Lakers forward Josh McRoberts, left, loses control of the ball in front… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
They are a team of stars, in a town of stars, but some of my best Lakers memories involve the scrubs.
If Disney made a movie about the Lakers' last dozen years, it would be called "Beauty and the Bench," as the five happy endings would have been impossible without either.
Everyone remembers the alley-oop from Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O'Neal in the era-changing Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals against Portland, but I remember two other guys. Brian Shaw and Robert Horry came off the bench that afternoon to combine for the game's biggest shots and rebounds, including a late-third-quarter three-pointer by Shaw that began the historic comeback and remains one of the most important bombs in Lakers history.
Everyone still hears the two months of ovations for Bryant and O'Neal as they led the Lakers to a 15-1 record in the 2001 postseason, but I remember the cries of "Luuuuu." They filled Staples Center every time Tyronn Lue came off the sidelines to hassle Philadelphia's Allen Iverson into a frustrated Finals.
Everyone connects the Lakers' third consecutive championship to then-starter Horry's last-second shot to beat Sacramento in the conference finals, but I remember six other shots. Those were the ones taken by Samaki Walker off the bench in a pivotal Game 3 in the previous series against San Antonio, the Lakers taking control on the road thanks to Walker's dozen points and five rebounds.
In a Game 7 in 2009 against Houston, the Lakers' bench combined for 19 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists. In Game 7 in 2010 against the Boston Celtics, Lamar Odom came off the bench to play 34 minutes and helped fill all those gaps that a struggling Bryant could not.
Since the 1999 season, the Lakers' championship benches have featured energy (Sasha Vujacic), toughness (Rick Fox) and, of course, boogie knights (Mark Madsen). More than anything, the bench has been filled with guys who embraced their roles and filled them with an intensity that consistently carried the Lakers stars through their most difficult moments.
All of which brings us to the current bench, which resembles one you would see at a Pasadena bus stop in the middle of the night. Pretty empty. Awfully forlorn. And seemingly a long way from Tinseltown.
Steve Blake. Josh McRoberts. Devin Ebanks. Darius Morris. Andrew Goudelock. Christian Eyenga.
That's it. That's the bench. Splinters, all. You might recognize two of them on the street. Do you remember anything accomplished by more than two of them on the court?
The last time we saw them, nobody saw them, as they were outscored 35-5 by Oklahoma City's bench in the final game of that second-round playoff mess. The last time any of them were asked to make a big play, it was earlier in the series, and Steve Blake clanked it.
Even if Dwight Howard is eventually on the court in a Lakers uniform, this is not a championship bench, and thus the previous 500 words were just another way of saying, man, did the Lakers just get burned by the Clippers.
Did you hear Monday's news? Grant Hill, a terrific locker-room guy with a high basketball IQ and enough left in the sneakers to play 28 minutes a game last season for the Phoenix Suns, burned the sub-hungry Lakers to join the Clippers.
He spurned the Lakers even though it meant turning down a chance to reunite with his Phoenix buddy Steve Nash. He walked away from the Lakers even though they give him a better chance, at age 40, to win his first NBA championship.
Wait. Do they? Doesn't bench strength now make the Clippers better? Even with the acquisition of Nash, the Lakers' bench is but a bar stool when compared with a Clippers sideline that will contain two former winners of the NBA's sixth-man-of-the-year award, Odom and Jamal Crawford, and now the veteran Hill.
The Lakers used to have that kind of bench. Now they have the kind of bench that is created by personnel mistakes and an unwillingness to spend a few extra bucks for someone who is not a star.
Phil Jackson worked hard to create a strong bench. Jim Buss apparently has not yet made that a priority. And, unlike in the entertaining and fun days of O'Neal, these Lakers don't seem to have the juice to attract guys willing to sacrifice playing time for winning times.
The scariest part of all this for Lakers fans should be that Hill reportedly talked to Coach Mike Brown and Bryant and it still wasn't enough to convince him.
Maybe Brown didn't offer him enough playing time. Maybe Bryant, who is not the warm and fuzzy recruiter O'Neal once was, rubbed him the wrong way — as he reportedly did at first with Howard. Or maybe it was simply the money, as the Lakers will probably finish a couple of million short on a contract that, if they had ponied up, would have barely made a blip on their payroll.
Whatever it was, and however crazy it is to be openly pining for the second-oldest player in the league, this is where the Lakers are, desperate enough to now be closing in on Antawn Jamison, a big guy who shot only 40% with Cleveland last season and plays scant defense.
It is hoped that Buss and Mitch Kupchak have other ideas before allowing a simple bench to jeopardize an entire season. The players might sit there for free, but no courtside seats will ultimately cost more.