Bench exposes Lakers' weaknesses
Notion that L.A. has a deep roster proves to be a myth after latest loss in Atlanta
It's one of the great myths in the NBA -- one that seemingly is debunked on a nightly basis but continues to live on for some mysterious reason that belies all statistical and visual evidence.At some point in time, someone somewhere decided to label the Lakers as a "deep team." Over the past two seasons, you've heard how good the Lakers' roster is from 1 to 12 and how their bench is able to sustain leads and how everyone on this team knows his role. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Lakers are not a deep team. They're not even a shallow team. They're a rock-solid, one-floor building with a shaky basement that probably would fail inspection. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they've had to venture to their basement-dwelling bench recently because of injuries to Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton. As a result, their bench players have been exposed for what they've always been -- streaky shooters, talented cheerleaders and the biggest weakness on a team with a Grand Canyon-sized drop-off in talent from their top five players to the rest of the roster. While Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest make up the most talented five-man group of any team in the league, the eight players behind them make up perhaps the worst supporting cast since Al Pacino found himself in "Gigli."
After Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Odom and Artest, the next three players in terms of production for the Lakers are their much-maligned point guard trio of Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar. Despite starting all 74 games this season, Fisher has been far from a consistent force on the team, averaging 7.4 points and shooting 37.6 percent from the field. The Lakers don't get much better when they go to the bench for Brown (7.8 ppg, 43.5 percent) and Farmer (7.5 ppg, 44.4 percent).
No reserve outside of L.A.'s eight-man rotation averages more than 2.6 points or plays more than 8.8 minutes. That includes former "Bench Mob" fan favorites such as Walton, who has played in only 24 games this season while battling a pinched nerve in his lower back, and Sasha Vujacic, who hasn't seen the floor since getting into a heated argument with assistant coach Brian Shaw during the Lakers' 91-75 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
The Lakers' lack of bench production is one of the biggest reasons they lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday and the New Orleans Hornets on Monday; L.A. has lost three of four games after winning seven straight. The Lakers' bench has been outscored by a combined 90-34 in the past two games and has made only 35.5 percent of their shots compared to 64.7 percent by the Hornets and Hawks.
Before the 109-92 loss to the Hawks, Lakers coach Phil Jackson described his disgust for the way his bench has played during a five-game road trip, which wrapped with a 2-3 record after Jackson had set a goal of 5-0.
"It makes me want to throw up sometimes," he said. "It just doesn't make any sense. [The Hornets] played three guys off the bench, they had success. We have kind of sculpted out what the bench does, and they fulfilled our prophecy, our worst fears. It's an area where we really have been emphasizing coming out and playing a little better."
Jackson was so disgusted with his bench that despite telling the team they would have Tuesday off, he gave the starters a rest and put the bench players through a rigorous practice.
"One of the reasons that we went over to practice yesterday with just a few players was to digest a little bit of what happened when we came back in the [Hornets] game in the third quarter, how we played," Jackson said. "The starters got us back in the game after being down a significant amount in the first half. When you have to come back like that, you have to really kind of rein it in, and we've had to do that numbers of times this year. We came down and a couple of times took 3-point shots; those shots turned into non-successful attempts. As a result, we put ourselves back into a hole again. We wanted to talk a little bit about not being desperate. You have the dominance, just keep weighing in on a team and keep pounding them down until they crumble, instead of making it look like we're settling for home run shots or hero shots."
Since Bynum's injury has forced Odom to the starting lineup and Walton has been on the mend for most of the season, the Lakers have had absolutely no spark plug coming off the bench. Instead, they have a bunch of flimsy cup holders who seem to take up room more than anything else.
Against the Hawks, the Lakers were up 22-20 with 2:43 left in the first quarter when they began making substitutions; bringing in Brown for Fisher, Adam Morrison (yes, Adam Morrison) for Bryant and Farmar for Artest. The Hawks quickly went on an 11-3 run and never trailed again. The same thing happened in New Orleans when the Lakers led 21-17 with 2:24 left in the first quarter before they started making substitutions and watched the Hornets go on an 18-1 run and lead the rest of the way.
Even though Farmar scored 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting against the Hawks, he missed his first two shots while the Hawks were making their run and didn't hit his first shot until the Hawks had already stormed to a 71-55 lead in the third quarter. The Lakers were down 55-45 at the half because, aside from Bryant and Gasol, who combined to make 12-of-18, the rest of the team was shooting 6-of-23.
It goes beyond stats with the Lakers' bench right now. They're not only statistically average, they're emotionally mediocre without Odom's spark. The Lakers get no boost when Farmar and Brown come into the game and miss their first couple of shots or allow their men to blow past them for an easy basket. Farmar's point total was nice but easily overlooked in a blowout loss because he also committed an away-from-the-ball foul as the Lakers attempted a second-half comeback and needlessly passed to Bryant in the backcourt, causing Bryant to spike the ball behind him and grind his teeth as he walked to the bench following the turnover.
When Bynum and Walton (the best and brightest facilitator on the bench) return and Odom once again assumes his role as the team's sixth man, the Lakers' bench problems may finally be solved. Until then, however, the current supporting cast may have finally erased the notion that the Lakers are anything more than a five-star production filled out with a bunch of extras who are far from ready for their close-ups.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.