Tick Tock, Tick Tock…

Jeff Skibiski —  November 15, 2010

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The natural reaction after consecutive disappointing losses is to look around and assess blame. The truth is, even after the Nuggets and Suns made a mockery of the Lakers’ defense, this ship isn’t anywhere close to sinking and is actually going to get a whole lot more durable with Andrew Bynum’s inevitable return. The Lakers strong start to the season, buoyed by an easy slate of opponents, did however mask several of the early season issues that the team will still need to work through on its way to a hopeful three-peat. As I logged onto my Facebook this weekend, I was greeted with an interesting question from my friend and regular FB&G visitor Jay who wanted to talk about one of those issues — minutes distribution. The conversation started like this…

Does Matt Barnes deserve more minutes? Check out his PER (16.44) compared to Artest’s (14.57).

My initial reaction:

It’s an interesting question, for sure, but ultimately, I like where both are at right now. Barnes is well-accustomed to playing a bench role and his confidence isn’t an issue regardless of whether or not he plays big minutes. Ron Ron’s confidence, on the other hand, still — even after his heroic Game 7 play — has a tendency to waver on certain nights. A well-integrated Artest is also much more of an impact player over the course of a 48 minute game than Barnes, who is better used as a spark plug off the pine. Plus, it’s hard to see where the additional minutes would come from if not from Artest’s bucket, especially when Bynum comes back. Without Andrew, the team can go with a smaller lineup and even slot Ron in at power forward if they want, but once he returns, they won’t need to. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s so much of an issue of whether Matt is deserving of more minutes, but which pool they’ll come from. This is a good problem to have. (Of course, this all changes if Lamar Odom’s mystery foot injury proves more troublesome than expected…)

Another friend added their two cents to the debate:

Artest’s Game 7 was (arguably) L.A.’s most clutch postseason performance since Kirk Gibson’s home run in ’88. If he doesn’t have that game, the Lakers lose in the finals two out of three years, and both times to the Celtics. The implications of a loss in that game were horrifying: I lose $1,000 bucks and I have to listen to Boston fans, not only for an entire year…but forever. Does that grant him blanket approval for increased playing time over Barnes? At this point…yes. We’re still only eight games in; I just put out my post Championship cigarette. Barnes has adapted early and well, but Artest has tenure, a championship and sweet hair. Should he start to falter and cost us games mid-season, then absolutely a change should be made.

Facebook diatribes aside, the discussion got me thinking about the larger issue of how Coach Jackson has distributed minutes approximately one-eighth of the way through the season. For as much flack as Jackson gets about coaching stacked, championship-ready rosters, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his often masterful job of keeping all of his players happy with their allotted minutes. So far, this season has been no exception as I’m generally pleased with the minutes each of the players has averaged so far. I especially like the fact that Kobe is only averaging 33 minutes a night, which bodes well for his aging legs as the season goes on. At 39 minutes, Gasol is right about where I expected him. Lamar Odom’s minutes are a little higher than normal at 34, but that’s to be expected considering he’s taken on a starting role in Bynum’s absence. I, like many observers, was a bit concerned about an eventual burnout from Odom after playing for Team USA, but so far, we haven’t seen any signs of slowing from Lamar. To the contrary, he appears to be in the best shape of his life, though a more accurate indicator of his energy supply might not come ’til later on in the season.

I expected Fisher to play a little less than he has (28 minutes), considering the rampant preseason speculation that Steve Blake (18 minutes) would eventually unseat Derek as the starting one at some point this season. I do still expect Blake’s minutes to steadily rise as the season progresses and he becomes even more comfortable running the triangle. However, I mostly attribute the somewhat unexpected minute distribution at the guard slot to the remarkable consistency of Shannon Brown. Brown has firmly entrenched himself as a go-to scorer off the bench this season, averaging 10 points on 49% shooting from the floor. Shannon’s improved play isn’t without consequence, though, as Sasha Vujacic (six minutes) had barely seen the light of day prior to (temporarily) moving up the charts last night thanks to Blake’s illness. Again, as is the case with Artest and Barnes at small forward, this is one of those problems that the coaching staff is happy to have on their plate.

The rooks — Devin Ebanks and Derek Caracter — have both seen some early season floor time, more so in the case of the former. Caracter (six minutes) had a golden opportunity to engender the trust of the Lakers coaching staff (or as much trust as Jackson will place in a rookie) with Bynum out early, but has yet to show the consistency needed to become a regular contributor in his first year. Ebanks’s relative preseason success hasn’t exactly translated to his regular season play for the Lakers as he’s shooting a woeful 17% from the field in just under eight minutes of playing time. There’s plenty of time for the pair of second rounders to learn the tricks of the trade, though, so I’d rather focus on the fact that both have at least seen some playing time so far.

As far as (early) early season progress reports go, I think Jackson’s astute management of minutes through 10 games and the emergence of Brown, Blake and Barnes off the bench have set the Lakers up well to absorb the grind of the next 72 games and hopefully an extended playoff run. Are you happy with where everyone’s at minutes-wise so far?

Jeff Skibiski