LOS ANGELES — On Sep. 24, the Los Angeles Lakers signed Metta World Peace to a non-guaranteed contract. This was a perplexing decision; on the surface, both parties are headed in opposite directions, and it doesn’t make sense for a struggling team to take a flier on a known commodity whose prime ended seven or eight years ago.
On the other hand, World Peace has had moments throughout this preseason where he looks like someone who can actually help the Lakers win basketball games. Even at 35 years old, he’s arguably their best perimeter defender—those hands are as swift and deliberate as ever—with a relatively reliable outside shot and high basketball IQ. All of this allows head coach Byron Scott to trust World Peace when he's on the floor.
“He’s been about what I thought,” Scott said at a recent Lakers practice. “Steady. Tough. You know, one of those guys that’s gonna guard people. He brings a physical presence to the game, as well. He’s been everything that I expected.”
Throw in his unquantifiable influence as a noted postseason samurai within a locker room that has several players who don’t yet know “what it takes” to win or how to prepare on a nightly basis at the highest level, and you can sort of understand why the Lakers decided to include World Peace in the fold.
Before Monday’s win over the Portland Trail Blazers, Scott cited L.A.'s second-oldest player as a key mentor for the team’s younger small and power forwards. And from a public relations perspective, bringing back a familiar face who shined during the organization’s recent glory days may charm L.A.’s suffering fan base.
But World Peace’s seniority can hurt as much as it helps. The Lakers won 21 games last season, and this year’s roster (somewhat) reflects a desire to start over. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are both 19 years old. Larry Nance Jr. is a rookie. Jordan Clarkson is 23 but entering his second season. In addition to Kobe Bryant, a few helpful veterans are already scattered throughout the roster—there to provide balance and consistency on and off the court.
Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass are all solid players whose strengths are as celebrated as their weaknesses are debilitating. They aren’t good enough to push L.A. very far in the short term, which only further motivates the team’s general manager Mitch Kupchak to gamble on as many young prospects as he can. That’s what rebuilding teams do: mine for inexpensive upside. But the Lakers want to live in their house while it's being remodeled. That's neither easy nor comfortable.
On Tuesday, the Lakers announced they had cut Robert Upshaw and Michael Frazier II, leaving five non-guaranteed deals and two potential roster spots. However, it’s possible that L.A. will maximize its flexibility by keeping one spot free. It still has its room exception, a resource that can come in handy during the season, much like the Houston Rockets used their bi-annual exception on Josh Smith last December while other teams could only offer minimum level deals.
World Peace works extremely hard and is cheap (the Lakers will owe $1.5 million if he's on their roster past Jan. 10, per BasketballInsiders), but he turns 36 next month, and it’s no secret that his best days are behind him. Yet, here he is, fighting for a roster spot that could just as well go to a more dynamic option like Jabari Brown, a 22-year-old forward who’s far more likely to positively impact the franchise over the next few seasons.
Was told today it's 50-50 whether Jabari Brown or Metta World Peace gets last roster spot.— Bill Oram (@billoram) October 20, 2015
It’s doubtful, but Brown can also develop into an intriguing sweetener for L.A. to throw in a possible deal some point down the line. World Peace averaged 19.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game last year in the Chinese Basketball Association but would not sniff an NBA roster spot from one of the league's 29 other organizations if L.A. didn’t invite him to camp. He has no trade value whatsoever.
Now that he’s here, the 15-year veteran has somehow managed to look like he belongs. Most preseason statistics hold very little weight for a variety of reasons, and World Peace’s offensive success has come against bench units—running a pick-and-roll, curling off a baseline screen or isolating at the mid post before bullying his way to the basket. All this works OK against below-average defenders, but it doesn’t cut it as an efficient attack throughout an entire regular season. This preseason he’s averaging 4.2 points and 15.3 minutes per game, shooting an abysmal 28.6 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Still, there have been moments where World Peace looks like the aggressive defender who once struck fear in the hearts of ball-handlers all across the NBA.
Against Portland, he used his brain and understanding of space and time to rotate properly and harass the opposition. Here’s an example, where World Peace takes two three-point tries away from Allen Crabbe before switching onto Moe Harkless, who can barely hold onto the ball while getting tormented in the corner:
There are defensive lapses, too, but most came against Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and the Golden State Warriors, which is totally understandable. The good news is that World Peace is currently in a good physical state, and it allows him to roll with whatever responsibilities Scott throws his way. About his conditioning, World Peace said:
The last five years, I’ve been doing things differently, just eating better so I can prepare myself and my body for a long season. When I first got here with the Lakers [in 2009], I came in and partied a lot. Then in January, I was a little overweight. We had a rough patch…I think we were in fourth place or something like that. That year, we were trying to win a title, and then I said I have to change my lifestyle. So, then I kind of put myself through a mini training camp for like three weeks. Ate good, then by the championship I was light. And that started in January of that season. From that point on, I said I might as well keep it going and continue to eat good.
World Peace still has the same nutritionist he hired six years ago. He realizes that if his body falls below its best possible shape, there’s basically no way to compete at the NBA level. But after a summer of intense work, followed by a solid training camp and preseason, World Peace is in pristine condition.
“I’m moving well, able to get to the basket,” he said. “I could be on the bench for two quarters, then I can come in and be ready, you know? At 36, that’s not easy to do, to be able to come out and start running and be OK the next day...I’m prepared. I’m more excited about my preparation and what I’ve done this summer than anything else.”
If these Lakers are serious about rebuilding from the bottom up, they wouldn’t have signed the reigning Sixth Man of the Year or traded for one of the most intimidating rim protectors in the league. But that's a different discussion for another day. Their roster is their roster, a balancing act between young prospects, mid-career energy and grizzled veterans.
If they’re serious about trying to win as many games as they can before taking another crack at free agency with as much cap space to spend as any team in the league next summer, then keeping World Peace around may be the right call. Against all odds, it's what they should do.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.