As drama does its best to engulf the Lakers’ season and swallow it whole, it’s the big stories that seem to grab our attention day in and day out. Be it Kobe’s shifting roles, Dwight’s shoulder, Nash’s adjustments and attempts to bring the team together, Pau’s foot, or the general sniping through the press, this season hasn’t lacked narratives to explain what’s going wrong.
Lately however, even in the face of these storylines, things have been looking up. The Lakers are 7-3 in their last 10 and their only “bad” loss was to a Suns team that came back after Dwight Howard injured his shoulder. (Yes, the Celtics’ loss was frustrating for a variety of reasons, but they’ve been playing great ball and a loss to them is explainable). This team, while still having the buzzards circling, is actually playing solid basketball as roles become more defined and a reliable style of play has become the norm.
One player, however, who is not playing well is Metta World Peace. The guy I still call Ron is going through his worst stretch of the season and while the Lakers are still finding ways to win through his struggles, his poor play is highlighting the lack of reliable wing depth this team has.
Before we go any further, it’s important to quantify exactly what Ron is going through on both sides of the ball.
Over the last 5 games, Ron is averaging less than 8 points a game while shooting 26.3% from the field, 19% from the three point line, and 55.6% from the foul line. Extend the threshold to 10 games and his numbers aren’t much better with an average of a shade over 10 points per game on 30.6% shooting from the field including 29.7% from behind the arc. Furthermore, Ron has become more of a ball stopper on offense in the last five games, looking to score in isolations more and settling for the type of shots that should only be taken with the shot clock running down.
More of an issue than his offensive struggles is the decline in his defensive effectiveness. First, it should be made clear, Ron still has some of the best defensive hands in the league. The ball is never safe when Ron is guarding his man closely and one second of over exposure can lead to the ball being poked or swiped away. However, his foot speed has declined to the point that he’s having trouble executing multiple defensive slides on the perimeter without giving up a driving lane. This leads to defensive breakdowns that puts even more pressure on the Lakers’ interior defenders.
While PER isn’t a perfect statistical tool and can’t be the sole way we evaluate players, it does a do a very good job of compiling box score stats with usage rates and giving an indicator of how efficiently a player is performing on offense. PER against, then, is a handy way of measuring how well your opponent is playing when being defended by you. Last season, Ron posted a PER against of 11.8 when defending small forwards and a PER against of 8.3 when defending power forwards. These numbers, though not telling the entire story of how a defender is playing, show a very effective defender who could swing between both forward spots. This season, however, Ron’s opponents are posting a PER against of 14.8 when playing SF and 18.1 when playing PF. Again, these numbers don’t tell the entire story, but they do tell a story. And it’s one of a player in decline on that side of the ball.
It’s gotten to the point that Earl Clark is taking the task of defending most of the better wing offensive players (though, to be fair, Ron did “guard” LeBron on Sunday). So, instead of Ron chasing around Kevin Durant, it’s Clark. And instead of Ron taking the next best offensive wing, Kobe is often being asked to defend that player instead. Ron, then, is usually asked to defend the opposing PF or even the C where he has the strength and hand quickness to battle and be disruptive, but not the height or length to be the lockdown force he once was.
While I’ve spent a lot of time knocking Ron down a level (or two) for his recent play and some of his season long shortcomings, this is really more about the Lakers’ lack of a viable alternative on their roster and the best way to use Ron as he ages. What hasn’t yet been said is that while Ron is giving up a hefty PER to opposing PF’s, he’s also playing better on offense as a “stretch four” than he is as a traditional SF. Ron’s PER as a PF is a robust 21.7. In that role he’s usually not at a quickness deficit against his man and has the ability to play the role of a shooter and driver against players who aren’t used to defending on the wing. He gets better shots as a PF and has more advantages in that role.
But, the Lakers don’t have the depth to play him there full time. The only other natural SF on the roster besides Ron is Devin Ebanks and he’s never been more buried. This leaves the option of moving Kobe up to SF (which he can do), but also opens exposes some of the Lakers’ issues at SG behind their future hall of famer. Jodie Meeks is a fine player who can play 15-20 minutes (or more depending on how his shot is falling), but he lacks solid size and can be exposed in more physical match ups. And if Meeks isn’t getting those minutes, the Lakers are stuck playing a PG (Blake, Duhon) at SG and those same issues (size, quickness, defensive ability) are only exacerbated.
This brings us back to an issue we’ve been discussing for most of the season: the Lakers need another viable wing to help them get through the end of the season. The roster, as it currently stands, has the depth it needs at PG (Nash, Blake), SG (Kobe, Meeks), PF (Clark, Jamison, Ron), and even C (Dwight Sacre). Even with Pau Gasol injured, the team can make enough adjustments with their current group of players to manage their size issues and find a solid rotation at PF/C to get through (as long as Dwight is capable of suiting up). What they don’t have, however, is enough depth at SF to manage — unless they plan at playing guys out of position and going stretches of games with undersized players being asked to do more than they’re capable.
Don’t get me wrong. Ron can still play SF for some stretches. And Earl Clark’s defensive versatility means that Ron doesn’t have to chase players who are much quicker than him around the perimeter for all his minutes. However, as it stands today, Ron is playing 34 minutes a night and his production doesn’t warrant that — especially not lately. But the Lakers simply don’t have a player on their roster to take any of those minutes away. Not with Kobe still playing roughly 38 minutes a night and Clark playing well over 30 a night since he became a part of the regular rotation.
Plus, the fact is, that even if this is just a bad stretch for Ron (which is possible) and he returns to the production levels he showed earlier in the season (also possible, but not likely), the Lakers are still shallow on the wing. On nights where Meeks or Ron play poorly, there aren’t enough players who are capable to fill in the gaps. Unless you count Jamison as a wing player (and I don’t) or expect Clark to play over 40 minutes a night (which is not reasonable). Something, then, needs to be done.
How the Lakers deal with this the rest of the season will matter. It may not be their biggest problem and it’s certainly not the one that will generate the most headlines. But it’s still something that needs addressing.