The addition of Ramon Sessions has unquestionably sparked the Lakers. While their record is just 3-3 in his 6 games with the team, there has been a noticeable pep in the step of the players and a change in how they’re playing, results be damned. The offensive sets look more crisp, the ball is moving more, and there’s been an increase in easy baskets. The defense has looked about the same – while having the same up and down moments that last night’s performance exemplified – but that’s a topic for another day.
What the addition of Sessions has also shown, though, is that the Lakers remain very much a top heavy team. This was masked somewhat by him coming off the bench for his first four games, but now that he’s starting it’s crystallized for everyone to see. Another way to say this is that the Sessions’ acquisition has essentially better balanced the team’s top talent while not doing much to really increase the quality of the roster – at least in relation to last season.
Let’s look at last year’s roster: Fisher, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Bynum, Odom, Barnes, Brown, Blake, Smith, Ratliff, Ebanks, Caracter, and Walton.
Now this year’s roster: Sessions, Kobe, Ron, Pau, Bynum, Barnes, Blake, McRoberts, Murphy, Goudelock, Ebanks, Morris, Hill, and Eyenga.
If you look at the overall quality of both groups, what’s effectively happened is that the Lakers swapped Odom for Sessions. The rest of the roster is either the exact same or has swapped out one group of veterans and youngsters for another group of similarly talented players. We can argue value in terms of leadership (Fisher) or athleticism (Brown) or skill set, but the fact is that the pieces that are with the team today don’t differ too much in terms quality of player.
And that is the real issue with this current Lakers team. They simply haven’t upgraded too much (if at all) from a pure talent stand point.
Some games, this simply won’t matter. With a top heavy team, that tier of elite players is good enough to win a lot of games. Last year that meant Kobe, Pau, Bynum and Odom doing most of the heavy lifting from night to night. Those players had played together for several years so there was chemistry at play but even if that was stripped away, their talent could lead the team to wins and often did. This season Odom is gone but Sessions is now in his place and his play making and ability to score provides a similar impact when added to the Lakers big three.
When it comes to role players, this is also true. They’ll have games that show why they’re NBA players in the first place by providing strong contributions that help a team win. Whether it’s Murphy knocking down shots, McRoberts providing hustle plays and open court baskets it isn’t too different than Fisher hitting open shots or Brown providing scoring punch and athletic finishes. The pieces and positions they play may be different but the overall talent level and on court, tangible production isn’t.
Again, some nights this won’t matter. The Lakers are third in the Western Conference, first in their division and they didn’t get there by being a bad team. They win more than they lose and do so through a mix of their top shelf talent performing to their standards and the role players filling in the gaps the best way they can. Sometimes this produces strong performances, other times not so much. Against the Grizzlies, the bench played poorly, the top level talent played okay and a loss ensued.
How far this team can go will be dependent on a variety of factors. Can their best players provide what’s needed each night? Can one or more role players raise their game? Can this group find the right mix of chemistry, personnel groupings, and hunger? We won’t know the answers to these questions until they’re in the line of fire; until they’re in a post-season series that requires them to be at their best or fight through a moment to hang on when they’re not.
But when looking at this team, understand that from a talent stand point, not much has changed from last year beyond a reorganization of the talent at the disposal of the coaches. When last year’s team failed, calls to better balance the roster were made and the team that’s before us today is the result for better or for worse. And the fact that Mike Brown is still searching for good lineups that can produce and/or tinkering with who plays and who sits shouldn’t obscure this fact.