Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
The Los Angeles Lakers may have just completed their second game of the young season last night, but there is already plenty of evidence that their second unit is lightyears ahead of their bench from last season, even though they won back-to-back NBA titles with those reserves.
A combination of free agent acquisitions and the apparent individual development of Shannon Brown has allowed the Lakers to not only control games with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom on the bench, but also win the battle with the opposition, something the Lakers rarely saw last year with Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic on the floor. Both of the Lakers’ games so far have been close but unlike last season, Kobe has been able to rest two extra minutes per game against the Rockets and Suns (35.5 minutes per game so far compared to 37.5 mpg after two games last season).
Steve Blake has had the biggest impact of all the newcomers through two games. As I said before the season started, Blake is the perfect fit for the triangle offense because he is a willing passer and a more than capable shooter from long range. Blake may have been passing a bit too much in the first two games, passing up some fairly good looks from range to make a pass to someone with just as good or a worse look, but he has started the season off brilliantly nonetheless. Blake has hit five of his first nine three’s this year, one of which was the game-winner against the Houston Rockets.
Perhaps more important than his already impressive performance this season is that Kobe Bryant already trusts him. Bryant is a hard man to garner respect from but Blake has a good enough relationship with Kobe already that Bryant trusted Blake for the game-winning shot against Houston. Down one, with a little more than 30 seconds left; that’s Kobe territory, right? That’s where he has been his most lethal, knocking down dagger jumpshots that demoralized the opposition, right? Will both of those observations are true, on a pick and roll with Pau Gasol, Bryant drove to the lane with the clock winding down and kicked it out to Blake rather than going for the win himself and Blake delivered.
Shannon Brown’s three-point barrage is what put the Lakers in position to win that first game. Brown, as I noted in my season preview, has been working on that jump shot and is taking it with much more rhythm and flow than he did last season. His form is also a tad different and its made him a more potent outside threat. Brown has still not found his niche as a slasher, where his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim would give the Lakers a very dynamic two guard behind Kobe, but his shot is improving and when cutting back door or running off a screen, Brown can still get to the rim.
The Lakers have been running one set in particular to get Brown free. A high screen by Gasol that Brown uses to free himself and then receives the hand off from Pau so he can take a 21-foot jumper. That’s not the only way to get Brown open, though, because the primary payoff from Brown’s work on his jumpshot is ability to be an effective spot-up player rather than someone that has to create his own shot. With Blake running the offense more effectively and with less mistakes than Farmar did, Brown can stick to his more natural role as an undersized two-guard instead of having to run point for stretches.
Another improvement to the Lakers’ bench was moving Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant out of the second unit. With Luke Walton out for most of last season with back problems and with Sasha Vujacic being as bad as he is, Bryant or Artest were forced to play small forward alongside Farmar and Brown for stretches, which made one of the two a bit more fatigued when the starting line-up re-entered the game in crunch time. Matt Barnes was signed to fill the back-up small forward role and he’s not just there to sop up minutes.
Barnes has been tenacious on both ends of the floor for the Lakers, playing tough defense while crashing the boards expertly. Barnes has been one of the best rebounding small forwards in the NBA for the past few seasons and he is already on track to be near the top again this season (he has a 15.2% rebound rate). Offensively, Barnes will likely be most effective attacking the basket on baseline cuts (where the Lakers’ bigs have the passing touch to find him) and getting offensive putbacks, but he’s a serviceable three-point shooter and has made three of his five three’s so far. That corner shot is the only one you want him taking, but that is a shot that will be open often as a product of the triangle.
The only player that has underperformed so far this season off the bench has been veteran Theo Ratliff, grabbing just two rebounds in 25 minutes, but its unfair to him to say that he’s been bad. His role when he was signed was to be a professional in the lockerroom and to block shots and protect the rim in garbage time. Right away, though, Ratliff has been forced to play meaningful minutes because of the blip in Andrew Bynum‘s return time, which forced Lamar Odom into the starting line-up and made Ratliff the third man in the Lakers’ big man rotation.
But once Bynum returns, Odom will return to the bench, making Los Angeles less dependent on Ratliff, and making the Lakers’ second unit one of the best in the entire league. I’ve been saying ever since Team USA training camp began that Odom was going to have a big year this season. He seems more focused, his shot is going in more often than ever before, and his determination this early in the season, which is unprecedented for LO, is one of the big reasons the Lakers’ haven’t really missed Bynum so far.
The Lakers may have only played two games so far this season, but if you watched their second unit last season and how poorly they executed, its easy to tell that the two-time defending champ’s bench is much improved. With Blake facilitating the offense and knocking down outside shots, Brown serving as an explosive scoring threat and a steady on ball defender, Barnes crashing the boards and locking down the opposition’s best scoring threat, and Lamar Odom playing his usual handyman role by doing everything (passing, ball-handling, defending, rebounding, and shooting, all at six-foot-11), the Lakers look better as a team overall right now.
Don’t be surprised if Kobe has a LeBron/Wade/Bosh like reduction in points per game this season, because he won’t be forced to play as many minutes with a capable second unit that doesn’t need him to play spot minutes at back-up small forward. And more rest for Kobe means a fresh Black Mamba come playoff time. An improved second unit, a big man in Pau Gasol that is playing the best basketball at the power forward/center position in the league and a fresh Kobe all season long? Talk about putting Heat on the opposition.