During a recent edition of The Forum, I singled out Darius Morris as the most pleasant surprise of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers. To me, Morris epitomizes an unseen turn of events, given his inexperience and how shaky the kid looked during preseason.
If I were to pick a runner-up, however, it would absolutely be Metta World Peace. I actually expected a good start from MWP, given last season's strong finish (the Harden elbow incident notwithstanding) and how playing alongside Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash would allow him to flourish as defensive stopper with few additional responsibilities. But the small forward has wildly surpassed expectations with his best offensive numbers since donning a Lakers uni, and a lot of people have wondered how.
Asked a few times Monday afternoon in El Segundo, Calif., about the effect of coach Mike D'Antoni's system, MWP insisted the uptick wasn't a matter of X's and O's, but rather improved conditioning. As a Lakers player, Metta typically arrived to camp heavy and worked off the weight, which has resulted in slow starts. Factor in last season's back issues, which went unaddressed as the lockout prevented contact with the training staff, and conditioning became a bigger issue.
This summer, one designated party month aside, Metta worked out like a madman. In Metta's mind, this more than anything else accounts for his performance. Even the wide-open looks around the arc and in the corners are a byproduct of fitness.
"Just being in shape, I'll get wide open," HE explained. "In the previous season, I wasn't able to play defense, grab the rebound, go coast-to-coast, come back down and have the energy to shoot a 3. I had the energy to miss a 3. I wasn't on balance. I was too overweight. I wasn't able to work out in the summertime. Just being in shape helped me out a lot."
Metta later noted how he feels like his Indiana Pacers self, when then-Ron Artest hit a career peak as arguably the best two-way player in the league. I asked if his current level of conditioning rivals that time. Metta said he's not quite there yet, but he's now a much smarter player than during this productive but admittedly wild period, and that maturity pays dividends.
"You look at a guy like Bernard Hopkins, at 49," MWP SAID. "He don't drink. He takes care of his body and he's still competing for championships. So you take that into consideration. It can happen in basketball, too."
Here's to hoping.
In the meantime, Dwight Howard is admittedly behind the curve when it comes to fitness. It's understandable, of course, since his summer was spent either immobile or rehabbing after back surgery. That he returned to action far quicker than expected doesn't change the fact he's still working to get his wind, a mission made no easier playing at D'Antoni's tempo. Last week featured two sets of back-to-back games, and the center made no bones about the effect, along with no excuses for two lackluster performances.
"I was tired," nodded Howard. "I was so tired. But I know the two games before [Dallas]; I know my energy wasn't there. But for this team to be successful it doesn't matter how many points I score or how many rebounds I get, as along as my energy is there on the defensive end and I'm active. On the offensive end, if I'm running and all that stuff, it just picks everybody up. So my energy level has to stay high for our team. I was upset at myself the two games before Dallas. Not because I didn't score, but because my energy level was very low and we can't be successful that way."
From my vantage point, the fitness issues seem more apparent on defense, where Howard's reactions have often been a step slow, and he hasn't been covered ground in the blink of an eye, as we've come to expect. Turns out, however, it's actually the opposite.
"The offense," responded Howard when I asked the most problematic side of the ball. "Battling in the post to get position, by the time I get the ball, I'm tired, so I take a lazy shot. So I just gotta work on that.
"All that stuff will come. It's still early in the season. I gotta find other ways to score until everything is 100 percent. I have to do the best I can on the defensive end. Bringing a lot of energy. Being active. Blocking shots. Changing shots. Getting steals. Doing all the things I can do to help this team win."
That "whatever it takes" sentiment echoes what's needed from Gasol as he discovers a comfort zone under D'Antoni. It's the second consecutive season in which El Spaniard's role hasn't been immediately evident, which only serves as a reminder of how he instantly fit like a glove in The Triangle. Of course, that acclimation period is aided considerably by everyone else knowing the offense inside-out, as was the case in 2008. Plus, Andrew Bynum's absence, along with Lamar Odom's versatility, meant Pau got to play big minutes down low, his preferred station.
But that was then, this is now, and Gasol is often planted at the elbows or even a little farther out. He has made it known this isn't his first choice, but also acknowledges the onus is on himself to make it work.
"We have different personnel," the Four-time All-Star noted. "Different needs. Different look. Different system. So a different positioning. You have to adjust. As a professional, you adjust to a different position in your company and you try to do your best, so the company still finds you a valuable asset, right? And the company still performs as well as it did before."