Before Tuesday's win against the Hawks, I spent some time catching up with former Laker/current Hawk Josh Powell. (As I've stated on many occasions, I really grew to like and respect Powell as a person and professional.) While we chatted, I was reminded of Powell's constant energy with the Lakers, and it dawned on me just how different the dynamics are this season for the reserves compared to last season. Without injuries or exceptionally subpar performances, roles are currently written in stone. The designated backup to Derek Fisher is Steve Blake. The designated backup to Kobe Bryant is Shannon Brown. The designated backup to Ron Artest is Matt Barnes. Blake and Barnes are veterans secure with the notion of sacrificing glory for a title -- I was shocked to learn PT wasn't even a conversation point during Mitch Kuphcak's interview with Barnes -- and neither appear to be "gunning" for the starting gig.
Conversely, there isn't much wiggle room for those blocked by the velvet rope, but that hasn't been a problem. Luke Walton might not like being out of the rotation, but he's not the type to complain. Rookies Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks have no business kvetching, period. When healthy, Theo Ratliff is trying to get a ring before retirement, so if his job is heavier on mentoring than minutes, so be it. The only potential candidate to upset the applecart was Sasha Vujacic, but to his credit, his lips were zipped before eventually getting shipped out for Joe Smith (who's basically Ratliff with a more active Twitter account.)
Kobe once famously said he eats first, Pau second, and the leftovers are divvied up. By all indications, the food chain has appeared harmonious and happy all season. In theory, that's what you'd like for a team with lofty goals, but I'm wondering if that mindset perhaps carries a counterproductive byproduct.
Teams built for the playoffs -- or this particular team, if nothing else -- have a hard enough time remaining motivated throughout the dog days as it is. It's been a recurring problem this season. Last season, too. But as I've mentioned on several occasions, it's felt more pointed this season, and I'm wondering if a solidified pecking order plays a role.
Last year, the season opened with a largely open three-way battle between Jordan Farmar, Brown and Vujacic for backup minutes at the guard spots. The situation was juiced further by Walton's recurring injuries (creating more reserve backcourt PT as Kobe became Artest's primary backup) and the desire to reduce Fisher's run.
Plus, Farmar's naked hunger to be a starter.
Without question, Farmar's unhappiness at being a reserve created problems in its own right, but that desire to push Fisher was palpable. Farmar also wanted to spread wings and establish himself (as opposed to Blake, who's reached "he is who he is" status). The goal resulted in periodic selfishness, but that's more on Jordan than the scenario, which can be healthy. And either way, that competitive spirit kept things interesting.
The dynamic with Shannon and Sasha also changed this season. Before the Slovenian was eventually traded, he'd been buried six feet deep on the bench. But last year opened with Shannon trying to parlay 2009's surprisingly good mid-season arrival into a bigger role and Sasha trying to protect his spot. Phil Jackson even attempted a wholly impossible five guard rotation for a little while. The tide quickly swayed in Brown's favor, but Vujacic isn't one to let go. There was still a competitive vibe, if for no other reason than Sasha's refusal to accept the writing on the wall. Like Jordan, the dynamic coaxed Sasha into bouts of immaturity, but again, it was never dull.
In the reserve frontcourt, Powell and D.J. Mbenga were well aware PT would primarily come in the case of injury. Still, as young journeymen players, neither could afford to sit idly by and roll with it. They both pushed hard in practice, and generally speaking, acquitted themselves reasonably well in spot minutes played with reckless abandon. Powell and Mbenga are the NBA equivalent of Average Joe's living paycheck to paycheck. You simply can't afford to relax in that situation.
Even Adam Morrison, rarely on the active list, enhanced this dynamic. The guy was fighting to remain in the NBA. As the decided 13th man, Ammo knew scarce minutes were a reality, but he needed to maintain a solid reputation to bolster his job prospects. By all accounts, Morrison was a killer in practice. If that was the furthest he could push the envelope, he made sure to do so.
Throw in Artest's persistent need to prove himself as the lone newbie, and that's a lot of people with incentive to remain alert throughout the regular season.
Lately, I've been wondering if the lack of mystery regarding PT has contributed to this season's lack of urgency. Not that the "have's" take PT for granted or the have not's have resigned themselves to indifference. Everybody "cares." But there's one less element to create an edge. One less element keeping half the team on its toes at all times, which in turn could snowball into everyone's attention grabbed.
I've often felt like something was different about the inevitable lulls of focus and energy this season, but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Seeing Powell again makes me think this dynamic could be at least part of the matter.
This far into the season, it may be a moot point. The Lakers emerged from the All-Star break with a heightened focus, and this is typically when their interest is peaked anyway. But looking ahead to next season, I'm hoping things are a little more wide open. Maybe Caracter and Ebanks being ready to challenge for a place in the rotation. Maybe Blake begins the season as a starter and has to hold off a hard-charging Fisher. Maybe a new coach leads to a new direction with roles redefined. Whatever the case may be, shaking things up might not be the worst thing in the world for a team prone to kicking up their feet.