Last week's road trip wasn't exactly a rousing success (a horrendous effort in Sacramento followed by a frustrating one in Memphis before Saturday's thumping of Dallas), but it provided the first glimpses of real hope for this season's bench crew.
After scoring a total of 45 points in the first 12 games of the season, Antawn Jamison went for 16 against Memphis on Friday night, then added 19 in Dallas on Saturday. In each, he hoisted 11 shots, a veritable explosion relative to the four a night he'd put up to that point. He was productive on the boards as well, grabbing 22 in total. Basically, Jamison looked like the guy Lakers fans (and Lakers management) expected when he was signed over the summer, but hadn't yet seen.
He wasn't the only member of the bench coming alive. Jodie Meeks was a man in exile under Mike Brown, playing only 22 minutes through the first five games. While his playing time increased under Bernie Bickerstaff, Meeks' production didn't. He hit only three of his 15 3-point attempts in the season's second five games and struggled with turnovers. In Sacramento, though, he broke through with a 12-point fourth quarter, and 15 overall. In Memphis, he hit a pair of second half triples, and in Dallas made 3-of-5 from downtown.
For both guys, a big key was a change in how they were deployed. Brown had played Jamison almost exclusively at small forward, in part to utilize his shooting skills but mostly to make room for Jordan Hill, who was among the team's best players in camp. The impulse to play Hill made plenty of sense, but in the process Jamison was pulled out of his comfort zone.
"It was difficult to get into a rhythm when my first three or four shots are three pointers. You’re going to hit one here or there, but it was just tough for me to get into a rhythm. And I’ve always been a guy who can get it from anywhere," he said Monday following practice. "Whether it’s driving to the basket, a put-back, or something off the dribble. Pick and pop. Those are the things that kind of get me into a rhythm, and honestly it was tough getting into one coming in, trying to come in and knock down three’s after sitting down for eight or nine minutes."
In Memphis, Jamison entered the game as a power forward with only one other big on the court, and was almost instantly more productive, able to use the entire floor. In Dallas, he started at the 3, quickly scoring twice with excellent off-ball movement, but again spent plenty of time at the 4 and again produced a good looking shot chart.
Some positive messaging helped as well, helping Jamison push past hesitation that had been dogging him.
"[Before, I had come in and thought] “I’ve got to find a way to contribute on this end,” but I don’t want to get in Dwight’s way, I don’t want to get into Kobe’s way, and it just keeps me further out from the basket," he said. "And D’Antoni was like “Get in the way.” Go set a screen with Kobe, there’s nothing wrong with that. Kobe talked to me, and said you need to be yourself. Get down there and post, and stay down there. And I found it. So them just giving me the confidence to say you’re not in the way, just go out there and play your style of basketball."
Playing with guys who can't create space on the floor, Meeks won't offer much because his shot creation skills are ordinary and he won't have space to catch and shoot. Like many designated shooters, he needs a certain type of lineup around him to excel, and has benefited from a lineup adjustment.
"I think it started in the Sacramento game. I was out on the floor with Kobe [Bryant], Dwight [Howard], Darius [Morris], and Metta [World Peace], so that kind of opened things up not only for myself, but those guys also," he said. "My defender really can’t double team because no matter how many shots I miss I’m still a threat. So it opens up Dwight and his post game, and Kobe and Pau as well."
A couple games does not a revitalization make, but after this year's bench spent most of the first 12 games tripping over the incredibly low bar set by last year's reserves, any signs of life are welcome. In Memphis, the reserves produced 34 points and helped dig the starters out of an early hole. Against Dallas, it was 42 points and no drop off after dominant early minutes from the first five. Hashtag that under "improvement."
It's especially encouraging to see guys fitting into expected roles. Job descriptions can often be very specific for guys on an NBA bench. Jamison, who averaged 17 points a night in Cleveland last year was brought in to lift what was the NBA's lowest scoring bench a season ago. Meeks was signed to hit 3-pointers. Jordan Hill's job is to hit the glass and block shots.
One day, hopefully soon, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon, and Darius Morris will all be backing up Steve Nash. At that point Duhon and Blake will be asked to hit open shots and take care of the ball. Morris to provide energy in transition and defensive pressure.
Not all of them will see consistent burn. The big loser in Jamison's revival/shift to power forward has been Hill, who played about 15 minutes in Memphis and Dallas and likely will continue seeing reduced minutes if these new lineup combinations remain effective. "Obviously [Jamison playing power forward] impacts minutes. There will be a spot for him, but again we're going to try and get up tempo and to be able to do that, Antawn needs to play some 4. That will impact [Hill], and I'll try to get him as much as I can and be sensitive about it," D'Antoni said Monday.
It's a bum deal for Hill, who has played well and done exactly what has been asked of him, but should Jamison continue to excel as a legitimate bench scorer while Meeks remains a true spot-up threat, the Lakers will benefit greatly, particularly when Nash and Blake return, filling out the reserve crew. This Lakers team is going to be top heavy, built around four All-Stars and a rejuvenated Metta World Peace, and the bench won't pace the league in points scored.
But even scraping league average in production would constitute a massive improvement, allowing the starters -- four of whom are north of 32 years old while the fifth is coming off major surgery -- to carry a lighter load. Last weekend showed the possibility exists.