For Andrew Bynum, life after the All-Star break has been an eye-popping revelation. Over the past 10 games, he's averaging 12.6 points, 12.7 rebounds and nearly three blocks. Over the past five, the rebounds are nearly 16, despite logging fewer than 33 minutes. But beyond the numbers, what's truly noteworthy is Bynum's general ferocity. Shots he can't block are continually altered. Opposing big men are more effectively denied position. His demeanor is that of a wingspan-blessed Tasmanian Devil.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Lakers are unified in a willingness to accept roles.
This development isn't simply a matter of Bynum hitting a defensive groove. He's acknowledging a specific role and embracing it wholeheartedly. More importantly, he's truly grasping the importance of a defensive impact. Drew has always understood the crucial nature of clogging the middle and hitting the glass, but that's not the same thing as truly understanding. After all, this isn't the first time Drew's been asked to prioritize defense. But as Bynum explained after Monday's win over Orlando, there's now a tangible connection felt.
"I just think it's because I've realized it's a way to get into the game without having to dominate the ball on offense. We have scorers on this team. It's just a way to keep your energy level high. ... I just did it a couple of times and was like, 'Wow, it works.'"
Hearing Bynum talk about a role embraced, it reminded me of the adjustments Pau Gasol has made since coming to the Los Angeles Lakers. By his own admission, the defensive end of the floor wasn't his priority in Memphis, but when you join a team with championship aspirations, indifference isn't an option. Pau will never be confused with Dwight Howard, but offered a reasonable facsimile bodying up the real McCoy in the 2009 NBA Finals. The strides made as a defender are impossible to deny. For that matter, his rebounding numbers have exploded in L.A., most notably in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics.
Gasol may not be a truly "gritty" player, but he's no longer a player allergic to grit, which has been a conscious effort on his part. His responsibilities changed, and he accepted life outside his comfort zone. Talking with Gasol on Monday, he concurred about the similarities between Drew's changed mentality and his own.
"I think, as a player, when you're young you don't understand the importance of the little things. The hustle work. You're more focused on the prettier things or things that probably stand out a little more. But once you understand that it's just as important to work on those things and make it a big deal, something that you take pride on, it really makes you push it to another level.
"When I got here, I gave defense and rebounding a different meaning. It's been really positive to me as a player, but also the team."
Thankfully, Bynum and Gasol aren't the only Lakers who've demonstrated a willingness to work outside either a comfort or preferred zone.
Ron Artest has never averaged fewer shots in his career than as a Laker. His triangular acumen has also been questioned at times due to excessive dribbling and bizarre decisions. He hasn't always appreciated Phil Jackson's public tweaks. Still Artest has refrained from public criticism of his role.
Steve Blake has admitted playing frequently off ball can reduce him to feeling like a fish riding a bicycle. Still, he keeps plugging away in the face of spotty results.
Lamar Odom is among the least selfish athletes in recent NBA history, but nonetheless wasn't initially thrilled at the notion of a bench role in 2009. Particularly in a contract year. But beyond a brief bit of grousing, there was no resistance. (Folks may remember Derek Fisher encountering the same situation in 2003 when the Glove came to town.)
During his meeting with GM Mitch Kupchak, Matt Barnes never asked how many minutes to expect, which is highly unusual. The small forward made clear a willingness toward a reduced role (by his standards) as a championship trade off.
It's even been necessary for Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson to occasionally bend.
By nature, Kobe's leadership instincts are to bark orders first and ask questions never. But over time, he's realized that understanding his supporting cast is the key to getting more from it. Bryant remains an intense cat, but considerably more humanized. As for Phil, I scratched my head in 2006 when Jim Jackson was picked up off waivers to fill a need for a veteran wing to play behind Kobe, then sat glued to the bench. In 2009, the coach wary of players unfamiliar with his system took a chance by inserting the newly acquired, inexperienced Shannon Brown into the rotation.
Since the Lakers emerged as legitimate contenders in 2008, they've been extremely blessed with central characters accepting assigned tasks.
For any entity to succeed, it's mandatory roles must be clear, then accepted. Defined roles can remain fluid, responsibilities change (just ask Odom) and, inevitably, you will be asked to do something beyond your comfort zone. Liking a given task isn't mandatory to success, nor does distaste guarantee failure. Perpetual resistance, however, can be a nail in the coffin.
This isn't to say the Lakers players and their roles are in perfect lockstep. Gasol will occasionally adopt the physicality deemed "baby giraffe" on Lakers Late Night. (For those unfamiliar with our show, it's not a compliment.) Ron Artest wouldn't be Ron Artest without a wonky possession surfacing now and then. No two Lakers are charged with setting examples more than Kobe or Fish, yet both are frequently guilty of "do as PJ says, not as I do" pilgrimages outside the triangle.
And there will inevitably be games in which Bynum looks like he'd rather put up 30 than grab 20.
But on the whole, the Lakers' have been aware and accepting of their roles. While I've wondered if this dynamic created a complacent byproduct this season, the accompanying simplicity for everyone involved can't be debated. Heightened awareness and acceptance of roles is a piece of a championship puzzle difficult to fake. As Danny Ocean would say, you're either in or you're out.
Thankfully, the Lakers are decidedly "in."