When the Lakers made their surprising run to the Finals in 2008 and won back to back championships in 2009 and 2010, a major key to their success was the play of their bench players.
In Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Shannon Brown, and (to a lesser extent) Josh Powell, the Lakers had a nice mix of veterans and young players that changed the tempo of the game whenever they took the floor. Nicknamed the Bench Mob, this group loved to push the ball, break away from the Triangle offense, and play more frenetically to unnerve their opponents. They weren’t the most consistent bunch and they had their share of ups and downs, but overall they were mostly an asset to team that heavily relied on the methodical manners of their first unit.
However, in the past two seasons the bench’s play has suffered. Beyond Lamar Odom’s stellar 2011 campaign that earned him the Sixth Man of the Year award, the Lakers’ bench has under-produced. The young legs of Farmar, Sasha, and Brown were replaced by those of veterans like Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. Lamar Odom’s trade led to signings like Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy.
None of these moves really worked out and the only player remaining from that bunch going into the upcoming campaign is Steve Blake (who looks to regain the form that had the Lakers pursue him in the first place).
This off-season the Lakers have looked to remedy their bench issues in hopes of reestablishing a reserve unit that can impact the game when the starters leave the floor. They’ve brought back Jordan Hill to be an energy big, signed Antawn Jamison for his scoring punch, and picked up Jodie Meeks as a back up to Kobe who can space the floor and produce points in bunches.
In order to maximize this group of reservers, however, the Lakers must also determine an identity for them. But when looking at this group and their disparate skill sets, it may not be that easy. Consider the following:
- Antawn Jamison is a scorer at heart that has been defensively challenged for most of his career.
- Jordan Hill, meanwhile is a defensive minded big man who’s shown little on offense beyond his stellar work on the offensive glass and ability to convert shots at the rim via putbacks and spoon fed assists.
- Jodie Meeks is a quality scoring threat but not a ball handler by nature nor someone that’s proven to be a shot creator for himself or teammates.
- Devin Ebanks is a slasher with a limited jumper and ball skills. He’s a fine defender and rebounder but has shown he can be mistake prone in defensive transition as the last man back.
- Steve Blake is mostly a spot up shooter who has good set up ability but not a lot of creative skill off the dribble to threaten the defense.
At first glance, these pieces do not really fit together as a cohesive unit and maximizing them when playing together will prove a bit difficult. Do you tell this team to push the ball to capitalize on the skills of Ebanks and Hill? Do you run more half court sets that can take advantage of the shooting Meeks and Jamison offer?
And what of the defensive issues? During the aforementioned period of the Bench Mob, the Lakers’ reserves were a ball pressure team that tried to disrupt the flow of the game via extended defenses. They’d pick up ball handlers full court, throw out a half court trap, and flash strong side zone principles to flood driving and passing lanes. The current group of Lakers’ reserves don’t possess a singular type of player to pull off a dedicated approach in that manner.
Much of these concerns can be mitigated through various lineup combinations and substitution pattern that Mike Brown decides on as his core rotation. However, there will still be times where up to four reserves will be on the floor together at the same time and there will need to be a plan in place to optimize their production when they’re not flanked by multiple starters.
In recent campaigns, the Lakers’ bench hasn’t had much direction beyond “lean on whatever key starter(s) they shared the floor with”, but to be successful next season that likely won’t be enough. And with the additions of Jamison and Meeks, the Lakers now have two players with starting experience who can be looked to as producers of offense more often than the players they’re replacing from last year. A group identity beyond ‘role players playing next to starters’ would certainly help, here.
While the Lakers have had as impressive an off-season in recent memory by adding star players and excellent assistant coaches, it’s looking more and more like this campaign will be shaped by some of Mike Brown’s smaller, yet still key decisions. And while we all look to the Princeton O or a revamped defense led by Dwight as the difference between a championship or an early exit, don’t forget how important a role the Lakers’ bench has played in the recent seasons when the team was most successful.
Mike Brown will need to remember this fact as well and plan accordingly.