Image: Noah Graham | Getty Images
With contributions by Kanta Ito.
With Dwight Howard‘s departure, Lakers Executive V.P. of Basketball Operations Jim Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak faced a major task this past off-season. The Lakers’ decision-makers were tasked with filling plenty of holes, as evidenced by last season’s debacle.
After eight preseason games and three regular season games, one significant improvement is evident: the bench.
The Lakers have received a major sparkplug from the second unit this season, evidenced by their strong performances throughout the preseason and regular season. The second unit shocked the national audience by carrying the Lakers to an Opening Night victory over its co-tenant rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, outscoring them 41-24 in the fourth quarter and scoring 76 points as a unit.
Albeit, the Lakers lost the next two games to the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers’ bench, however, has shown that it can carry a lot of the weight for the Lakers this season.
Jordan Farmar, a key bench player during the Lakers’ championship runs in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, took a significant paycut to rejoin the Lakers after stint with the New Jersey Nets as well as overseas in Israel and Turkey. Farmar has gotten off to a blistering start, averaging 11.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game, including scoring 16 points to lead the Lakers over the Clippers.
Farmar’s maturity in becoming an effective floor general came from running the show for the Anadolu Efes Istambul in Turkey last season—leading them to a Euroleague playoff appearance.
“I just got a chance to play differeent styles of basketball. My whole professional career, I was in a triangle and I [was not] really running screen and rolls and making decisions and getting away from that. I finally got a chance to do that and learn on the job,” Farmar told NBA on TNT sidelines reporter Craig Sager after defeating the Clippers.
The biggest surprise for the Lakers has been Xavier Henry, who signed a non-guaranteed 1-year deal with the purple and gold. After subpar performances with the Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Hornets during his first three years in the NBA, the 22-year old Henry has given the Lakers a guy who can create his own shots and play solid defense.
Henry, a former lottery-pick out of Kansas, has made a good first impression with the Lakers—scoring a career high 22 points versus the Clippers.
Although Henry scored only 3 points versus the Spurs, he has shown Lakers’ coach Mike D’Antoni that he can make a variety of aggressive moves towards the basket and hit some shots from behind the arc. With Henry’s defensive prowess and his surprising offensive game, he might become one of the biggest off-season acquisition steals for the Lakers.
The Lakers also signed another athletic guard-forward, Wesley Johnson. Johnson, like Henry, has not made an impact in the NBA during his past stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.
Expect Johnson to make a significant impact on the defensive end by using his length and athleticism—especially in his current role as a “quick-4.” He has the ability to guard every position except for center. Despite being the fourth overall pick in 2011 NBA Draft, Johnson’s offensive contribution will be a bonus, as his main role is on the defensive end.
However, Johnson has scored 11 points and 12 points the past two games respectively, on 50% shooting from the 3-point line.
Johnson excitedly told our own Laker Nation columnists Alex Lambeth and Jory Dreher before training camp that he believes he can have a really good impact just for his length and speed.
“I can get in passing lanes and disrupt shots and bring a spark that will fuel the entire team,” Johnson said. “As long as everyone is on the same page defensively, I think we’ll be just fine.”
Another addition to the bench rotation this season is former NBA All-Star Chris Kaman. With his recent solid play, I expect coach D’Antoni to pencil him into the starting lineup very soon.
Kaman and Lakers’ star Pau Gasol have shown that they can play together. This combination has been much more effective than Gasol and Howard last year.
The combination of these three key additions to the Lakers bench, paired with returnees Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks, give the Lakers the flexibility and youth to cause matchup nightmares for their opponents—something they have not had in recent years.
The new and improved bench can also help limit the minutes played by veterans Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and most importantly, Kobe Bryant, once he returns to the lineup.
“We can go out there and take the load off some of those guys,” Johnson continued. “It will definitely be a relief off their shoulders knowing we’re going to compete just as hard as they are.”
With the combination of their depth, and the return of assistant coach and defensive guru Kurt Rambis, the Lakers have shown signs of improved team defense.
No one knows for sure if the Lakers’ bench can sustain this stellar play, but the Lakers’ front office should be given major credit for upgrading the bench under the tight circumstances they faced this off-season.
While the Lakers still have low expectations this season, expect the second unit to continue helping the Lakers make some noise this season and hold down the fort until Kobe returns to the lineup.