Los Angeles Lakers management signed an amalgamation of draft busts, oddballs and extreme long shots this season. Can coach Mike D’Antoni turn the nobodies into somebodies?
The Lakers' free-agent hopes next summer depend on it.
The team's strategic rebuild plan would appear to be fairly simple and straightforward: Keep the books clean for next year. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol’s contracts expire at the end of the season, leaving the Lakers on the hook only for Steve Nash ($9,701,000), Nick Young (player option of $1,227,985) and Robert Sacre ($915,243).
Given all that, the Lakers can use the current season as an extended audition to find useful players for the future at rock-bottom prices. In today’s restrictive financial marketplace, this is an absolute must.
So, just how is Maestro D’Antoni doing with the grand audition process? Well, as the Mamba is fond of saying, it's a process.
Coming on the heels of a wretched loss in Dallas, let's sort through the progress of Los Angeles’ key role players.
By the time the Lakers signed Henry, he had accumulated a three-year average of 4.5 points and 0.5 assists per game. To be fair, he's had some injuries, including a torn right lateral meniscus in 2012.
Opening the regular season with the Lakers, Henry has displayed a hot hand. He's the team’s leading scorer behind Gasol, averaging 12.4 points per game.
Henry came off the bench in the first three games. Last Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks, D'Antoni pulled a switcheroo, starting Henry and bringing Young off the bench. It worked; Henry led Lakers scorers with 18 points and the Lakers won.
Tuesday night against the Mavericks, not so much—Henry started again but went only 2-of-8 from the field, missing all four of his three-point attempts.
This is Swaggy P's fourth team in seven years. The Los Angeles-born shooting guard has always treated fans to a show. He’s a shot-happy highlight reel who can drive coaches to madness.
Young had a great preseason, but he began bricking his shots once it mattered.
Through five games, he’s made just 4-of-12 from behind the arc. Still, the supremely confident gunner isn’t fazed. He scored 13 points coming off the bench on Sunday, prompting this tweet:
The irrepressible Young kept it rolling Tuesday in Dallas. No matter that the team had its worst game of the season; Young scored 21 points.
Young also had exactly one assist. So there’s that.
D’Antoni has always been fond of small-ball lineups and has been moving the 6’7” guard/forward in as the backup power forward to Shawne Williams.
You won’t see the difference in the stat line—Johnson is pulling down 4.4 boards per game and has made 16-of-47 shots. He’s got a 7’1” wingspan and has blocked nine shots in the young season.
Meeks was signed to a modest two-year deal a year ago, primarily for his shooting ability.
So far this season, he’s connected on 19-of-40 field goal attempts, including 8-of-19 three-pointers. Meeks worked on his dribble-drive over the summer. He is now driving the lane and often, getting fouled in the process. He has shot 11-of-13 from the free-throw line.
Farmar has always been one of the quicker guards in the NBA, a fact lost in Phil Jackson's triangle.
Farmar bolted after winning two rings and is now back. He's a natural fit in D’Antoni’s system. The team’s fifth-leading scorer has come off the bench in each game this season, hitting 7-of-17 from downtown and dishing five assists per outing.
Depending on Nash’s health and trade rumors, Farmar could become a starter.
Williams’ NBA journey has been a difficult one. He's had only one truly effective season—with D’Antoni and the New York Knicks in 2010-11.
Williams has been starting this season as an undersized power forward. The results have been underwhelming so far.
Still, Williams loves playing for D'Antoni and could eventually find his niche in L.A.
Can D'Antoni turn these spare parts into a running engine? In truth, playing the development game may be the best he can hope for with a team that, without Bryant, is clearly treading water.
For now, D’Antoni has his motley young crew playing an uptempo game and sharing the ball—with the possible exception of Young’s notoriously sticky fingers. The green light has been on for these guys, and that counts for a lot.
Of course, ultimately, you’ve got to make them if you’re gonna take them.
It’s probably unfair to call these guys nobodies. Each has been a serious prospect at some point during their young careers. The future is uncertain, of course. Young is the only one with a contract for next year. So far, they’re willing, if sometimes erratic, students, playing with energy and purpose one night, then careening right off the cliff on others, such as the debacle Tuesday in Dallas.
It will be interesting to see whether they can make the leap to consistency. Their futures are clearly on the line—as is the future of the Lakers, who will need role players, even if their free-agency dreams come to fruition.