Is Metta World Peace the Ultimate X-Factor for L.A. Lakers?
Training camps have started around the league. For the Lakers, there are two dominant themes that everyone is discussing.
First, is the fantastic foursome of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. These four are the new Mt. Rushmore of starting lineups and are being hailed as a collection of talent rarely (if ever) really seen.
Second, is the implementation of the Princeton Offense and how these players can adapt to a new scheme under head coach Mike Brown. Getting everyone on the same page and up to speed in a system that no one has ever played is seen as a major hurdle to the Lakers' success in 2012-13.
But in discussing both of these themes, you quickly notice that the player not being mentioned is Metta World Peace. The man formerly known as Ron begins the season as an afterthought. He is the fifth Beatle that everyone knows is there but isn't paying much attention to.
The fact is, however, that Metta is in a position to impact the Lakers in a big way. All he needs to do is rediscover the form he's shown at different parts of his Laker career. Then the guy that no one seems to be discussing will be front and center the way he was after playing one of his best games in that fateful Game 7 versus the Celtics back in 2010.
And it starts on defense.
Metta must return to playing the type of all-world D that he smothered opponents with when he first became a Laker. In that inaugural season (and into his second campaign), he chased opponents around screens, pressured them well beyond the three-point line, and was a major disruptor to offensive sets through sheer tenacity. His combination of anticipation, quick hands and brute strength were simply too much for many of the league's perimeter threats.
Coming into the 2012-13 season, he needs to play up to that level more often—a level he didn't reach frequently enough in 2011-12.
The great part is that he seems ready to try and deliver. At the start of camp he appears to be in fantastic shape, weighing nearly 30 pounds less than he did after the lockout ended and he reported to camp. And, mentally, he also seems as engaged and as willing to take on his role as defensive stopper as ever before. A more fit and focused MWP could mean real problems for the wing scorers around the league.
It's not just his defense that matters, though. Metta can really help the Lakers on offense as well. As the Lakers transition to the Princeton Offense, MWP finds himself in somewhat familiar environs having already been exposed to read and react offenses under Phil Jackson and Rick Adelman (whose "corner" offense is very similar in principle to the Princeton).
Speaking further to this point, Eddie Jordan recently spoke about how Metta fits into the offense when talking with Mike Trudell:
Metta World Peace is the prototypical forward in this offense. He can make perimeter shots, he’s a slasher, he’s a willing passer and he can post up...He’s tailor made more than anybody there is on the team. Kobe’s tailor made for any offense and Nash can run any offense, but it’s made for a guy like Metta...His physicality on cutting and slashing should get him a lot of easy chances.
In the past, Metta has been asked to do much on offense for the Lakers. And, with the talent around him this season, that likely won't change. But what matters is that, as Jordan mentioned, he has the versatility and varied skill set to do multiple things within the offense to help the team.
He's an underrated cutter that can use his brute strength to knock off his defender, establish position in the post, and then finish in the paint:
When surrounded by the type of talent that he is, Metta should find similar creases in the defense when teams overcompensate to guard talents like Kobe, Nash, Pau and Dwight.
And while people have often viewed him as a gunner, he's actually a very skilled passer that can see the floor well and anticipate how the defense is going to respond when he puts himself in a position to be a threat:
If he can provide the type of movement, feel for the game, and finishing ability he displays above, he can elevate the Lakers' offense in ways that aren't even yet imagined. Especially when playing off of the caliber of teammates he now possesses.
Of course, the other major key to Metta helping the Lakers' offense is in hitting the open jumpers he'll be afforded. In the 2011-12 campaign, he was especially poor in hitting spot up jumpers (only converting on 25.6 percent, per Synergy) and his lowly success rate only encouraged teams to leave him open in order to double the post or to shade towards Kobe on the perimeter.
If he's truly going to help the team, he'll need to be better than that this season. But considering the shape he's in and the talent he's surrounded by, he'll never be more open and have less defensive attention sent his way.
And ultimately, that's the bigger point. Metta has a golden opportunity ahead of him. He's playing on an ultra-talented roster where he's not going to be asked to do much but will be put in a position to maximize his opportunities. Plus, he's in the best shape he's ever been as a Laker and has a role he's embracing.
So while other topics garner the headlines, don't forget how Metta can impact the Lakers. Because just as he was in 2010 when he hit that critical three pointer against the Celtics, he may very well find himself as the player that is the difference maker.
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