Lakers' Bench Play Will Be Biggest Key to LA Eclipsing Expectations

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Lakers' Bench Play Will Be Biggest Key to LA Eclipsing Expectations
(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
From left to right: Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill and Xavier Henry

Seventy-six.

That's how many points the Los Angeles Lakers' bench cobbled together during their 116-103 win over the big, bad Los Angeles Clippers on opening night at the Staples Center.

Three for Wesley Johnson, the young journeyman whose confidence (he shot 1-of-11 from the field) is still on the lam. Ten for Chris Kaman, who spent eight years with the Clippers and was with the Dallas Mavericks when they pulled a similarly upsetting stunt against the loaded Lakers to tip off the 2012-13 season.

Twelve for Jordan Hill, who put Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to shame with his hustle (seven offensive boards). Thirteen for Jodie Meeks, whose shot looked much sharper after a shaky first half. Sixteen for Jordan Farmar, to go along with six assists and four rebounds, in his first NBA game in a year-and-a-half and his first as a Laker since Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.

And, of course, a game-high 22 for Xavier Henry, who looked far more like a poor man's Kobe Bryant—who watched the entire game from the sideline while dressed in black from the neck down—than the bit player for which he'd evidently been mistaken in Memphis and New Orleans prior to arriving in LA.

According to Lakers reporter Mike Trudell, those 76 points were the third-most by a second unit in Lakers history and the most for the Purple and Gold in more than 25 years. 

Those first two efforts both came during the "Showtime" era—in 1985 and 1988—against the Golden State Warriors. Back then, scoring was plentiful, with teams like the Lakers regularly reaching into the 130s and 140s, as was the case with those previous two purple-and-gold bench bonanzas (via Andrew Ungvari of LakersNation.com):

Nowadays, final scores like those come along once in a blue moon, and only with the help of a few overtime periods. Old-school sycophants would probably point to the "superior offensive skill" of the NBA's glory years as the difference, while more modern analysts might suggest that new rules and schemes for playing defense are the main culprits.

Either way, 76 points from the subs is a strange sight to behold—almost as strange as seeing the roles of scrappy underdog and talented title contender reversed between the Clippers and the Lakers.

You know what else is strange? Watching the Lakers' starters cheer on the reserves from the bench for the entire fourth quarter against an opponent that's expected to rank among the league's elite at season's end. Not one of the five who took the floor for the opening tip for the Lakers left the pine during the final frame.

Instead, it was the undersized fivesome of Farmar, Henry, Meeks, Johnson and Hill that sopped up every second of playing time during the final 12 minutes of the game. It was that group that outhustled the Clippers, outrebounded them (12-4), outshot them (.652 to .474) and outscored them by a whopping 17 points (41-24).

/Getty Images

It was Johnson, not Shawne Williams, who held Blake Griffin scoreless in the fourth. It was Hill, not Pau Gasol, who by and large threw a wrench in DeAndre Jordan's "Lob City" revival. It was Henry and Meeks, not Nick Young and Steve Blake, who shot the Lakers into the lead. And it was Farmar, not Steve Nash, who orchestrated the entire operation from the point.

Chances are the Lakers reserves won't be this productive again in 2013-14. They won't always knock down 53 percent of their threes or outscore their opponents' counterparts by 42 points.

Perhaps LA's second unit won't be so productive going forward because, well, there could be some significant changes in store for the team's rotation. In all likelihood, Mike D'Antoni will reconsider the wisdom of starting a gunner like Young over a gifted slasher like Henry. He could move Farmar into the backcourt next to Nash and try a "Twin Tower" tandem of Gasol and Kaman up front more frequently.

This relatively deep roster is an oyster for D'Antoni, who's made a career of finding and polishing diamonds in the rough. Just ask Earl Clark, who parlayed a minor breakout under D'Antoni last season into a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers this past summer.

Or ask Jeremy Lin or Wilson Chandler or any of the other myriad role players who thrived on his watch in Phoenix and New YorkD'Antoni will have every opportunity to tinker with his rotation the same way in LA, at least until Kobe Bryant returns from his torn Achilles.

As well he should. The lineup that D'Antoni started on Tuesday night was far from terrible, but it hardly represented LA's most effective five—and might not be in the not-so-distant future.

Nash looked nagged by the same leg injury that's bothered him since last Halloween during the 21 minutes of time he spent on the court. He might not even be fit to play on the second night of back-to-backs, like the Lakers' trip up to the Bay Area to play in the Warriors' season opener.

/Getty Images

Nash's current partner at shooting guard, Steve Blake, is undersized for the position. That's not a good look for a guy who, at 33, is coming off a season in which he missed 37 games due to various injuries.

Speaking of players coming off injury-riddled campaigns, Gasol looked solid in his 24 minutes in the Hallway Rivalry, with 15 points, four assists and a game-high 13 rebounds to show for his efforts. He's not leaving the starting lineup anytime soon, but he won't always have the privilege of going toe-to-toe with front lines as defensively challenged as the Clips' one.

As for the two newcomers in LA's starting five, Young's penchant for letting fly whenever he touches the ball would seem to make him a more natural fit as a scoring sixth man. Williams, in his first NBA action since February of 2012, will need more time to re-acclimate himself to the Association and might be better off as a change-of-pace stretch 4 anyway.

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Not that the play of guys like Blake, Young and Williams will be any less important if they're dropped down the depth chart. Bench production will be key for the Lakers throughout the 2013-14 season. D'Antoni needs his subs to step up if he's going to keep his veterans fresh and the team competitive on the defensive end.

That means more responsibility for Farmar, whose play will be integral to limiting Nash to fewer than 30 minutes a night. That means more touches for Henry, who should (probably) be keeping Kobe's spot warm for him now. That means more hustle from Hill and skill from Kaman, especially if Gasol gets hurt as often as he did last season.

Seventy-six is a big number, but, when you need your bench to come through as much as these Lakers do, it's a number that affords fans a modicum of hope and optimism to start off a season that many (including yours truly) expected to include some rather dark days for the Purple and Gold.

 

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