This Lakers team is improved from last season. Simply look at their roster.
The additions of Nash and Howard are upgrades to the players they replaced and that’s true even though one of the guys who’s departed was second team all NBA last year. And though it may not seem like it, this is also true for the players occupying the team’s bench.
Consider the following:
- Jodie Meeks should be Kobe’s primary back up, a position that was manned by Jason Kapono, Andrew Goudelock, and Steve Blake last season. Kapono isn’t currently employed, Goudelock may not make the Lakers’ roster, and Blake is a point guard.
- Devin Ebanks will be the primary back up at SF replacing Matt Barnes. Barnes is the more proven player, but early returns say Ebanks is very much improved from last season and offers tangible qualities like size, length, and speed that Barnes either lacks or are diminishing. Even if you call a Barnes/Ebanks swap a wash (which would be fair), I’ll take the younger player on the upswing and not look back.
- Antawn Jamison is the team’s swing forward and replaces Troy Murphy and Josh McRoberts. Murphy, like Kapono, doesn’t have a job at this point and McRoberts is trying to find his way in Orlando. Even though Jamison hasn’t yet looked great off the bench, he’s a superior player to Murphy and has a better skill set for this Lakers team than McRoberts.
- Jordan Hill is a returning player but is worth mentioning here because of his small sample of games for the Lakers last season. Once he became a rotation player, he never relinquished his spot and proved to be valuable contributor down the stretch of the season. Like Jamison, he’s a superior player to Murphy (while also being a superior player to McRoberts as well) and, health permitting, having him for an entire season will be an upgrade.
Go down the line and this group trumps last year’s. Considering how much lack of depth hurt the Lakers’ last season, this is a good thing.
That said, when you zoom in on this group of reserves there’s a common theme. None of these guys are stand out players as individuals. They are, in the truest sense of the word role players. Their skill-sets are ones that are meant to complement others, not shine on their own. (Contrast this to the Kings who brought Marcus Thornton and Aaron Brooks off their bench, both of whom could start for several teams in the league and have been ‘instant offense’ players their entire careers.)
For the reserves to be at their best, then, they’ll need to be integrated into lineups with starting players, not trotted onto the floor together like an NBA version of a line change in hockey. These guys simply don’t have the requisite talent as individuals to carry a unit and shouldn’t be asked to.
This seems to be something that Mike Brown understands even though he’s not yet shown it this preseason. Before the Lakers’ first exhibition game against the Warriors, Brown spoke at length about what he wanted to see from his team in that game and through the exhibition season. One thing he commented on was that the odds were very high that at least one and probably two of his big four would be on the floor at all times when he sorted out a regular rotation.
Due to injuries, that plan hasn’t yet come to fruition, but we did start to see some of that Sunday night against the Kings. Before Brown brought back in all his starters to close the game, he used the lineup I’ve argued would be the best P&R lineup when Nash, Meeks, Ebanks, Jamison, and Howard all shared the floor. We only saw that lineup for a short time, but it was good to see that combination if only briefly.
When the season gets into full swing, however, we will need to see more of that. The Lakers don’t have a modern day version of Vinny Johnson to bring off their bench. There is no James Harden or Lamar Odom waiting in the wings. Brown will need to supplement his reserves with the right combination of starters to maximize his bench production. And, if he does this correctly, the bench may still be outscored in the classic sense but we won’t see nearly as many long stretches of poor play when substitutions are made.
The preseason hasn’t quite proven this true yet, but this Lakers bench is better. They’ll just still need help from the starters to make sure they’re affective.