Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is finally entering a postseason healthy (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Below is a breakdown of the Lakers' starting lineup entering the postseason.
1. Kobe Bryant. Finally, the Black Mamba enters a postseason where he's fully healthy and rested. Those lingering knee and ankle issues that hobbled him in the playoffs for the past two years? He took care of that last summer in Germany. That torn ligament in his right wrist he suffered at the beginning of the season? Bryant played through it and it eventually healed. Same with his broken nose and neck pain stemming from whiplash and a concussion he suffered during the All-Star Game. And all the fatigue and a sore left shin he felt this past month quickly evaporated by missing seven games.
Bryant's always a huge part of the Lakers' playoff efforts. But he's done so recently operating a damaged vehicle with an empty tank. As it always is with Bryant, it's critical that he maintains that balance between scoring and allowing his bigs to get enough looks in the post. The correct approach always depends on what's happening in the game and who they're playing. Considering Metta World Peace's absence and Ramon Sessions' inconsistency on defense, Bryant also might be needed for some lockdown defense. With Bryant finally operating at full capacity, there's very little he can't do.
2. Andrew Bynum. He's finally answered the bell on whether he can stay healthy. His post presence, footwork and aggressiveness improved so much that it only took a few games before Bryant proclaimed Bynum as the No. 2 guy in the team's pecking order. Considering the Lakers have a distinct size advantage, there's no reason to think that will change. Unless the Lakers don't pass enough inside, of course.
Still, that comes with some added responsibility. Though Bryant remains the team's best player, Bynum's effectiveness will largely determine the Lakers' postseason success. That's because it's a given Bryant will play at a prolific rate. With Bynum, it remains unclear. He gives the Lakers a definite inside presence. Bynum also has appeared more aggressive on offense. But he's going to have to become more engaged both defensively and on the glass for the Lakers to truly benefit from his size. For once, Bynum's uncertainty no longer involves health. Instead, it involves his effort.
3. Pau Gasol. His role may have downshifted as the Lakers' main post option to becoming a facilitator. But he still remains dangerous so long as he plays aggressively. Other than wanting to rectify last year's disappearing act in the postseason and giving the Lakers front office no excuse to trade him this off-season, I can't think of anything else that would keep him motivated.
Of course, Gasol can't afford to over-analyze. Part of his struggles earlier this season reflected his insecurity that he would be traded. Instead, Gasol should just replicate the 19 points he's posted this past month. He's done so because he's felt little pressure and has adjusted his role accordingly to accommodate Bynum's emergence.
4. Ramon Sessions. Even with the Lakers feeling more optimistic about their playoff hopes after acquiring Sessions, he actually should give the team some pause. He's entering his first playoff series. Sessions has tempered his aggressiveness ever since being asked to slow down the pace to limit turnovers and ensure the offense runs through the post. And he hasn't offered much more defensively than Derek Fisher could've done.
The Lakers are still a better team with him. They're more equipped to generate easy baskets. The Lakers can finally run pick-and-roll sets. And Bryant doesn't have to handle the ball as much. But it remains to be seen how Sessions returns to that form. The heightened pressure probably won't faze him. He adjusted to the Lakers personnel and scene immediately. But the opposing team's continual adjustments might throw him off.
5. Devin Ebanks. Despite receiving very little playing time, Ebanks suddenly looked prepared when his role increased late this season. First he took over Bryant's starting position during his seven-game absence because of a shin injury; Ebanks made very few mistakes and simply stayed in his lane. Then he entered last week's game against Oklahoma City because Metta World Peace earned an ejection and Matt Barnes suffered an ankle injury. Ebanks held Kevin Durant to a five-of-19 clip through the fourth quarter and subsequent overtimes and made two critical late-game steals.
It's unlikely Ebanks could duplicate such a defensive effort against Durant in a prolonged series should they meet in the playoffs while World Peace is still suspended. Besides attacking the basket, Ebanks doesn't have a lot of go-to offensive moves. But Ebanks simply needs to remain fundamentally sound and minimize mistakes. The Lakers' leading cast will take care of most of the scoring punch.