Archives For Player Review

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Forum Blue & Gold reflects back on the season that was for Lamar Odom and what we can expect from him in 2010-2011. Check out Phillip’s exit interviews post to hear it from the forward in his own words.

SEASON REVIEW:

As the old adage says: as Lamar Odom goes, the Lakers go. If truer words have spoken during the Lakers’ most recent run of NBA finals berths, I haven’t heard them. The always entertaining 6’10″ forward has represented something of an enigma during his six-year tenure with the forum blue and gold. When he first joined Kobe and Co., Lamar was immediately anointed as the second coming of Scottie Pippen. He now stands tall as a vital, yet still underrated sixth man and two-time NBA champion.

Odom has faced a lion’s share of criticism over the course of that transition process, some deserved, some not. His surprising willingness to agree to a bench role before the 2008-2009 season deserves unanimous praise, though. For Odom, the 2009-2010 season was about perfecting his new role after the addition of Ron Artest to an already formidable front line. Despite his now somewhat expected consistent inconsistency during the regular season, the results of his big-game performances in a must-win Game 5 against the Suns and Game 7 against the Celtics are hard to argue.

Over the course of an impressive 82 games, Lamar averaged almost 11 points and 10 rebounds, while playing a starter-like 32 minutes. Those numbers easily represent the lowest of his career, but with the offensive arsenal behind him, he provided the Lakers with exactly what they needed on most nights. However, Odom struggled mightily against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, bringing in a disappointing eight points and seven rebounds on only 41% shooting from the field. Luckily for Lamar, his untimely disappearing act was largely overlooked after Pau Gasol’s series-clinching put-back in Game 6.

Against a more familiar foe in the Phoenix Suns, Mr. Kardashian thrived, posting much-improved averages of 14 points to go along with 12 boards. In fact, with the series hanging in the balance in Game 5, it was the chameleonesque Odom who slithered his way to a difference-making 17 points and 13 rebounds. His up-and-down post-season continued against Boston’s significantly tougher front line in the Finals, though. However, give Lamar credit for being a leading instigator in L.A.’s second half comeback from 13 down in Game 7.

SINGLE PERFORMANCE:

Odom had better statistical games during the regular season, but none that had anywhere near the impact of his aforementioned 17-point, 13-rebound (including five offensive boards) performance against Phoenix in Game 5 of the Conference Finals. With the Lakers lollygagging around in the second half, allowing the Suns to eventually tie the game, it was often Odom who jolted the team back into the moment. Without his rugged play, there is no Ron Artest game-winner and we are looking at an entirely different series.

NEXT SEASON:

I think that both sports media and fans make a habit out of painting “pictures” for our favorite athletes early on in their careers. In many ways, we are watching it happen right now with LeBron James; through seven NBA seasons, he remains ringless and for fans of the former Cavaliers superstar, his legacy, which was once a foregone conclusion, is suddenly very much in doubt. To a lesser extent, Lamar also falls into this group thanks to an eye-opening college career at Rhode Island and a stellar first few seasons with the Clippers. At his height, his ball-handling skills and passing ability instantly drew comparisons to Lakers great Magic Johnson. That’s the problem with setting such lofty expectations early on in a player’s career, though; what happens when they are not always met? Do you render that player’s career an automatic failure because they did not live up to the potential that fans and media prognosticated?

In the case of Odom, I think that our ideal vision for his end destiny as an NBA player has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts over the past few seasons. It seems odd that consistency issues are even a topic of conversation for an 11-year veteran, but it remains—and probably always will—an issue for the forward. The difference now is that most of his fans—and teammates for that matter—are not looking for Lamar to produce a 20-10 night in every game over the course of a grueling nine-month season. Coach Jackson understands this better than anyone, which is why he was arguably the leading champion of Lamar’s understated value when Jerry Buss initially seemed reluctant to dive deeper into luxury tax territory to re-sign Odom last summer. Without the burden of playing up to a near-max level contract and as option B on offense, the Candy Man has excelled at filling in the gaps during the Lakers’ past three Finals runs, both as a super-sub and impromptu starter.

This will not change next season, as the team brings back virtually the same core of players that has already led them to consecutive NBA titles. If anything, I look for Lamar to improve on his 2009-2010 campaign with a bolstered bench that now includes steady point guard Steve Blake to replace the often-erratic Jordan Farmar. I fully expect Coach Jackson to continue to utilize Odom over Andrew Bynum in late-game situations too, depending on match-ups and which player(s) the team signs between now and training camp to fill out the front line. Regardless of his specific role, if we have learned anything over the years, it is that Lamar can adapt to any environment. His contributions as a key role player and valued teammate cannot be overlooked as the Lakers look forward to defending their crown.

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Forum Blue & Gold takes a look at the Lakers’ own version of the Energizer Bunny—Sasha Vujacic. Check out Phillip’s post for Sasha’s comments from his exit interview.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

“I knew we were about to win the game,” said Vujacic after Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. “We didn’t want to give them a chance to come back or make some crazy shots. I had to make two free throws. I did it.”

From hero to zero…back to hero? To say Sasha Vujacic’s last three seasons have been a roller coaster ride would be an understatement; the Slovenian guard has gone from playing a major role on the self-dubbed “bench mob” during the Lakers 2008 title run to barely having any impact at all during the last two seasons. That is, until his two clutch free throws with 11.7 seconds to go in Game 7 preserved a Lakers victory over the hated Celtics. I vividly remember a January game during the 2006-07 season against the Dallas Mavericks when Sasha lit up the Mavs to end what was a 13-game winning streak. Despite posting a horrible shooting percentage for most of that season, Sasha attributed his unwavering confidence for his unexpected 16-point outburst and go-ahead three-pointer with less than 30 seconds to go in the game. It is this same confidence that allowed the 26 year-old to calmly step to the free throw line this year with a championship on the line.

“That’s what I live for,” said Vujacic. “As a little kid, as a professional athlete…as someone that loves the game of basketball, I’ve got an opportunity to go out there and I knew they were going to foul me and I just live for the moments like that.”

Two free throws in Game 7 of the Finals can make you forget many things, but make no mistake about it—Vujacic struggled mightily for much of the regular season and playoffs. Sasha averaged just three points per game in 9 minutes of play over 67 games. More importantly, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff, with his minutes instead going to the likes of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. Toward the end of the season though, he appeared to have turned a corner with a string of solid outings in the season’s final two weeks. Unfortunately, Vujacic’s improved play was short-lived as he suffered a bad ankle sprain in the regular season finale against the Clippers that left him in street clothes during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Give Sasha credit for refusing to accept the fate of his poor season though as he returned with a vengeance (emotionally speaking, anyway) that led to an on-court sparring with Suns’ guard Goran Dragic in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Despite bearing the wrath of his teammates over the incident, he maintained his composure when it mattered most in the Finals and his season ended on a memorable up-note.

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

It probably goes without saying at this point, but his two free throws to close out the Lakers’ sixteenth championship were just as important as Artest’s huge three-pointer and the team’s other clutch plays in the dramatic final minute of Game 7.

NEXT SEASON:

Kobe Bryant has notoriously come down hard on Vujacic throughout his Lakers tenure—not for his work ethic, but for his often-questionable decision-making on the court. In fact, if you ask any of his teammates, they will tell you that Sasha is one of the hardest working players on the team. While that has not led to consistent success in live games, “The Machine,” who is entering the final year of his contract, will once again look to prove his worth to the team in 2010-11.

“It’s no secret,” said Vujacic in a recent interview when discussing his contract status. “Not only for myself, but I really want to do good for the team. The team wants it.”

Looking ahead to next season, the hope is that Sasha will be able to harness the confidence gained from sinking the two biggest shots of his life into a renewed sense of consistency. The team expects Vujacic to play his usual brand of pesky defense, but if he wants to see extended playing time at either guard slot, he’ll need to improve his shot selection too. With the addition of Steve Blake, along with the anticipated signing of Derek Fisher and possible departure of Shannon Brown, Sasha will certainly have an opportunity to spell Kobe at the two spot. If the Lakers are not able to reach an agreement with Fisher, there will be an even greater need at backup point guard—a challenge Vujacic says he is ready to accept.

“I love it; I’m not going to lie to you,” said Vujacic about seeing more time at the point. “It’s a big responsibility…I’m up for the challenge.”

Regardless of the capacity in which he will be used next season, steady play from Sasha would go a long way toward reestablishing the bench mob that propelled the Lakers to a Finals run in 2008. Championship moxie is an underrated quality in the league and it is something that Vujacic can now lay claim to. Sasha’s primary task next season will be to find a way to translate that invaluable experience onto the court.

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With the 2009-10 season behind us and the free agency bonanza just getting started, ‘Forum Blue & Gold’ begins the first of a series of player reviews from your NBA champions. We begin with the player who left many fans and critics divided when he was signed before last season: the one and only Ron Artest.

SEASON IN REVIEW:

Ron Artest has been called many things in his career—defender, instigator…even crazy. In 2010, the Lakers small forward finally added a new title to his résumé: champion. After fan-favorite Trevor Ariza bolted for the Houston Rockets, the Lakers quickly snatched up the former Defensive Player of the Year with their mid-level exception—a steal by most anyone’s standards, albeit one that represented a notable risk-reward type of proposition for a team coming off of a championship victory.

“He wants to win a ring,” said Artest’s agent David Bauman shortly after his signing last summer. “He’s a winner and a hard worker and he went looking for a team with whom he could find some justification for what he does. He plays his best when he’s in that kind of an environment.”

Bauman’s comments set the tone for Artest’s inaugural season in a Lakers jersey, even if from a purely statistical standpoint, the former St. John’s star had one of the most underwhelming seasons of his career. Over 77 games, Ron put up fairly pedestrian averages of 11 points per game on 41% shooting, to go along with four rebounds and a little over one steal. As is usually the case with Artest though, what you see is not always what you get as his defensive toughness and hunger for an NBA title provided a huge—and in many ways underrated—boost to a team that battled through injuries and post-championship complacency for much of the regular season’s second half.

As a defensive master, Artest didn’t disappoint—methodically disassembling the games of Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce among others, while ensuring that Kobe didn’t have to waste vital energy chasing the other teams’ star player around for 48 minutes. His playoff performance also served as a reminder to the league that #37 remains an elite on-ball defender and that much like Kobe, rumors of his demise were premature. After all, Artest was similarly injured toward the end of the regular season, yet still gutted it out and missed only five games.

On offense, it goes without saying that Ron spent much of the season dazed and confused, admittedly struggling with the intricacies of the vaunted triangle offense and an outside shooting touch that betrayed him most nights. These issues aside though, Ron still provided what were arguably the two biggest offensive plays of the post-season with his instant redemption game-winning put-back in Game 5 against the Suns and his clutch three-point dagger with just over a minute remaining in Game 7 against the Celtics.

On its face, Artest’s overall season arc provided a bit of a mixed bag. However, Ron was never a Pau Gasol-type of of player who was going to integrate flawlessly (and immediately) into the team’s ebb and flow. He wasn’t signed for his suave game or consistent shooting. To the contrary, the forward was brought to L.A. for exactly the opposite reasons—to create discord on the floor for other teams. In that bruiser type of role, he succeeded with flying colors.

PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:

Kobe initially called out the Spaniard during the Finals trophy presentation, but without Ron Artest’s Game 7 heroics, the Larry O’Brien trophy is likely headed back east. With 20 points and five steals, Artest buoyed the team during a historically sluggish first three quarters, reminding his teammates that his fingers were still ringless with each and every timely put-back. Ever the drama king, Ron saved his best for last—connecting on a dramatic trey in the game’s final minute that not only sent the STAPLES Center crowd into a state of bedlam, but also proved to be the final nail in the Celtic’s coffin.

(Honorable mention goes to Artest’s kid-in-a-candy-store antics during his post-Game 7 interview.)

NEXT SEASON:

Truth be told, Artest is far from the only player who has failed to grasp the triangle on first attempt; future Hall-of-Famer’s Gary Payton and Karl Malone also experienced difficulty in their one year with the Lakers. Luckily, the Lakers have Ron under contract for four more years and he will only continue to grow within the offense, especially now that Coach Jackson has announced his return.

For better or worse, Artest has proven himself as a difference maker during his 11 up-and-down years in the league. He maintained his composure as well as any Laker this year though, showing a sense of maturity that few thought was possible for the player who once played a key role in the worst player-fan altercation in NBA history. Similar to the way Jackson helped Dennis Rodman harness his often combustible energy, Artest understood his role on this team and remained steadfast in his desire to do whatever it took to help the team win games. The forward willingly checked his ego at the door on day one as a member of the forum blue and gold, which is something that shouldn’t be overlooked when you consider that Ron has played the alpha dog on more than one team in the past.

“It’s amazing I can be the same person and a world champion,” said Artest in a post-championship interview with KHTK in Sacramento. “I always thought that I had to be someone else to be a world champion.”

The Lakers were fully aware of what they were getting into when they made the controversial decision to sign Artest, yet they never asked him to be anything other than himself. In turn, the 16-time NBA champions still got the pitbull they were hoping for and for the first time in his career, it was Artest who was perfectly comfortably walking with the rest of the pack. It’s that fundamental change in mentality that helped him transition from longtime misfit to the much more fitting title of NBA champion.