Los Angeles Lakers Leaning on Role Players a Dangerous Game to Play

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Los Angeles Lakers Leaning on Role Players a Dangerous Game to Play
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The Los Angeles Lakers never had much of a choice.

They knew, to some extent, that they'd have to rely rather heavily on the contributions of role players if they were to survive the 2013-14 NBA season.

Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace were gone, Kobe Bryant had a long way to go before he'd be ready to return from a torn Achilles, and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both aging and coming off injury-plagued campaigns, couldn't be assumed to produce to the extent that they had previously.

That's why head coach Mike D'Antoni was so candid during the preseason about his plan to play an 11-man rotation—at the outset, anyway. He was well aware that he'd need someone (or someones) to step up on both ends of the floor while awaiting more definitive results from his 30-something stars.

As it happens, the tables in L.A. have tilted toward a dependence on the likes of Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Chris Kaman, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson far more and much sooner than many would've otherwise anticipated.

On the one hand, this has yielded a bench that leads the league by a comfortable margin in a number of categories, per hoopsstats.com, including scoring (51.5), rebounding (24.1), assists (10.3) and field goals and three-pointers made and attempted.

That's an impressive turnaround from last year, when the Lakers bench ranked among the two to three least productive units in the NBA. Further, most of L.A.'s current reserves are scrapheap types working on league-minimum contracts.

On the other hand, the second unit's contributions, while encouraging on their own, point to a bigger, more worrisome problem: The starters aren't performing. Through eight games, L.A.'s starting five ranks dead-last in scoring and efficiency on both ends of the floor.

To be sure, there's no clear distinction between one group and the other. 

Shawne Williams, who was out of the Association last season, started the first five games as a stretch 4 for D'Antoni, but he has since been replaced by Chris Kaman. The small forward spot has thus far been split by Nick Young, a career gunner, and Xavier Henry, a former lottery pick who's still finding his footing as a productive pro.

Only Pau Gasol and Steve Blake have started all eight games for the Lakers, though not always at the same positions. Gasol has slid over to power forward at times to make way for Kaman, while Blake has played the point on occasion, with Jodie Meeks sneaking in at shooting guard.

The latter of those arrangements might become an even greater staple of D'Antoni's plans now that Nash is battling back and leg problems once again. As our own Kevin Ding reports:

It's not as though Nash had been particularly effective prior to exiting during the second quarter of the Lakers' 113-90 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, which snapped L.A.'s 22-game winning streak against the team from Minneapolis.

In six games so far, Nash has averaged all of 6.7 points (on 26.1 percent shooting) and 4.8 assists in 22.5 minutes per game. The Lakers have also gone so far as to hold him out of the second night of back-to-backs in an attempt to preserve what little gas Nash has left in the tank.

And yet, Nash's 39-year-old frame is proving more fickle than ever.

As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted, Nash has been battling back problems since his days with the Dallas Mavericks. The nerve damage that resulted from a collision with Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard on Halloween in 2012 still lingers and seems to have exacerbated Nash's pre-existing back issues: 

The ongoing uncertainty has clearly flustered Nash to the point of frustration:

I'm trying to play through it but at the same time be smart and try to overcome what I can and see. But it's taken a bit of a turn for the worse.

The pain is always there. It's not as much of a concern, it's just when you're so limited and you're limping and you're trying to get off your left leg the whole time, then you just can't be effective. You're making it worse. So, I tried to play through it, but to what? Diminishing returns.

Those diminishing returns have forced D'Antoni to rely all the more heavily (and precariously) on Blake and Farmar to pick up the slack at the point.

Both have had their moments this season, but neither projects as anything close to the game-changer that the Lakers anticipated they'd have running their offense when they shipped four draft picks and $3 million to the Phoenix Suns to nab Nash in July of 2012.

To be sure, Nash isn't the only one of L.A.'s key contributors whose play thus far has left much to be desired. Pau Gasol, too, seemed ripe for a huge bounce-back season coming into training camp.

More touches inside, more responsibility overall, less time spent on the perimeter and less pain in his knees and feet portended a return to All-Star status for the slender Spaniard.

Gasol has had his beastly moments on the boards (10.8 per game), but on the whole he's hardly played well enough to warrant being the Lakers' first option on offense. It's one thing for Gasol to take fewer than half of his shots within a few feet of the hoop; it's another entirely for him to miss 64 percent of them, regardless of where he shoots them from.

In Gasol's defense, he's been battling a respiratory illness for more than a week now. In that time, he's scored 9.6 points per game on a shade under 30 percent shooting from the floor. The Lakers can only hope Pau will heat up once he's healthy again.

Until then, L.A. will have to look to Kaman, a former All-Star who's been the team's best acquisition of the summer (9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, .563 from the field in 18.3 minutes) to pick up the slack.

The same goes for the combination of Young, Meeks, Henry and Johnson in relief of Kobe. According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told season ticket-holders over the weekend that he doesn't expect Bryant to be ready to play within the next couple of weeks: 

I don't see that in the next week or two because you've got to be on the court. You've got to practice. You've got to play.

Until then, the Lakers will, in Kupchak's mind, be hard at work carving out an identity for themselves:

Clearly we don't know what this team is all about until Kobe gets back, and when he gets back, how is he going to play? I know he's going to come back competitive. I know he's going to be productive. But that's when we're going to find out what kind of team we have.

In some respects, Kupchak and the Lakers should know what kind of team they have. With or without Kobe, the Lakers look to be a scrappy bunch that runs a ton of pick-and-roll, jacks up threes and doesn't do much to impede its opponents on the defensive end.

Realistically, that's about as much as anyone can expect from L.A. this year. The Lakers stocked up on guards and wings who can shoot but whose flaws have left them hanging on by a thread in the NBA.

At times, the plan has actually worked.

The Lakers outhustled and outshot the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets in their two biggest wins to date, hitting 30-of-64 three-pointers combined in those contests. They also nearly upended the Tim Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs at home, and they hung on to defeat the Atlanta Hawks after building up a double-digit lead that held steady for three quarters.

But as often as the Lakers have lived by the three—out of necessity and by design—they've died by it just as frequently, if not more so.

L.A. has knocked down just 16-of-45 treys in its last two outings, both blowout losses to the New Orleans Pelicans and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers were so cold out of the gate against the Golden State Warriors that even a late flurry couldn't put a dent in their 31-point deficit.

Perhaps Kupchak is hoping he won't know what the Lakers are all about just yet, and for good reason. So far, their streak shooting and porous defense (they rank among the bottom eight in nearly every major defensive metric) has yielded just three wins in eight tries.

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Granted, that's more than many, including yours truly, would've had them pegged for prior to the start of the season. But for a Lakers organization whose management and fanbase demand excellence, a losing record simply isn't going to cut it.

That's why Kupchak isn't ready to define this team just yet. He's waiting to see how this squad performs later this season, once Kobe's back and Gasol and Nash are relatively healthy.

In truth, he's right to resist casting this group into the abyss. It's possible that this team will be a much more consistent offensive machine once it has its proverbial ducks in a row.

Surely, Mike D'Antoni's offense should fire on all cylinders once Nash and Gasol have their pick-and-roll chemistry down, Bryant is back to soaking up all of those impossible shots that come at the end of broken possessions and the rest of L.A.'s motley crew can settle back into smaller, more focused roles.

This could all just as easily be chalked up to wishful thinking, though. Nobody knows how effective the Black Mamba will be on the heels of a devastating Achilles tear. Nobody knows if Nash will ever again look anything like he did even two years ago with the Suns. Even Gasol remains a major question mark until he's proven definitively that he is and can be the All-Star of old.

That's bad news for the Lakers, who may have to entrust their ragtag gang of misfit parts and wily jump-shooters with the fate of the team for far longer than anyone originally anticipated.

As proficient as D'Antoni is at extracting useful contributions from borderline D-Leaguers, even he would be hard-pressed to fashion this roster into a playoff-caliber team.

But D'Antoni and the Lakers don't have much of a choice now, and they may not have one for some time, depending on how things pan out for their injured Hall of Famers.

 

Let's talk Lakers—good, bad or indifferent.

 

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