his resume. Motivation is never a problem for Bryant but this off-season has presented a unique new motivation tactic. The Heat’s big three has taken away from the recognition he should have gotten for winning his fifth NBA title and will likely dominate the headlines throughout the year as Bryant goes for the prestigious sixth ring. Their two match-ups should be fun to watch.Record: 60-22, 1st in the Pacific Division, 1st in the Western Conference