Having a veteran, All-Star studded starting five is a beginning – an unbelievable, can-you-believe-who’s-on-this-team-caliber beginning, but five players do not an NBA Championship make. Despite an opening line-up so dominant (no longer “on paper” or “in theory” since Dwight Howard’s debut this past Sunday gave us a preview) that it angers the rest of the league, the Lakers are still engrossed in a dilemma they’ve been unable to solve since their last title in 2010 – gathering a dependable set of reserves.
In the last two seasons, as the likes of Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton and Lamar Odom began flying off the roster, the Laker coaching staff have been forced to run their starters ragged with imbalanced playing time; unable to place greater responsibility on bench players who lack leadership and direction off the pine, whose chemistry has yet to brew and whose expectations are so much higher now than they were because the starting line-up is, well, what it is.
The first six pre-season games have been an experiment of line-ups for Mike Brown and company. He emptied the bench in Golden State two weeks ago, and has since tightened the rotation in each of the games that followed. Despite six-games’ worth of tinkering with substitutions and various permutations, however, the discrepancy in level of play continues to plummet when the starters leave the floor. Against Sacramento on Sunday, the starters combined for a +26 for the night, while the bench mustered a collective, depressing -61.
The Laker bench isn’t exactly a motley crew of miscreants incapable of making plays, scoring or defending. Currently, they’re a mixed group of veteran and young players whose culmination of abilities could make for a productive bunch on the floor. Steve Blake, Chris Duhon and Antawn Jamison have 31 years of experience between them, while young guys like Devin Ebanks, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks are coming into their own. What they lack as a collective at the present (and recent past) is someone to pull them together and then show them the way.
It’s a tall order to expect this newly-formed bench unit to magically transform into memorable, lead-by-example types like Michael Cooper, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Rick Fox and Lamar Odom, especially before the regular season has begun. But someone has to take the reins eventually and frankly, with the “win now” motto as the veteran players become more veteran each day, there’s no time to waste. Even eager-to-prove-themselves players like Vujacic and Farmar, who were often the cause of their own demise in the eyes of Phil Jackson for the occasional errant in-game decisions, offered more to this team in years past because they weren’t satisfied being spectators, lemmings or wait-and-seers. They had only one mode – GO. That’s what this Laker bench needs to do – just GO, and it has to start with a twosome of veterans on the bench.
GO, Steve Blake – He can’t, and shouldn’t, be satisfied being known merely as Steve Nash’s back-up. He needs to run the floor like he did with the Portland team who killed the Lakers up at the Rose Garden every season. The nice-guy, low-key persona is pleasant off the court, but on it – he needs to start exercising at least a half level of authority. We’ve seen spurts of Blake’s effectiveness on the court, but they occur so few and far between that they do no more than help win a handful of games. Simply put – run the point, point guard.
GO Antawn Jamison – With 14 seasons under his belt, it’s time to take advantage of the talent that surrounds him. This is neither the Washington Wizards, nor Cleveland Cavaliers who provided nothing but one losing season on top of another. This is a Laker team built to win gold trophies ASAP. Despite being one of the new faces, Jamison is the most veteran player on the bench and the third most veteran player on the team. He is one of the “old school” cats to which Kobe Bryant constantly refers when speaking of himself and Steve Nash. Jamison still has some of that old school, blue-collar game in him. What he needs to develop is a greater sense of responsibility to start leading.
It might sound somewhat unreasonable to expect, or even request, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison to just shake hands and anoint themselves captains of the second unit; and soon after that, start guiding the Laker reserves into a consistently productive and efficient group of players. On the other hand, if they don’t do it, who will?
The bench unit doesn’t need to congregate into pre-game huddles the way Odom used to gather them to do. They don’t need rituals or secret handshakes to signify their solidarity as a group or display their loyalty to the team. The Laker reserves just need to figure out how to work together toward a common goal, like maintaining, if not amplifying the team’s play when the starters sub out. It will be a work in progress for many games to come, but it sure would be nice to at least have a teammate or two leading the way.