Historically, James Worthy sort of gets lost in the shuffle. He was third in line behind Magic and Kareem. A vital part of “Showtime” and a guy known for rising to the occasion in big games (hence the nickname), but still someone who, will likely never be remembered as fondly by national observers as his more celebrated teammates.
Today though, on his 52nd birthday, we’ll remember Worthy for the fantastic player he was. Not just the guy who came up big in the playoffs every year, but the guy who night in and night out played a fantastic floor game with an ability to finish in a variety of ways from 18 feet and in regardless of who was guarding him. Watching the clip above, you get a real feel for how fundamentally sound, yet how creative Worthy could be when he had the ball. He had great foot work, a fantastic first step, nice touch, and excellent feel around the basket.
So, while many people nationally will always remember Worthy for raising his game in the big moments, enjoy the video above and appreciate all that he did in the little ones too. He really was a great player.
Halfway (well, 65.8%, but who’s counting) through its annual marathon, the NBA bestows upon its rank-and-file (players, coaches, hell, fans) a much-needed four-day respite from the mental and physical grind of 82 in ~175. In 2013, nowhere is this midseason oasis more welcome than in Lakerland, where, in depressingly short order, euphoria and stratospheric expectations have devolved into the most disappointing campaign in franchise history, a nightly nut-punch mad lib on the floor outdone only by incessant upheaval behind closed doors.
On a far brighter note, the NBA convenes this weekend in Houston, to celebrate its present and future, flaunt its athletic wares and, presumably, provide tuition assistance to certain ilk of “law student.” Last night, behind 40, on an unreal-even-against-All-Star-D 18-for-22 from the field, and 10 rebounds by the Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried and 20 apiece from Cavs and Spurs sophs Tristan Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (who also had 10 and 7 rebounds, respectively), Team Chuck laid the wood to Team Shaq in a still-entertaining Rising Stars Challenge. This evening, the All Star festivities shift into top gear, with the always-meh Shooting Stars, underrated (seriously, I love it) Skills Challenge and All Star Saturday mainstays, the 3-point and slam dunk contests.
Though likely for the best, given the manner in which the pas three months have unfolded, conspicuously absent from tonight’s proceedings will be the Los Angeles Lakers. Not here! Infusing your day with memories of brighter days, a look back at the Lakers on All Star Saturdays past:
1984 Slam Dunk Contest
Three decades ago, the NBA lifted a(nother) page from the ABA playbook with a revival of the slam dunk contest. Fittingly, the event (re)debuted in the Rockies, where eight years earlier, at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, a Spurs’ greats George Gervin and Larry Kenon, Kentucky Colonel Artis Gilmore, Denver’s own David Thompson and then-New York Net Julius Erving. The Doctor returned to headline the nine-man field, which included the preeminent perimeter defender of his (and maybe all) time and author of many a Coop-a-Loop, Michael Cooper. Suffice it to say, the Lakers’ inaugural All-Star Saturday performance was less than auspicious:
Though still immortalized:
1987 3-Point Contest
Three years after the slam dunk dud of ’84, Coop was back at All-Star Saturday, this time to take part in the second annual Larry Bird Invitational, err, 3-Point Contest. Accompanying Cooper to Seattle for the festivities was fellow sharpshooter Byron Scott. In a star-studded eight-man field featuring a who’s who of the game’s great shooters – and Danny Ainge (some grudges die hard) – Scott stumbled, while Cooper more than held his own, outscoring Bird, Dale Ellis and future three-time contest champ Craig Hodges in Round 1, before exiting in the Semifinals, the third place finisher.
1988 3-Point Contest
This time flying solo, Byron Scott returned to the 3-Point Contest the following year in Chicago. Scott rather emphatically avenged the previous year’s last place finish with a first round performance that paced a similarly power-packed field. Not surprisingly, as the stakes ratcheted up, so did Larry Bird’s performance. Though light years behind Bird, Scott and Dale Ellis engaged in battle for the second spot in the final round, with Ellis advancing by the narrowest of margins.
Is it wrong that this burns me up as much as any Lakers-Celtics battle of which we were deprived?
1994 Rookie Game
In a stirring homage to Michael Cooper’s showing the inaugural NBA slam dunk contest a year earlier, in the first-ever (at the time) Rookie Game, Nick Van Exel, in 20 minutes of burn, handed out six assists but turned in a rather impressive goose egg, whiffing on all eight of his shots (have you seen the defense in these things?!?), including three 3-point attempts. Oof. Let’s move on.
1995 Rookie Game
The Lakers’ first-ever lottery pick, the unheralded Eddie Jones (selected #10 overall in the 1994 draft) had quickly established himself as not only one of the league’s best young players, he’d almost immediately etched his name in the NBA’s top tier of perimeter defenders. This NBA ready defense, along with his stellar athleticism in slashing to the bucket earned him an invite to the second annual Rookie Game, where, sharing the floor with the top two picks in the draft, Glenn Robinson and Jason Kidd (Grant Hill had been voted into the big-boy game), Eddie stole the show, racking up 25 (including 4-of-8 on 3-pointers), six swipes, and handing out four assists en route to the game’s MVP award.
(I’d planned to include a highlight video of this game, but sadly was only able to find the full telecast, chopped into 20-minute clips. You can find those here.)
1995 Slam Dunk Contest
In the first round of the 1995 Slam Dunk Contest, Antonio Harvey almost set the desert ablaze, but instead became the Andy Reid of All-Star Saturday.
Later that night, Bean returned to floor as the second Laker ever to take part in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest. With the contest on the ropes (it would actually be shelved the following year), the league had implemented the latest of what ultimately became a comedic laundry list of gimmicks, allowing each competitor 90 seconds in Round 1 to do with as he pleased, with the best of two dunks making up his final round score. Sadly, this resulted in our being limited to a scant three dunks by Kobe in his lone appearance in the contest. As one would expect, however, Kobe made good, delivering as emphatic and technically perfect a one-hand reverse as you’ll ever see for an opening salvo. By the way, the whole “keep the warmups on” bit looks a lot cooler when it’s Kobe instead of Brent Barry.
After edging out now-assistant coach Darvin Ham (perhaps owing to a bit of judging generosity, but whatever), Kobe set the house ablaze with a thunderous between-the-legs number – remember, this is before Vince Carter and Jason Richardson made a mockery of the skill – which earned him 49 points and dunking supremacy
(Bonus points for aggressively flexing with the sub-Durant physique and openly cheering Michael Finley’s last miss)
2004 Skills Challenge
Ok, who had Open Court Legend placing second in a competition that rewards speed, quickness, agility and outside shooting?
Seriously, I remember guffawing upon discovering Fisher’s inclusion in this field (in large part, probably, because the Lakers were that year’s host, but still), and simply hoped he could out-duel Earl Boykins and avoid last place. Taking out Boykins, Stephon Marbury (when this was still an impressive thing) and making prime-Baron Davis work in final?
Really not a lot to say here. 12 points for Jordan Farmar, Andrew Bynum with 7 points and 4 boards in 18 minutes.
2007 Skills Challenge
Anyone else kinda totally forget that this happened?
With the notable exceptions of the Malice at the Palace and the 1984 Draft Lottery, I’m not sure there’s an event the NBA’s worked harder to bury in history than 2007’s All-Star Weekend in Vegas. Without going into detail, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly public relations coup for the league.
That said, it was there that one of the most stealthily cool competitions in ASW history took place. It’s over in a flash (pun possibly intended), and it’d have been awesome if Kobe hadn’t flubbed the opportunity to make a run at Wade’s final time, but simply having Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Paul – and no one else – in a test of basketball fundamentals is pretty awesome.
2008 Rising Stars
A year after posting a solid, if unspectacular 12 points as a rookie, Jordan Farmar returned to All Star Weekend as an NBA soph, and quietly turned in a stellar playmaking performance. In a game whose narrative was dominated by Kevin Durant (23 and 8), Rudy Gay (22 on just 12 shots), Brandon Roy (17 and 7 assists), LaMarcus Aldridge (18 and 9 rebounds) and MVP Boobie Gibson (33 on 11 threes), Farmar played a central role, feeding (among others) Gibson to the tune of 12 assists, scored 17 points on 10 shots, ripped four steals, and made the play of the game (#8 below).
It might even have been recognized as such had that lob found, say, Kevin Durant instead of Ronnie Brewer.
2010 Slam Dunk Contest
They Let Shannon Dunk. It… was.
Enjoy the festivities everyone – no Laker losses tonight!
The Lakers got their 9th win of the season against the Hornets by the count 103-87, showing both the Jekyll and Hyde nature of their play so far this season.
In the first half they had trouble defending the Hornets’ pick and roll attack, surrendering open shots at the rim by not helping the helper and ceding open jumpers on the wing on late rotations. On offense they ran a clunky, isolation heavy attack that left them seeking out good shots that came few and far between. The result was a 2 point deficit after 24 minutes born of lackluster play that looked all too familiar.
In the 2nd half, that all changed. On defense, the rotations were more crisp. Back side wings dug down on the roll man and disrupted passes into the paint. The open jumpers that were so prevalent in the first half mostly dried up as well. Defenders were much more engaged all over the floor, talking and active. Dwight Howard took command in the third quarter, controlling the paint on both sides of the floor. The ball moved on offense, shots started to fall, and what was a deficit quickly became a lead that would not be relinquished (in fact, it was barely threatened).
And so, the Lakers won a game they sorely needed. It was a game they should have won, but in a season where nothing has been certain (save for uncertainty), every win is a good one.
But, in a departure from looking at all that went right and wrong in this game, I turn my focus to Kobe Bryant. So excuse me for the fawning that will proceed…
Tonight Kobe Bryant joined an elite club. The number of people who have scored 30,000 points in their NBA career(s), before tonight, totaled four. They are the names of players who only need be identified by a single moniker. Kareem, Jordan, Wilt, The Mailman. These are the faces that have sat on the Mt. Rushmore of scorers in league history. Against the Hornets — the team that drafted him — Kobe joined these men on that mountain.
The points came on a play we’ve seen Kobe make hundreds of times before. After catching the ball on the right wing, he drove past a closing out defender, slithered into the lane, elevated over the help defender, and flicked in a one handed runner while fading to his left. It showed off his body control, his touch around the rim, and the scoring instinct that got him to this point. It was, in many ways, the quintessential Kobe bucket. Not too flashy, but enough of a wow play that makes you want to watch it again.
In between that shot and the the first one he made so many years ago, we’ve seen countless others. So many, in fact, they blur together. The baseline fade away. The pull up at the elbow. The heat check three pointer. The reverse lay in. The thunderous dunk. Through all the makes we’ve marveled at the focus, the footwork, the innovation, the creativity, and the desire. Especially the desire.
Seventeen years ago the Lakers acquired Kobe, a high school guard who had as much talent as moxie. He talked of “taking his talents” to the NBA and the challenge of playing the game at the highest level. In the years since, he’s been humbled plenty and reached the mountain top as an individual and as part of a team. The MVP’s (league and Finals), the championships, the all-star games, the franchise records, and all-NBA nods speak to his greatness.
And, through it all, he’s done it his way. For better and, at times, for worse. Playing his game has left him with as many detractors as he has staunch supporters. It’s also left him with almost universal respect. He’s as hardworking as he is relentless. As unforgiving a competitor as he is driven to improve. For all intents and purposes, he’s a player that’s made himself great as much as he’s had greatness bestowed upon him through his 6 foot, 6 inch frame and the NBA pedigree.
He has been, and continues to be, one of a kind. And he’s still going. Congratulations, Kobe Bean. If they’d told me 17 years ago he’d be this great, I wouldn’t have believed them. Which is probably one of the reasons he’s this great to begin with.
On Friday night, before the Lakers beat the Suns, Kareem finally got his statue. And while the past couple of years produced many jokes and more than a few hard feelings in the lead up to this honor being bestowed, by the time the ceremony took place everything was put in its proper perspective. Kareem spoke about what an honor it was while former teammates talked about how great a player Kareem was and how deserving he was of being immortalized in this way.
Of course, the statue is of Kareem shooting his famed sky hook. The most devastating weapon the game has ever seen, Kareem demolished opponents night after night by swinging left and shooting right over the top of his man. For years this single shot anchored the Lakers’ half court offense and whenever they needed a bucket Magic could hold up the number 5 and signal The Captain to get into the post. And more times than not, he’d deliver.
So, while we honor the man that did so much for the Lakers we should also sit back and enjoy watching him doing what he did best. Here is Kareem, destroying his man with the move he mastered. Congratulations again Captain, you certainly earned it.
Typically, when sports shows present montages of teams that were fortunate enough to win a championship, the underlying message that usually gets thrown out to the fans is that this group of people reached the mountaintop through blood, sweat and tears.
Obviously, the message is often lost on those that rather concentrate on the contributions of superstars; but there is nothing quite like seeing a unit go through some hardships to be the last team standing.
Although, we as the media like to look at the journey from the eyes of the superstars, sometimes the outlook of a player with far less talent can perfectly capture the scene, provided that he is one that plays with heart and hustle.
Today, the seventh best Lakers role player of all-time exemplifies this journey…
To many, Kurt Rambis is the guy that used to play for the Lakers with the cool/goofy glasses. But to diehard basketball and Lakers fans alike, he was so much more.
The big man joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981 and was immediately part of the rotation because he gave the team some interior defense as well as some much needed rebounding. With Rambis backing up at power forward, the Los Angeles Lakers won the world title in his rookie season.
By his second year with the Lakers, he was getting 23.2 minutes per game, and played the part of a reliable big man for the team.
Mind you, his minutes took a dip the following year (1983-84 regular season), as Norm Nixon was traded and Byron Scot joined the team. That combined with the emergence of James Worthy meant that the Lakers would occasionally use Big Game James at the power forward spot with Scott and Michael Cooper taking over duties at shooting guard and small forward on occasion.
The Lakers fell at the hands of the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, and the Lakers redefined themselves ever so slightly. With Jamaal Wilkes’ rebounding numbers on the decline, Pat Riley once again started giving more minutes to the Santa Clara product in order to help shore up the defense and protect the backboards.
The Lakers faced the stigma of being a soft team with their loss at the hands of the Celtics in the ’84 Finals.
They were Showtime.
They outran teams, executed better and played sharper than most of their opponents, but were they tougher? Many felt they were not after being humbled by Boston.
The truth was that although they were a finesse team, they certainly knew how to impose their will on the game and even occasionally get scrappy.
Kurt Rambis was one of the players that exhibited the Lakers’ grit perfectly. During the purple and gold’s run through the 1980s, the man with the glasses appeared in 493 games, averaged 18.7 minutes per game, 5.3 points per game and 5.9 rebounds per game on 55.3 percent field goal shooting.
The numbers are rather miniscule in truth, but they do not tell the whole story.
The Santa Clara product was called upon to defend power forwards, set screens, rebound, get out of the way on offense — literally — and finish plays whenever defenders completely forgot about him. The tasks might not sound like much, but every now and then, Rambis had to play the role of enforcer, where he took a few hard fouls and refused to allow opponents to punk either him or his team.
On a team renowned for flash, glamour and glitz, Rambis was one of the few guys in the rotation that had to play ugly for the team to be successful.
Consequently, his contributions often get overlooked or even marginalized, but he was a big part of the championship puzzle in the early 80s; as he was called upon to defend the ever clever Kevin McHale, who is considered to have the most devastating array of post moves in NBA history.
With Rambis patrolling the paint next to Abdul-Jabbar, the Los Angeles Lakers rebounded in the 1985 playoffs and defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
In ensuing seasons, his playing time decreased as A.C. Green would become a more prominent player for the Lakers given his ability to help execute the zone trap, and Mychal Thompson was acquired to help defend the post, which in turn made Rambis the odd man out. He still got some regular minutes, but nothing quite like what he enjoyed in his first two seasons with the club.
Nonetheless, the 6’8’’ forward was a contributor to the greatest Los Angeles Lakers teams as voted by our own FB&G panel, and he also managed to be part of one the few NBA dynasties.
He eventually left the team and joined a few other ball clubs before returning to the Lakers for his final two seasons before retiring.
Some might argue that both Bob McAdoo and Rick Fox should have been ahead of Rambis, and that is certainly debatable, but Rambis edged both out by spending the first seven seasons of his career playing for the Lakers during their most successful run since moving to Los Angeles. With Kurt Rambis alternating between starter and reserve big man, the Lakers made seven appearances in the Western Conference Finals, six trips to the NBA Finals and won four titles.
Rambis may not have been the most important player for the Lakers, but he most certainly illustrated in many ways what the Lakers were not. They were not soft, they weren’t just style over substance and they were not a gang of chumps.
Kurt Rambis not only gave the Lakers blood, sweat and tears, but he also represented it better than most.
One of the most obvious truths that you will ever read here at FB&G is that not all role players are created equal. How could they be right?
Some have unique skills that can elevate them over other players in a team’s pecking order while another batch might just play with more energy, grit and hustle, which also can help a team reach its goal.
Once again, these are somewhat evident facts, but then we have another batch of role players that come with decorated careers. Indeed, a player may have flourished individually in a previous situation but failed to achieve team success; and then joins a contender and takes that new team to another level given the things he brings to the table but also the sacrifices he chooses to make to help them win.
Not to pick on him, but this is how many thought Tracy McGrady’s career would eventually unfold. But if T-Mac is the version of how it went wrong, Bob McAdoo is the McGrady version of how things went right.
Our eighth best Lakers role player of all time…
Before joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, the former Tar Heel was viewed as one the league’s best players; one that had enjoyed considerable individual success with his immense basketball skills.
Early on in his career, he was a scoring and rebounding machine, putting up double doubles with much regularity. His knack for snatching balls around the basket and scoring made him a three-time scoring champion — he averaged over 30 points per game in those three seasons in succession — and league MVP.
Mind you, for all of his talent, his teams rarely accomplished much. In his first nine seasons in the league, McAdoo’s teams made the postseason four times and he played on five different teams.
He bounced around in the late 70’s and early 80’s, going from Buffalo, to New York, then Detroit and New Jersey.
He finally joined the Lakers in December 1981 in what became the perfect situation for him.
Instead of being asked to carry a franchise or take on a heavy burden all the while doing things outside of his comfort zone, the North Carolina product was simply asked to come off the bench, feed the post on occasion and score.
And just to make sure things didn’t get too complicated for him, he had Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson feeding him whenever he got into scoring position.
Mind you, given that he joined the Lakers about a month after the season started, the task of including him into the team’s scheme was not an easy one.
Bob McAdoo was a 6’9’’ forward with a great knack for scoring, but at that point in his career, he was no longer an elite rebounder nor was he a great defensive player. Given that the Lakers already had the likes of Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes on the team, it was important that the team had a few bangers on the interior as well as defenders on the perimeter.
Cooper was the wing stopper while Kurt Rambis and Mitch Kupchak did the dirty work on the interior. This meant that the Lakers often used three-guard lineups consisting of Cooper, Nixon and Magic for defensive purposes but also to run opponents off the court.
Thus, McAdoo did not see many minutes during the regular season. In his first season with the Lakers, he averaged 18.2 minutes per game but an event during the course of the season changed the dynamic of the team: Kupchak was lost for the year due to injury.
Consequently, by the time the playoffs started, Riley had to rely more on his new forward. This meant that McAdoo’s minutes increased, and the same thing happened to his scoring.
The Lakers liked to have the North Carolina product play small forward catch the ball at the pinch post or on the low block where he could make just one move — Mac was an at best average ball handler — and get to the rim or just shoot it from there.
The McAdoo wrinkle in the Lakers’ offense instantly became problematic for opposing teams that were already worried about the myriad of other scoring options for the purple and gold.
Riley liked to have Mac come off pin down screens set by Abdul-Jabbar where he drifted to the perimeter, caught the ball and fed the post. If McAdoo’s man sagged a little, the former Buffalo player just cut straight to the basket where the league’s all time leading scorer dished the ball for an easy basket.
As problematic as things were when opponents defended the Lakers, they became infinitely more complex when McAdoo went to the pinch post and the team ran some action on his side of the court. One of the most famous plays in Lakers history resulted from McAdoo’s sheer presence on the court: the 6’9’’ forward would set up on the pinch post with Cooper standing at the wing on the same side of the court; Coop would act as if he were going to set a pick on McAdoo’s man only to sprint to the basket as the former Tar Heel would set a sweet back screen for the “Coop-A-Loop”.
Bob McAdoo understood his role and fit in quite well playing alongside his talented teammates and never really got in their way. He shot the ball when open and mostly attempted field goals that were within his range, thus resulting in his high shooting percentage as a member of the Lakers. He consistently scored in the teens and provided some scoring punch off the bench when his team needed it.
On the other side of the ball, McAdoo was hardly a stopper, but he did just enough to help out defensively. Indeed, players could get by him off the bounce but his long arms allowed him to recover and contest shots. Also, he could get himself into help position off drives and clog the paint or make it difficult for players driving down the lane to convert shots.
In essence, Bob McAdoo does not often get mentioned for his contributions to the Lakers, but his scoring and rebounding were undeniably a huge plus for the team and he made the jobs of his teammates easier because defenses had to account for his presence given his ability to score.
In his four seasons in Los Angeles, the Lakers made the NBA Finals every time, winning the world championship twice along the way. He had modest averages of 12 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game on 49.4 percent field goal shooting and stepped it up with a little increased playing time during the playoffs to 13.4 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game on 50.7 percent field goal shooting.
By the end of the 1985 championship run, McAdoo was 33 years old and still had a little game left. But with thoroughbreds such as James Worthy and Byron Scott now on the team, keeping the former Tar Heel no longer part of the plan.
Mac joined the Philadelphia 76ers and then retired the following season.
Although he did not retire as a member of the Lakers, McAdoo contributed to the franchise’s dominance of the decade. Granted, the former league MVP was not part of the ’87 and ’88 championship units, but the Los Angeles Lakers were still an impressive 231-97 during the regular season from 1981 to 1985, and they also sported a 49-20 postseason record during the same span.
Needless to say, Bob McAdoo had something to do with winning time.
In case you missed the opening post of this series, the FB&G panel recently sat down and voted on the best role players in Lakers history. The details can be found here on the collective thought process of the panel as well as the first player in our top 10 countdown.
Now we move on to our next man up.
When we recall meaningful role players, we usually have a multitude of memories of how they contributed to a successful team; they did the little things but also had times in which they came up big because their teammates needed it.
That’s usually how it goes, and yet our next player may very well challenge that notion.
The ninth best role player in Lakers’ history…
Fox started his NBA career as a member of the Boston Celtics and spent six seasons on the east coast playing for a decent team that eventually became a perennial loser. Eventually, he packed his bags and headed out west to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
In retrospect, it’s coincidental and yet both weird that the former Tar Heel played for only two teams in his career; and they happened to be the most storied franchises in the NBA.
Fox left Boston and joined Los Angeles hoping to be part of the solution that helped an immensely talented Lakers team turn things around and compete for a title. Instead, he joined a squad that was seemingly dysfunctional given the egos on the team.
The Lakers had Elden Campbell, Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel and a young Kobe Bryant but just could not avoid getting swept in the postseason. Even worse, a team that many thought should reach the title round every single season just could not figure out how to get there.
One thing was for sure at the time though, Fox might not have been a huge part of the team, but he was definitely part of the solution.
Players were moved, coaches were brought in and out and eventually Phil Jackson came to town to bring a stabilizing influence over the team starting in the 1999-00 season.
Rick Fox’s role under Jackson was to come off the bench, play solid defense, take open shots, feed the post, get out in transition and essentially play to his capabilities.
The North Carolina product took his role a step further, even at times playing the role of enforcer for a Los Angeles Lakers team that featured Shaquille O’Neal.
Indeed, the former Tar Heel played physical defense, hit players after the whistle, slapped the ball out of the hands of opponents even after calls were made by officials, trash talked and found ways to get inside the heads of opposing players. Fox was an instigator, but he was also a solid role player.
With Fox backing up Glen Rice during the 1999-00 season, the Lakers won 67 games, struggled a little during the postseason but managed to win the group’s first title.
Glen Rice was shipped out of town after the 2000 playoffs, which meant that Rick Fox had become the starter for the Lakers.
The 2000-01 season was one of turmoil for the Lakers as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal fought for control of the team but role players such as Fox still managed to play to their strengths throughout the Bryant-O’Neal rift. The Lakers’ starting small forward saw more minutes that season and thus increased his scoring and rebounding.
Also, with more playing time alongside the starters, Rick Fox had more opportunities to get repetition in the triangle offense and thus had a better understanding of where to get his shots from. Consequently, he improved his field goal percentage, going from a poor 41.4 percent to a 44.4 percent mark.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal enjoyed arguably their best collective postseason together that year, but they were also aided by their role players that rose to the occasion whenever the situation called for it.
And that’s what’s particularly tricky about Rick Fox: he played up to par, played to his strengths and made several contributions but none of them truly stood out; unless we count the amount of times he agitated opponents.
Seriously, by the time the Lakers hit their stride in the playoffs, Rick Fox complemented the superstars with timely shooting, a couple of unimpeded drives to the basket as a result of double teams and some solid perimeter defense.
If the 2001 playoffs failed to properly hammer this point home, the 2002 postseason highlighted this perfectly.
After helping the Lakers win back-to-back titles, Rick Fox was not only a starter on a championship team, but an integral piece to the championship puzzle. He played well off of his superstar teammates and even asserted himself offensively at times to help take pressure off the more heralded players on the team.
The box score often failed to accurately capture Fox’s contributions because so many of them came in the form of deflections, charges taken, box outs and the pass that led to the pass that set up an assist. Hence, it’s somewhat difficult to find one game that encompasses the type of player that Rick Fox was for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Kings were deeper, younger, more athletic and thus better, as the story went.
The Lakers on the other hand had arguably the two best players in the league as well as championship experience and that essentially sealed the fate of the Sacramento Kings.
The home team bricked free throws, struggled to execute and get good looks at the basket late in the game, while the Lakers looked like the fresher team, unbothered by the pressure and weight of the moment.
Rick Fox was at his best in a Lakers uniform that day, scoring 13 points, snatching 14 rebounds and dishing out seven assists in 48 minutes of playing time. The North Carolina product was all over the court, and yet never looked as though he was playing above his customary level of basketball talent.
And in addition, although Peja Stojakovic had been hampered by an ankle injury during the playoffs, he had still averaged 21.2 points per game on 48.4 percent field goal shooting during the regular season and was the Kings second option on offense. In the series against the Lakers mind you, Rick Fox played physical and smothering defense on him, holding him to a mere 6.7 points per game on 20.7 percent field goal shooting. His ankle might have been problematic, but so too was the Lakers forward.
That victory over the Kings propelled the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals where they swept the New Jersey Nets and completed the ever rare — this is the most recent occurrence of this in the NBA — three-peat.
Fox played the role of occasional scorer, shooter, defender and rebounder at times, but his best role by far with the team was that of winner.
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.
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.