One key Lakers veteran has high expectations for something that hardly warranted praise in recent seasons.
"I feel we can be one of the most dangerous benches in the league," said Antawn Jamison.
Despite the "Bench Mob" and "Killer Bees" nicknames in recent seasons, few would describe that unit in Jamison's terms. Last season, the Lakers finished last in points (20.5), 28th in efficiency (27.2), 20th in shooting percentage (41.7%) and 28th in point differential (9.4). Coach Mike Brown played musical chairs in the bench rotation in hopes he'd find a sudden surprise. Even with Lamar Odom falling off the deep end in Dallas, his absence created an irreplaceable void as the team's bench leader.
The Lakers have made changes this off-season to address those problems. They added dependable secondary scoring (Jamison) and outside shooting (Jodie Meeks). They kept young talent (Devin Ebanks) and sudden surprises (Jordan Hill).
They traded Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga as small parts of the Dwight Howard deal. They let Matt Barnes go to the Clippers. They let Troy Murphy possibly end his NBA career. So how will this year's bench be different?
"We want to be the opposite of what it was last year," Jamison said. "Not just offensively but defensively. When coach calls your name, the level of play can't dip at all. That's how you gain the trust of everyone on this team. We want to go in with the mentality that no bench is going to outplay us mentally, physically or whatever is the task at hand."
The early returns suggest that remains a work in progress, to put it mildly. The Lakers care little about their 0-3 preseason record, but all their losses directly reflect the starting lineup playing limited minutes, while Coach Brown fields endless bench combinations so he doesn't have to guess during the regular season.
"You always want your bench to have energy and change the game," guard Steve Nash said. "But it really depends on the personnel and how they fit together."
The Lakers have provided little clarity on that.
Brown hasn't determined who will back up Nash. Though he said Steve Blake has the edge, Brown sat him out in the Lakers' preseason loss Sunday to the Utah Jazz so he could see how second-year guard Darius Morris looked. He finished with two points on one-of-six shooting, as Brown believed Morris often rushed too quickly into the offense. When the Lakers play Utah on Tuesday in Anaheim, Brown plans to give Chris Duhon extended minutes.
Brown also said it's unclear who will become the backup shooting guard. Although the Lakers' acquisition of Meeks seemed to address their outside shooting, he has only averaged 3.7 points on a 15.4% clip. Meanwhile, Devin Ebanks has fared better with a 8.3. points per game average on 42.9% shooting.
Robert Sacre has provided energy as the starting center while Dwight Howard rehabs from back surgery. But the Lakers have missed Jordan Hill's defensive presence, as he's recovering from a herniated disk.
"They should be a feisty bunch, coming in and changing momentum," Bryant said. That's what we can control with our bench, altering the momentum of the game, creating turnovers and getting easy opportunities."
How the Lakers reach that goal remains unclear.
Brown said the bench needs to become a "good defensive team," but there are other elements involved. Last year, Barnes' 7.8 points on 45.2% topped the Lakers' reserves. Blake trailed with 5.2 points on 37.7% shooting. Are the Lakers capable of following Ebanks' expectation that the reserves score between 35 and 45 points per game?
Will Blake play more aggressive so the floor opens up? Will Meeks turn around his outside shooting so the Lakers fare better than the 39.5% clip they posted last season? Will Hill return with the same energy that made him a pleasant surprise? Will Ebanks develop more than just a decent role player?
These story lines won't garner the same attention as the Lakers' starting lineup. Yet, such factors could determine their NBA title fortunes.
"Our starting five is one of the best in the league, so our bench just has to come in and get them rest," Meeks said. "The fresher our starting five is when the playoffs come, the better a chance we have at winning a championship."
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