The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last season, even with eventual 6MOY Lamar Odom leading the way, the most reliable element offered by the Lakers' bench was unreliability. With LO in Dallas, the bench predictably floundered most of this season, but slowly experienced an uptick in effectiveness (if not raw numbers) as the trade deadline approached. Enter Ramon Sessions and his instant chemistry with Matt Barnes and Josh McRoberts, and the reserves suddenly resembled a credible unit. When Sessions inevitably was tabbed to start, I was optimistic Steve Blake, who looked stiff as a cadaver among the starters as a transparent place-holder, would regain his comfort level quarterbacking the reserves. Assuming that theory was correct, the second unit might suffer a dip losing the more talented player in Sessions, but would play well enough to avoid being a liability.
As it turns out, we're back to square one. The reserves have regressed to their collectively non-scoring ways. Any lead is jeopardized every time the Lakers roll largely with substitutes. And Blake is way out of sorts, which to me is the single-biggest reason this group is floundering. I asked Mike Brown what he has seen in the point guard that could explain his struggles.
"I haven't specifically asked him about it," Brown said. "I just want him to keep trying to be aggressive and keep trying to run the team in the same breath. The one thing I told him is I'm OK with you being aggressive more than anything else. I thought he played well at the beginning of the season and then he got hurt. And then he came back in basically the same role and there was a stretch where he didn't play as well and he really hasn't consistently gotten back to where he was in the beginning of the year.
"More than anything else, I think it's just him being confident and aggressive is going to play a huge role in that. The last couple of games, I thought he tried to be aggressive. Now, he hadn't made shots yet, but some of the things that he's doing out on the floor have helped a lot in my opinion."
Obviously, there's an onus upon Blake to step up his game, but I also wonder if another problem is Brown's second unit personnel. As mentioned in a recent Lakers Late Night episode, I've been wondering if it would help for Andrew Goudelock to rejoin the rotation. With the rookie sitting, the reserves lost a scoring option, and lack altogether a perimeter player capable of creating his own shot. This places enormous pressure on a crew already low on reliable scorers. When I brought this up to Brown, he agreed about the difficulties created, but pointed out how Goudelock's scoring (and play-making) didn't regularly produce prolific numbers.
"Well, there's some pressure there with the group," admitted Brown. "For a young guy he was doing a terrific job for where he was and what we asked of him. But having said that, he did not create a ton of shots for himself or his teammates. It wasn't like he was getting 14, 15 points, double figure point off the bench on average when he was out of the floor. I don't think it's as big a deal or big a difference when you're looking at production point-wise on night-in, night-out basis. Or assist-wise, in terms if him creating for others on a night-in, night-out basis."
I get what Brown's saying, but I don't entirely agree. Goudelock may not be Jason Terry or Lou Williams in terms of a scoring option you can set your watch to. Truth be told, he didn't shoot particularly well in his last few games before losing his gig. But it's not always about the pure production as the mere threat of what a player can do. Defenders have to honor Goudelock's shot and floater off the dribble, which creates another dynamic to be mindful of. The more dimensions a floor unit features, the harder they become to defend. I realize he's a rookie who'll inevitably make mistakes on both sides of the ball. But at the same time, it's not like his inclusion risks upsetting a well oiled machine.
Goudelock is hardly a panacea or "magic bullet" cure-all, but I do think it's worth giving him some limited run to see what happens. Brown, however, is more cautious with the postseason approaching.
"We're getting close to the playoffs and I'm gonna try to figure out what I can do help this team and right now, the size and the guys that have been there before is the way I'm gonna go," insisted Brown.
That's not to say the coach isn't making tweaks to spark the second unit. Brown explained how he's looking to pair Pau Gasol with McRoberts more often when the reserves take over. Similar to how he used to team up Andrew Bynum with Troy Murphy, the goal is optimal floor spacing, but Brown thinks this duo will provides better options, and the logic holds. Pau can be placed in more areas around the court, making him a more versatile than Drew as an conduit for the offense to run through, and McRoberts is a much better passer and ball-handler than Murphy.
"What we're hoping to accomplish from that is the floor to be spaced a little bit better and the ball to move a little bit better and not be as predictable," explained Brown. "When Drew was playing with the second unit a lot of times, we would go through him a ton and even though when he did, at times he was able to score, but when teams doubled him well and we weren't spaced right, it would cause a lot of dysfunction, I guess, with us trying to score. It made it to be real ugly basketball. So we're just trying to get a group out there where we can play through a lot of guys as opposed to, because of Drew's talents, focusing on going through him all the time."
In the meantime, the on-court relationship between Kobe Bryant and Sessions remains a work in progress. For the time being, they're not playing off each other very much and it's critical the two become a more fluid tandem when the postseason arrives. With that in mind, I asked Brown what he envisioned for this backcourt operating on all cylinders.
"With Ramon's ability to turn the corner, playing 1/2 pick-and-roll game has been ood, because they gotta honor his speed and quickness and his ability to get downhill. That may end up at times putting a small on Kobe. Not only that, but Ramon's ability to penetrate and draw the defense at times, because of his penetration, he may draw a defender over. The defender may be big, and if he does do that and the small has to sink to the big on the backside, now Kobe may get an easy catch-and-shoot, what I call a "horse shot" on the weak side wing because of Ramon's ability to get into the paint. There are a lot of ways that they can benefit each other.
And on the flip side, all the attention that Kobe draws means Ramon can get some looks that he may not be accustomed to that may be a little easier to step in and shoot."
Gasol on the importance of defense and focus:
Gasol, on the recent defensive slippage and Bynum: