We have the best player on the planet and the winningest coach in the league.
We’re rich in length and veteran leadership.
We’re a deep team.
Hmmm… Prove it.
In their first game of the New Year, the Lakers trailed by more than 20 points against a young, energetic and very confident Sacramento Kings team; the very same team that took two overtimes and a couple of timely Kobe Bryant trey’s to defeat. As the game recap and box score showed on January 1st (as it had shown through most of December), it was a lot of Kobe, a lot of Pau, more Lamar than usual, some Andrew, but very little everyone else.
Though the defending champions have had the best record in the league for most of this season (an accomplishment no one should scoff at no matter what their schedule), many of us have been wondering when we would see the same slick-passing, defensively stifling, so-fired-up-even-Pau-is-screaming group of guys that played (mostly) every game last season like they had something to prove.
Lately, however, all the Lakers have proven is that they can squeak by and get a win as long as Kobe still has appendages with which to dribble and shoot.
Kobe, despite injuries to various parts of his body, has played consistently better than everyone else on the team whose bodies are in tact. And It’s been no secret that the Lakers bench is most guilty for necessitating their captain’s last second buzzer beaters, not to mention the imbalance of playing time which have favored (if you can use that in a negative context) the starters.
The coaching staff has placed a buffet of line-ups on the floor, trying to figure out which combination (both pure and mixed with starters) would be, well, the tastiest. The results have been a mixed bag at best, but the only accomplishment the bench seems to have no problem achieving is inconsistency. They haven’t played terribly at every game (45 points, 17 rebounds, 16 assists against Phoenix), but they haven’t played exceptionally well either (five reserves combined to score only 9 points against New York).
What became apparent in the Dallas game on Sunday, however, is that the combination of players on the floor simply shouldn’t matter.
It’s not like the team was completely dismembered after a Championship was attained. Trevor Ariza was essentially swapped for Ron Artest but other than that, most of these players have been on the team together for years. Playing with different teammates isn’t the issue. It’s not all about putting pieces in different orders to achieve maximum production. It’s about the effort and attitude you contribute to the game no matter who you’re on the floor with. Some time last season, when asked about the team’s improved defense, Phil Jackson mentioned that defense isn’t all about skill; most of it is effort. EFFORT – the mental or physical energy that is exerted in order to achieve a purpose.
Effort is not complaining about playing time. It’s knowing that you have to earn your coach’s trust and then coming through when he calls you to play for the entire fourth quarter. Effort isn’t making careless decisions, like trying fancy passes when you’re down by 16 points (sorry Adam Morrison, I’m just never going to forget that). It’s playing defense, moving the ball and fighting each other for rebounds. Effort is not having to ask the starters to check back into the game in the last 6 minutes because that 20 point lead has suddenly turned into a 5 point deficit. It’s your captain, who has bailed the team out too many times, sitting on the sidelines cheering you on when that 25 point lead turned into 43.
The Bench’s effort produced 66 points on 83% shooting, 14 of the total 33 assists, 18 rebounds (15 defensive) and 4 steals. These stats are incredible, especially for a group of players who have been anything but. However, these were not what impressed me last night.
It was Josh Powell’s hustle for a putback after a missed lay-up. It was D.J. Mbenga’s serious swattage of Shawn Marion’s attempted dunk. It was Adam Morrison showing that his game can come from inside the three-point line. It was Shannon Brown using his energy for more than just his signature dunks, but for defense as well. It was Sasha blowing by cross-court and waiting for his teammates to run the offense rather than jacking up a three in transition. It was Jordan Farmar leading his team on the court, not just with aggressive offense but with patient decision making.
Hopefully, the reserves watch this game film before the Houston game (or maybe every game) and remember what their collective efforts can achieve.
On paper, repeated to the point of exhaustion, the Lakers are a deep and talented team. But when it comes to winning Championships, the only proof that matters is what that talent and depth can do on the hardwood.