From the looks of things, it seems as though the Los Angeles Lakers are going to the playoffs. However, this accomplishment is bittersweet. Kobe Bryant, the mainstay of the team for the better part of a decade, is out for the season with a fractured Achilles tendon.
Despite the sudden loss of the Lakers' captain, L.A. must move forward, and with the postseason coming around the corner, the team will need to move rather quickly.
Bryant's absence forces L.A. to rethink its strategy, namely when it comes to who will be on the court come playoff time. Who will step up? Who can step up? Who will be the key role players?
The unlikeliest of players to stand out in Bryant's absence has got to be Steve Blake. His recent performance during the Lakers' 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday was good enough to earn the nickname "Blake Mamba," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Blake scored 23 points, 18 of which came in his first 18 minutes of play. Blake's standout performance really opened the eyes of the Lakers faithful, and it may have proved to everyone that he is no longer destined to ride the pine pony.
With regard to his potential role in the playoffs, we could see Blake in the starting guard position alongside Steve Nash, which could lead to substantial playing time. While Blake may very well be a Lakers starter throughout the playoffs, expectations should not be set all too high. Let's keep in mind that Blake still has a long way to go as a competitor, and he may not be completely playoff-ready.
Expect to see Steve Nash in his usual role as the team's facilitator, especially come playoff time. Nash has always been the consummate athlete during postseason play, shining in every game he's played. After all, let's not forget how he used to run circles around the Lakers during his time with the Phoenix Suns.
However, don't expect to see Nash a lot in the starting role. His age and his physical condition may play a vital role in the pressure of a playoff situation.
Pau Gasol is another Laker who, despite his starting role, may be seeing more bench time. This season, Gasol has proven to be more effective off the bench due to his equally problematic condition.
Gasol is most likely to be utilized in key situations when the team is faltering defensively.
Gasol should be minimally active during play and will be a better tool as a backup option to Earl Clark.
Metta World Peace should play a pivotal role in the Lakers rotation during the playoffs. If and when the team gets that higher-seeded team, L.A. will have to be more aggressive than ever before.
And that's where MWP comes in. It is very feasible to say that World Peace can ignite the Lakers offense by making fast-paced plays in the key. In addition, his veteran presence can contribute to the Lakers' leadership and could be the X-factor in the team's success.
In Bryant's absence, expect World Peace to get more playing time as the team's communicator. Strong yet controlled: That is the characteristic that will make MWP the key to the Lakers' success.
And speaking of leadership, now is the best time for Dwight Howard to stand out as the Lakers' leading figure. It's no secret that once Bryant chooses to call it a career, the team's leadership role will go to Howard, should he choose to accept it.
This is the ideal time for Howard to try his hand at leading this team in playoff situations. All eyes will be on D12 to see how he'll do in the role, but there will be minimal pressure for him to succeed.
Expect to see a lot of Howard on the court, slowly and progressively assuming the role as the team's leader while Vino is away.
Young Earl Clark has never been placed in a playoff picture such as this one, so the expectation for him to succeed is not very high. That isn't to say that he wouldn't stand out if given the chance.
This season, Clark has proven to be a substantial key to the Lakers' success. Clark has brought youth and athleticism to a team that has been criticized for its age.
Clark can be the ideal bench player during the playoffs who could make or break any game. Needless to say, he is someone worth keeping an eye on.
It may sound redundant, but it's worth repeating: Antawn Jamison coming off the bench is a better tool than most people give the Lakers credit for.
Jamison is becoming seasoned in years, and as a reserve player, he has proven to be a crucial figure in the Lakers' performance this season. Another contributing factor for Jamison is that, like Nash, he's playoff-tested, specifically from his days in Cleveland alongside LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Who's to say that putting Jamison back in postseason play won't be like putting a dog back in his own backyard? Don't be surprised if Jamison pulls off some surprises that move L.A. ahead in the playoffs.