Los Angeles Lakers: How the Lockout Affects Their Top 10 Players

Howard RubenContributor IDecember 6, 2011

Los Angeles Lakers: How the Lockout Affects Their Top 10 Players

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    The ultra long NBA lockout, now over, may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Los Angeles Lakers

    Playing a 66-game season instead of an 82-game schedule gives this aging yet still immensely talented roster much-needed rest heading into what will be a grueling campaign and climb up the basketball mountain after a very disappointing fall from grace a year ago.

    Despite all the wishful thinking of a Dwight Howard and/or Chris Paul trade to Los Angeles, the current Lakers are as strong with their starting lineup as any team in the league, including Dallas and Miami

    I said this about them last season and will repeat it: This team can go as far as it wants.

    Is Kobe Bryant champing at the bit, thoroughly refreshed and ready to explode? How will Andrew Bynum start out the season, given as he must sit out the first five games due to the suspension he incurred with his nasty takedown of J.J. Barea in the playoffs? 

    And will Metta World Peace, the basketball player formerly known as Ron Artest, play more like the Artest of the 2009-2010 season or the slower, less confident version of last season’s playoffs?

    Let’s take a look at the Lakers roster and see how this long layoff has affected each of their top 10 players and what they’ll need to concentrate on most to make this one a memorable championship run.

Metta World Peace: Big Contract, Low Expectations

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    I’m wondering if World Peace (WP) changed his name from Ron Artest after experiencing the worst statistical season of his 12-year career. Better to toss Artest in the scrap heap and start over by praying for world peace and three-point shots to fall.

    For the first time in his career, WP started all 82 games. That, unfortunately, was the highlight for this once steady scorer. Appearing tired and disinterested, WP never really found a groove—his point total of 8.5 per game was the worst ever for him, as was his horrendous .397 shooting percentage and 3.2 measly rebounds per contest.

    The long layoff could actually help WP because he looked tired at the end of last season when Dallas ambushed the Lakers in four games. There were a lot of distractions for WP last year after he won his first-ever championship in 2010.

    This time around there are no known things that should deter WP.

    There is no question he’s lost a few steps, but WP remains one of the league’s best one-on-one defenders. He has had the opportunity to rest and get himself into great physical shape to start a new, shortened season.

    After his dismal showing last season, there appears to be only one way for Metta World Peace to go this year—unless, of course, more distractions take his focus off the ball. 

    Which, for WP, is not a stretch.

Matt Barnes: Layoff Is a Blessing and a Time to Heal

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    Matt Barnes truly needed the extra time to heal—both physically and emotionally. He should be a much better, stronger player for the Lakers heading into the new season.

    If you’ll recall, the 6'8" former UCLA standout was playing extremely well early in the season last year, eating up minutes originally intended for Metta World Peace. Then came January, and Barnes sustained the first major injury of his career.

    If you are going to tear up your knee, you couldn’t ask for a better scenario than to have a prolonged work stoppage. Barnes should be ready to go when the team starts camp next week.

    The prediction here is that Barnes and World Peace will again battle for minutes, and that should bode well for the team. In about 19 minutes per game, Barnes averaged 4.3 rebounds—a number he hopes to improve to six or seven this season.

    In addition to his rehab, Barnes had quite the personal offseason. His relationship with reality television star Gloria Govan ended, and Barnes later accused her of cheating with one of his former best friends.

    Feeling healthy, well-rested and totally focused on basketball, the 31-year-old former Bruin should come flying out of the gate on Christmas when the Lakers open their season against the Chicago Bulls.

Steve Blake: Can He Rebound from a Mediocre Season?

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    It's hard to say if an extra couple of months off benefits or hinders Steve Blake.

    That's because most of Blake's problems have been self-inflicted. He was a walking, running, "too afraid to shoot" head case for much of last season, seeming to lose confidence as the regular season turned into the nightmare that became the Lakers' postseason.

    To top it all off, Blake contracted a rare adult case of chicken pox right in the middle of the Lakers' first playoff series with New Orleans. For the 6'3", eight-year veteran point guard, the offseason could not have come sooner.

    If the Lakers roster remains the same (highly doubtful) heading into the first month of the regular season, Blake will again have an opportunity to increase his minutes and productivity. Derek Fisher is 37, and Blake is a relative youngster at 31 (32 in February).

    The former Maryland Terrapin averaged just 2.2 assists and four points in 20 minutes per game last year for the Lakers. It's no secret the team is shopping for a top point guard (Chris Paul would be at the top of its shopping list), and Blake could end up being part of a deal to get one.

    Blake stands to benefit from the long layoff only because it gave him time to reflect on the disappointing season he had in 2010-11. Whether or not he improves may depend on whether he's part of the Lakers roster going forward.

Shannon Brown: The New CBA Ultimately Could Hamper His L.A. Status

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    Shannon Brown is ready for his close-up. It just may not be with the team that's given him the opportunity to showcase his true talents.

    My gut tells me that the 26-year-old, 6'4" sixth-year jumping jack from Michigan State is headed out of town this time around after twice spurning bigger free-agent offers to stay with the Purple and Gold.

    The soon to be ratified collective bargaining agreement puts an additional clamp on teams like the Lakers, who are way over the salary cap and allowed to sign free agents for much less than those clubs under the cap.

    Brown is being courted by a handful of teams who see him as a starter and crowd-pleaser who is just entering the prime of his career. Because of the logjam in L.A. known as Kobe Bryant, Brown was able to get on the court for only 19.1 minutes per game last year, putting up close to nine points per contest. Were he to start and play 35-40 minutes, Brown could easily become an 18-point per night, human highlight film for another NBA club.

    Brown declined a player option of $2.37 million to stay with the Lakers and is considering his next move. Some other team will offer him at least twice that amount with the prospect of being a starter. It's obvious that Shannon Brown loves the Lakers and its fans. But now that he has two championship rings, it's probably time to cash it all in and take that next step.

    L.A. will miss you, Shannon, but if the team is lucky, it may be able to hand off your No. 12 jersey to that other guy from Orlando who wears the same number. Ah, to dream.

Luke Walton: New Amnesty Clause Could Signal End of His Lakers Career

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    The long layoff did nothing to harm the career of Luke Walton. What career, you ask?

    OK, enough with the jokes about Walton. He's one of the lucky ones who parlayed one good year into one of the league's most unbalanced, multi-year, multimillion-dollar guaranteed deals.

    At $5.7 million for this year, Walton is the team's sixth-highest-paid player, coming off a season in which he averaged just 1.7 points in nine minutes of play.  That's not long enough to justify more than one hand towel to wipe off the sweat.

    In his defense, Walton has been battling debilitating back injuries for several years, though he did get through last season relatively pain free.

    The big question now: Will Walton retire, as was recently reported by Mark Medina in the Los Angeles Times, or will he try to hang on for another two seasons and collect his remaining guaranteed $11.46 million the team owes him?

    With the CBA's new "amnesty" clause that allows a team to shed one contract as if it never existed, it would appear that Lucky Luke's days are numbered.

    The Lakers have been trying to shop Walton for a couple of seasons. There's a reason no one has come forward. General manager Mitch Kupchak would warrant consideration for knighthood should he be able to find an NBA team that would take on that contract.

    The bet here is that the Lakers will exercise their amnesty clause on Walton. That being the case, the lockout and new CBA will have had the biggest affect on him.

Derek Fisher: Down but Definitely Not Out

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    Derek Fisher has more stamina than most players 10 years younger. Still, the 37-year-old Lakers point guard must be feeling a bit like Muhammad Ali after he just went toe to toe with the late Joe Frazier in their 15-round epic championship battle.

    At $3.4 million this season and next, Fisher is a bargain for the Lakers even if his minutes diminish, which they probably will. Always in great shape, Fisher could be adversely affected by the long layoff because he's spent so much of it wearing suits, flying to New York, sitting in hotel meeting rooms and answering the same questions about the lockout for upwards of six months.

    It tires me out just to write about it!

    Fisher averaged 28 minutes per game last year, two above his 16-year career mark. He played in all 82 regular-season games for the sixth consecutive season, stamping Fisher as the league's true Iron Man.

    There's no question the Lakers would absolutely love to have Chris Paul in their starting lineup come December 25. It would not only boost the Lakers' backcourt with speed, outside shooting and interior penetration, but would also make Fisher work harder to hold on to his status as elder statesman and aggressive defender.

    The layoff would have been a plus had Fisher been able to rest and get ready for the season opener. Instead, he had to work out when he could, which couldn't have been often enough.

    Look for Derek Fisher to take on whatever role the Lakers and new coach Mike Brown deem necessary to improve the team. Expect a new point guard in town before long.

    But also expect the same old Derek Fisher: tenacious and determined. His minutes may diminish to about 20 per game, but that may just rejuvenate and carry him through what's already been a long, long campaign.

Lamar Odom: Layoff Is a Plus for League's Top Sixth Man

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    This is a good time for Lamar Odom. The long layoff hasn't affected the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year—at least physically.

    Still, L.O. could be on his way out of town if the Lakers are able to pull off a blockbuster deal with either the Hornets (Chris Paul) or Magic (Dwight Howard). He's a commodity with a decent contract and the versatility to help teams contend and make the playoffs.

    Odom played in all 82 games last season, averaging 14.4 points on 53 percent shooting, a career best. He is an integral part of the Lakers offense, able to bring the ball up the court (he's 6'11" and handles the ball like a guard) and drive to the hoop better than anyone on the team.

    So why would the Lakers trade him now? Because in order to get a great player from another team, you must be ready to relinquish talent from your team.

    If the Lakers are able to consummate a deal with New Orleans and/or Orlando, you can rest assured Odom will be sent packing along with either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol.

    Personally, I would not trade Odom—he is more valuable than management has often thought, and he seems to have matured a lot since getting married two years ago to Khloe Kardashian. The Lakers tried to send Odom to Minnesota in June in exchange for the Timberwolves' No. 2 pick in the draft (they would have taken Arizona's Derrick Williams) but were turned down.

    It's a good time to be Lamar Odom—so good that he soon may be gone.

Pau Gasol: He'll Be Fine, Wherever He Is Playing

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    The last time we saw Pau Gasol on a basketball court, he looked tired and old. His tank was on empty.

    When you're 31 years old and averaging 37 minutes of playing time per game for the last three years at the toughest position on the court, chances are you are going to slow down just a bit. But Gasol is going to be just fine.

    The layoff certainly has helped him, even though he'd play basketball year-round if he could. The lockout is a blessing in disguise for the 7'0" Spaniard who averaged 18.8 points per game last year as the league's most consistent big man and arguably its best passer.

    True enough, Gasol looked beaten down by the time the Mavericks got through with him. But then, so did the rest of the Lakers, who really need a slick, quick, darting point guard to get them solidly back on their championship feet.

    Rumors are flying about trades, and it was thought that Andrew Bynum and Gasol (along with Kobe Bryant) were untouchable. Now it appears only Kobe is.

    If I'm Lakers management, I look to either move Bynum to the Magic for Dwight Howard or to New Orleans for Chris Paul. Having the latter in a Lakers uniform would mean Gasol would have to play center regularly and necessitate another move by the team to give him backup help.

    Either way, Pau Gasol is going to be just fine. Rumors of his demise are grossly exaggerated. This is still a team game, and Gasol is definitely a piece you need to have on yours if you want to win.

Andrew Bynum: He's Healthy but Questions Remain

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    Is Jim Buss finally ready to deal Andrew Bynum?

    The layoff most certainly has given the gifted center time to reflect on a lost season that got totally out of hand at the very end in a four-game blitzkrieg against Dallas. The question is now whether Buss, who pushed the Lakers to draft the high school player six years ago, would be willing to move the enigmatic Bynum to either New Orleans or Orlando in blockbuster deals for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard.

    There is absolutely no doubt that when Bynum is healthy and in rhythm, he can compete with the best centers in the NBA (hello Dwight Howard!). He is arguably the second-best big man playing today. And he's only 24.

    The layoff could only have helped Bynum, who has been hobbled by leg injuries the past few seasons. If he can stay out of the infirmary, Bynum is capable of dominating the game defensively for the next five years at the very least.

    Bynum has been reported as saying that he'd like to have his "own team" (according to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski), meaning he'd like more touches in the paint. There's no "I" in team or in Bynum, and that should be enough to make Jim Buss open to dealing him.

    Now is the time in which both New Orleans and Orlando will need to unload their respective superstars or risk getting nothing for them next summer when they are free agents.

    Andrew Bynum would be a great fit for either team, a piece they could build a future around. If he stays with L.A., my guess is that Bynum will not be a happy camper.

    It just seems like it's time.

Kobe Bryant: Shortened Season a Big Plus for the Game's Best Closer

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    He knows you can't use your hands in soccer, but Kobe Bryant just couldn't help himself.

    Bryant insists he loves the "beautiful game" as much as he does basketball, but the latter is where he shines. Bryant must be secretly doing the happy dance these days, knowing there will be a Christmas AND a basketball season.

    Bryant realizes that time is not his friend and that he may have a few good seasons left as one of the game's premier players. Thus, the extended lockout and subsequent frustration had No. 24 urging his fellow players to get off their butts and sign a deal with the owners.

    As it turned out, he gets to play this season and only have to subject his body to 66 regular-season games, a gift for someone now entering his 16th season.

    It's time to play basketball, and no one will be as ready and as thankful as Kobe Bryant. As Ramona Shelburne writes in a column posted yesterday on ESPNLA.com, Bryant at 33 has worked on his game to help him transition into more of a post-up player as he ages—and that having a penetrating point guard to get him the ball down low may be in the best interests of the team and its aging superstar.

    Bryant is still playing at an extremely high level. His averages last year of 25 points on 45 percent shooting in 34 minutes per game are exceptional and right in line with his career marks.

    Kobe is ready to go—now let's see if the team is able to bring in some additional pieces to help make this season an extraordinary one.

    One in which No. 24 gets number six.