Below are five ways Metta World Peace's seven-game suspension will affect the Lakers:
1. How will World Peace handle the suspension? A person close to World Peace indicates he respects the league's decision, and he's done the right thing in releasing a statement apologizing to Oklahoma City's James Harden for delivering that vicious elbow. As many know, it's hard to predict World Peace's behavior at times. I'm sure he'll provide the right intentions in ensuring he keeps his emotions in check and remaining in top condition so that he can maintain the strong numbers he posted in April (14.07 points, 47.2% shooting, and quality defense).
World Peace's latest act shouldn't wipe away the goodwill he's built in largely keeping his emotions in check with his near three seasons with the Lakers. With exception to clotheslining J.J. Barea in the waning seconds of Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, World Peace toed the line in providing physical play but not letting the emotions overtake him. Still, World Peace's intentions don't always correlate to bottom-line results, and no one can fully anticipate if he'll provide the same value he had done in April until he steps back on the court and proves it.
2. What does his future with the Lakers entail? There was a strong possibility the Lakers would exercise the amnesty provision on World Peace's remaining three-year, $21.8-million contract before this season even started. They held off. But would World Peace's suspension provide the last straw in making this official? From a financial and statistical standpoint, the Lakers are better off doing that to Steve Blake, who entered this season with three years and $12 million remaining on his contract. Combine Ramon Sessions instantly bolstering their offense, Darius Morris showing promise once he fully develops and Blake's inconsistency, that wouldn't be a surprise.
Still, the Lakers never have firm decisions set in place until the playoffs end. World Peace can best avoid this fate by playing well once he returns. Regardless, that might not be enough as the Lakers look to shed costs to avoid harsh luxury tax penalties and invest in younger players. 3. The Lakers' small forward position remains dicey. Suddenly, the Lakers don't have any small forwards. Matt Barnes won't travel with the Lakers to Sacramento because of a sprained right ankle. Although Devin Ebanks is scheduled to play, he dropped a weight on the ring and middle fingers of his left hand and will need to wear a splint. Kobe Bryant jokes he's "too small" to play at small forward, but it's possible he would slide in at times, while Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake fill the backcourt. Considering Blake's inconsistency and Sessions' recently struggling on stronger defenses that's hardly an ideal option. No matter how much the Lakers collectively chip in during World Peace's absence, there's no true way they can fill his void.
4. Who will cover the opposing team's top star? The Lakers signed World Peace (then as Ron Artest) at a five-year, $33-million deal knowing very well he could have moments, such as Sunday's incident. The Lakers took the risk and received immediate return on their investment when Artest played a huge part in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and limiting Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce during the playoffs.
Who will provide that role during World Peace's absence? Kobe Bryant is the second-best on-ball defender and showed Sunday he can slow down players, such as Russell Westbrook. At what point, though, is that a better option when it takes away from Bryant's scoring? Barnes can rattle opponents too, but he's not as disciplined in channeling his fiery play in actually limiting opponents. Ebanks showed some promise on Durant, but who knows if that's a sustainable strategy, considering his inexperience?
No matter how the Lakers slice it, they can't fill that gap either. So the best approach involves showing more discipline on pick-and-roll coverages and crashing the glass. This would be the perfect time for Andrew Bynum to show more effort in this area.
5. The Lakers are fortunate they'll meet Denver or Dallas in the first round. The Lakers may want to ride their first-round appearance against either of these teams to seven games. That's because the Lakers can absorb World Peace's against either of these opponents. Sure, it'd be nice for to have him throw his body around Dirk Nowitzki or Shawn Marion. But Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant have matched up well with them this season. It'd be nice if someone could replicate holding Denver's Danilo Gallinari to four points per game the same way World Peace did in four contests this season. But Denver's strength points to its depth, not a high-volume scorer.
Once the Lakers face Oklahoma City in the West semifinals, however, the Lakers will be seriously exposed without World Peace guarding Kevin Durant. So the Lakers managed to do that Sunday, but Durant missed many of open shots and the playoffs always prove to be another story.