Lakers’ Bench Still a Possible Question, Despite Recent Improvement

Along with the surprise acquisition of Steve Nash on the Fourth of July, the Lakers’ front office has been lauded for the signing of Antawn Jamison. Jamison, who will be entering his 15th NBA season, will be the best reserve player the Lakers have had since Lamar Odom departed prior to last season. There is no doubt the addition of Jamison will improve the team’s bench, which was dead last in the league last season in points per game, averaging only 20 points a contest (Jamison averaged 17 by himself last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers). The team’s bench was led by seven points a game from former Laker Matt Barnes, who is known more for his energy and scrappiness off the bench more than his scoring ability, which highlights just how bad the Lakers’ bench was last season.

Thankfully, there is nowhere to go but up, as far as bench production is concerned. Yet, improvement does not necessarily correlate with being good. Jamison’s age is an obvious concern but just one of them. Jamison has spent the majority of his career playing for bottom dwelling teams in Golden State and Washington. Outside of the 2003-04 season with the Dallas Mavericks, in which Jamison took home Sixth Man of the Year honors, and playing in the 2010 post-season with LeBron James and the Cavs (averaging numbers below his career norm), Jamison hasn’t played on a team with serious championship hopes. His career numbers of 19 points and eight rebounds look good on paper, but his age and inexperience  on the big stage are possibly more noteworthy.

The rest of the team’s bench players have more question marks on their uniforms than The Riddler; therefore, can’t be counted on for any kind of real consistency. Steve Blake played much better in his second season with the Lakers in 2011-12, but he has yet to play up to the standards the team hoped he would when they signed him in the summer of 2010. Maybe playing behind a point guard like Steve Nash will relieve some of the pressure of having to produce.

Another good move by Lakers was their re-signing of forward Jordan Hill, who they acquired last season at the trade deadline in the Derek Fisher trade. His aggressive play under the boards earned him a permanent part in the rotation by the time the playoffs started. Thanks to his shot blocking and rebounding, Hill will be a valuable backup for both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. On the other hand, Hill can’t be counted on making a shot that’s not a dunk. Josh McRoberts, assuming he is on the team next season (he is under contract), is the type of player who can bring energy and rebounding to the table, but is not going to light up a scoreboard anytime soon, and unlike Hill, doesn’t have the athleticism to mask his weak offensive game.

Devin Ebanks is the one player currently on the roster whose performance could be the difference in the team’s bench being improved and being good. Ebanks started the first four games for the Lakers at the small forward position last season, before falling out of Mike Brown’s rotation. Given the team had so few options off the bench, and their poor perimeter play from anyone not named Kobe, I always felt Brown should have given Ebanks more minutes. Maybe 2012-13 will be the year Ebanks becomes an integral part of the rotation and helps quell the team’s bench woes.

The rest of the team’s bench players: Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Christian Eyenga, Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre, are either too young or not experienced enough to warrant any kind of real expectations going into next season.

To be fair, the off-season is not over, and if the previous weeks’ signings are any indication, the Buss family and Mitch Kupchak are serious about winning now, which means there could be more transactions completed in the near future. The team has expressed interest in both Leandro Barbosa and Jodie Meeks in recent weeks. Signing either Barbosa or Meeks would be a temporary answer to the team’s pressing need for a legitimate backup for Kobe, possibly turning small improvement into considerable improvement for the second unit.

Another possible antidote to the team’s recent lackluster bench production is the fact the team will reportedly be running the Princeton offense next season. Running the new offense, which some say hides players’ weaknesses on the court, could be the difference in a few more points a game for the reserve unit. Not to mention, getting some burn with Steve Nash won’t hurt matters either. All Lakers, starters included, will likely see their statistics improve playing alongside Nash.

Last season, due to the paltry production of the bench, the team’s starters had to over-exert themselves to help the team win games. Kobe Bryant averaged five more points per game last season than he did in 2010-11, and with the exception of Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol played more total minutes than any other player in the league last season.

My fear, despite being improved with Steve Nash running the show, is the team’s aging starting lineup could have to do the same in 2012-13, potentially running dry before the playoffs start.

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