Every year around the start of training camp, there are countless stories about how great a player looks. Go around the web and you’ll read how player X looks great; how in shape player Y is; how much player Z has improved some facet of their game. This is the time of the year where optimism reigns, even for teams that aren’t expected to be that good. It’s just the way it is.
That said, there’s usually some truth behind these stories and with that comes a sense that things really can be better for a player in the season to come. These guys do work hard and when you’re starting with the talent base of “NBA player” the odds that you can make progress to improve really is there.
Enter Metta World Peace.
Last season, MWP showed up to training camp out of shape. He knew it, the team knew it, and fans knew it. He was carrying excess pounds, suffering from nagging injuries, and physically wasn’t the same guy. It wasn’t until the tail end of the season that he finally started feeling good enough physically that he could execute his normal workout regimen, drop the extra pounds, and return to the physical condition he was used to being at.
What followed was some of the best basketball he’d played the entire season. Unfortunately for him (and James Harden and the Lakers and…this list could get long, I’ll stop now) he lost his head in the heat of the moment, got suspended, and didn’t really recover to that level of play to during the playoffs. Before we knew it, the Lakers’ season was over and Ron had to stew over what had happened and how he could rectify it.
It’s seems he’s done his best. This training camp he’s come back in the best shape he’s been in since he joined the Lakers. He reported to camp nearly 10 pounds lighter than he finished the season and nearly 30(!) pounds lighter than he was at the beginning of last year. He is, by all accounts, looking fantastic and ready to perform.
And perform he must.
You see, Ron’s in the unique position of being both the player opponents probably won’t really worry about and the player they should probably worry about the most. No he’s not part of the fearsome foursome, but his impact can be felt just as much based off the role he’ll be assigned the attention the opposition will pay him.
On a nightly basis, he’ll be asked to cover the other team’s best perimeter player — duties that were passed to him from Kobe the minute he became a Laker. From LeBron to Durant to Pierce to Carmelo to Ginobili to…the list goes on forever. On top of that, he’ll moonlight defending players ranging from Chris Paul to Blake Griffin and be expected to get the key stop the team needs. Dwight Howard may be the team’s most important defensive player, but Ron is a close second. The Lakers will only reach their peak on that end if Ron is at his best.
Offensively, he’ll never be more alone while also being as important. You see, double teaming the Lakers will be nearly impossible when their starters are on the floor. Leaving Nash or Kobe open is a death-wish in today’s NBA. Doing the same to Dwight or Pau only invites smart cuts to the paint where easy baskets and offensive rebounding chances will be pounce on. The only player left is Ron and they’ll leave him without second guessing.
This is where he must make them pay. Is he capable? In recent years he’s proven not up to the task more often than not (with some high profile exceptions, of course).
It will need to be different this season. I think it can be. With less weight still buoyed by incredible strength, he should be able to better cut to and establish positions on the floor where he can be effective. With hours in the gym dedicated solely to shooting jumpers, he can (hopefully) find the rhythm that evaded him last year. Familiarity with the Lakers new offense (remember he played in Rick Adelman’s corner offense with the Kings and the Rockets) and a coach that believes he is a prototypical forward for their scheme gives me more confidence.
It won’t be easy, of course. Ron, like the rest of the players on the team, will need to carve out his niche and find his way on an entirely new roster. And, right now, as many are fond of saying, the expectations for success are paper based; the team will have to go out and do it on the floor when it matters. Ron will need to go out and do it. But he’s in a position where he can be the difference maker on a team that has so many others used to carrying that mantle (and, to opponents, still will). This opens up endless opportunities for the Metta Man, a position he’ll need to capitalize on for the team to reach its goals.