What was once was a weakness is now a strong suit with World Peace and Matt Barnes,” said Lakers Broadcaster Bill MacDonald.
Truer words are tough to come by, as the Lakers are finally reaping the benefits of consistently above-average play from the small forward position. With the exception of last night, where we should have known a team as good as the Spurs would respond to last week’s home blowout, the Lakers’ small forwards have been part of the biggest reason for their recent improved play.
Metta World Peace, admittedly not ready to play (physically) once the NBA lockout was lifted, was simply terrible to start the year. Hampered by injury, excess weight, and the adjustment to a completely new system under Mike Brown, World Peace played the first few weeks of the season as a prime candidate of being the Lakers’ amnesty casualty. In fact, if we’re all being honest here, a majority of Laker fans were openly calling for the organization to make drastic changes at the position.
Matt Barnes, like World Peace, struggled while initially adjusting to Brown’s new philosophy and approach. Like MWP, Barnes publicly expressed discontent with the abrupt transition from the comfort of Phil Jackson’s more laid-back style. Thankfully, Coach Brown was not a sensitive individual in either case. After enduring stretches where he fell in and out of Brown’s main rotation, Barnes has settled into his role as the “energy guy” off the bench. In fact, while Barnes’ improved play started just before Ramon Sessions was acquired, outside of World Peace, no other player has improved more than Barnes since the Lakers acquired the starting point guard.
Improved three-point shooting from both small forwards has been a key towards the Lakers’ recent success. World Peace, now infamously, started the year shooting a paltry 14 percent from behind the arc. In fact, he wasn’t much better from inside the arc, (mis)firing at just under 30 percent on two-point field goals over the first two months of the season. In limited action, Barnes was hardly better at about 25 percent from beyond the arc over the same stretch. As mentioned, Coach Brown played MWP into shape, and allowed him to find his ‘game’. Along with the comfort of playing with a competent and physically active point guard in Sessions, Brown’s faith in MWP has paid huge dividends.
All of a sudden, World Peace is posting up again, Barnes is slashing to the basket, and both players are making life miserable for opposing coaches attempting to find a proper match-up against the versatility the Lakers have at small forward. While Sessions makes life easier for all players with timely passes that find players in rhythm, credit should also be given to MWP and Barnes for improving their overall attitude and approach. In Kobe Bryant’s absence (now six games due to a bruised shin), each player has taken their game to an even higher level. World Peace has averaged 17 points on 52 percent shooting (34 percent from behind the arc) and has swiped 14 steals over the last seven games. Barnes has also increased productivity, averaging nearly a double-double (9.1 points, 8.2 rebounds) to go along with his three and a half assists in just over 28 minutes per game over the month of April.
The improved play should only cultivate confidence from within the team, once Bryant returns. Bryant can trust that his wing-mates have the ability to pick up the slack and make things easier for the Lakers in his absence, and (hopefully) these players have developed the inner-confidence and self assurance to continue producing at a high level once Bryant returns. Just as it will be Bryant’s responsibility to acknowledge the progress this team has made in his absence by making slight adjustments to his approach once he returns, it will also be the shared responsibility of Barnes/MWP to continue playing with the same confidence and level of aggression with Bryant alongside them.