dEDGE Post Scriptum
Their recent play has been described as inconsistent, shot-happy, and a unit incapable of holding big leads. At the start of the season, the self-proclaimed Bench Mob was heralded as the best second unit in the NBA. Offensively superior and able to choke opponents into hurried and low percentage shots, the Los Angeles Lakers’ second unit had the pundits all but handing the title over to them. They featured Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, Josh Powell and for good measure, seldom used back-up center, DJ Mbenga. And with their recent romp into the NBA Finals the previous season, the Bench Mob now had the requisite experience to go along with their talent and skill.
But along the way the group began a transformation in both its personnel and how they performed. When Andrew Bynum went down with his knee injury, Lamar moved into the starting unit. LO had been a perennial starter and his promotion back to the first unit was a welcome reprieve for him. He immediately went on a tear that spanned the entire month of February, averaging 16.5 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 blocks per game. With the ascension of Odom, the Bench Mob lost their identity, star player and leader.
The trade of Vladimir Radmanovic in a salary dump by the Lakers moved first Walton, then Ariza into the starting line-up further reducing the depth of their bench. Ariza was having a breakout season with his newfound long-range accuracy and dependable hounding defense. He brought a defensive tenacity to the starting unit that before, only Kobe Bryant could muster. His addition to the first team has paid great dividends, extending defenses out and opening up the paint, and also becoming the beneficiary of easy dishes from Pau Gasol and Bryant off the double team. Now both starters, the explosive tandem of Odom and Ariza with their length and athleticism, had provided the Bench Mob with plenty of ammunition and together as a group, they had no equal. But without them to steer and stabilize the second team, the bench began facing challenges that further disrupted their chemistry and challenged their mental toughness.
5th year shooting guard, Sasha Vujacic was coming off his most productive season as a Laker, where he averaged close to 9 points per game in 17 minutes of action. He had finally become an integral part of Phil Jackson’s rotation and proved to be a steady threat from long distance. No longer thought of as only a practice player, Sasha entered the 2008-09 campaign with even higher expectations. And having just signed a new contract gave him the security and confidence that he was going to stick around for a few more years. Vujacic started the new season with a badly sprained ankle he suffered early in training camp. He missed the entire preseason and his shot suffered as a result. Lacking the consistency of the previous season, Sasha had to rediscover and refine his shooting mechanics in order to compensate for his wayward shot. And although his shooting percentage is much lower this year, it wasn’t the result of a lack of trying. Sasha could be the dagger in a game, effectively killing off the opponents will to fight on, or shoot you completely out of that same game.
But as the Lakers DH, his role was to come in and fill up the basket. You’ve got to love him and his pained expressions on every play. Forever known as a pest on defense, Sasha baits opposing players into retaliatory fouls. And as a result, he’s been the unlucky recipient of many well placed moving screens, elbows, and knock-downs. But to his credit, he keeps getting up. In one memorable play this season against the Sacramento Kings, Sasha drove the lane, wound up, and uncharacteristically threw down a thunderous jam over two defenders. The Lakers bench erupted, fell out of their seats and spilled out onto the floor. Sasha would later say, “Yeah, they didn’t expect that I would take it to the hole. Even though they know I can do it, they gave me a lot of crap about it afterwards in the locker room.” Sasha’s knack for the dramatic is only a precursor to his competitive nature. He has settled into his role off the bench and only yearns for an NBA title, no longer concerned with minutes played or stats posted. But he remains as one of the most lethal shooters on the team, and like his nickname, the Machine, Sasha can instantly produce a string of baskets that can shut the door on any opponent.
Veteran Luke Walton is a Jackson favorite. His composure and knowledge of the game makes him a great facilitator of the triangle offense. His slowness of foot may often leave him scrambling on isolated defense, but within the team concept, his quick hands combined with his high basketball IQ makes him an effective defender. Luke’s cuts to open spots on the floor stretches defenses and provides Kobe with a valuable escape valve. He has decent range, is an underrated rebounder and is deceptively quick to the ball. Unfortunately, Walton is also prone to injury. Perhaps inheriting his famous father’s unlucky bill of health, Walton has fought continuous foot ailments throughout his career. Currently out with a partially torn deltoid ligament in his left foot, Luke’s status for the second round of the playoffs against Houston was just upgraded to probable.
Known as an effective, pass-first player, Walton often fills the stat sheet within limited playing time. Phil often calls on Luke to steady the team, confident that he will not force a play or take a bad shot. Playing within himself has been the road to success for Walton. Unlike most reserves, his composure on the court enables him to go stretches without having to continually look over to the bench for advice or direction. But his physical ailments sometime limit his effectiveness on the floor. We can only hope that Luke is substantially recovered and pain free to provide his steadying hand and influence to the second unit.
Jordan Farmar was coming off a highly successful second season in the NBA. Projected as the future starting point guard, Jordan possessed the quickness, shooting ability and ball handling skills needed to lead the squad. He pushed Derek Fisher in camp and reluctantly accepted his back-up role at the start of the season. Fans were calling for his promotion to the starting unit to replace the aging Fisher. And his play spoke louder still, as he was the clear floor general of the Bench Mob, directing traffic and barking out orders on defense. His intensity and competitive fire could drive opposing players into a frenzy, and at times, the Lakers coaching staff as well.
But as the season wore on, Farmar suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for a month. And as fate would have it, with the many changes to the line-up and personnel on the second unit, Farmar was left with fewer options, and began to press the offense by primarily creating his own shot. His forays driving into the paint were met with collapsing defenses and secondary help coming from the weak-side, comfortable in leaving the other bench players open. Without a teammate to pass to capable of hitting a shot, Farmar’s play became erratic. And as a result, his turnovers increased while his shooting failed him at the same time. Farmar’s troubles were exemplified because he was the point guard, handling the ball much of the time. And while the other bench players all struggled with their shots, it was Jordan who fell under the microscope. As his confidence dropped, Farmar fell into a horrid shooting slump that he has not yet recovered, and subsequently, has lost his spot in the rotation to newcomer, Shannon Brown.
Farmar, a Southern California native, hails from Taft High School and UCLA. There, Farmar garnered Freshman of the Year honors and later led the Bruins to the NCAA title game. Selected in the first round in 2006, he saw limited time as a rookie. But towards the end of his first season and into the first round of the playoffs, Jordan replaced the infamous Smush Parker in the starting line-up. Farmar’s much improved play in his second season was an integral part to the Lakers successful run and eventual match-up against Boston in the Finals. And even in light of his recent struggles, Jackson has repeatedly said, “We’re still really counting on him to come out there and give us energy.” I too, am convinced that before all is said and done, we will again be singing his praises. “Thing is, I want nothing more than to win but not playing is tough, man. It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I am all about the team and I want us to win—we’re winning right now and I’m happy. I want my teammates to be successful, and I’m real proud to wear a Lakers uniform.”
Brown, the throw-in in the Radmanovic-Morrison trade, came to the Lakers as a relative unknown. Hailing from Michigan State and bouncing around the league, he has never landed into the right system or the right team. Now on his fourth team in three years, Brown may have finally found a place he can call home. That he has surfaced as the first sub that Phil beckons off the bench, is amazing in itself. That we were able to steal him for relatively nothing in return, sheds new light on the brilliance of Mitch Kupchak. Standing 6’4″ and 211 lbs., Brown fits the physical requirements that Jackson likes in his guards. Big, athletic and smart.
Brown has emerged as an added threat from long range, and has shown unparalleled explosiveness in his drives to the basket. His ability to guard bigger, stronger point guards has catapulted his stock and has propelled him into the spotlight. Now a Staples Center favorite, his finishes off the lob or on the break are worthy of replay after replay. He has brought an aggressiveness and energy boost reminiscent of Showtime star Michael Cooper. But most of all, his calm demeanor on the floor has allowed him to make the right decision without forcing the issue or creating a careless turnover.
His meteoric rise in such a short time has GMs across the NBA kicking themselves for passing up on him. And as we poise ourselves for another possible trip to the Finals, Cleveland may be the team having the most second thoughts. The Cavs originally drafted Brown but traded him a year later in the deal for Ben Wallace. Brown’s grasp of the complex triangle offense is still in its infancy. Yet he had been able to provide the Lakers with the needed energy and consistent good play off the bench. I keep thinking to myself that his bubble has got to burst pretty soon, only to be pleasantly surprised with another solid performance. Let’s all cross our fingers that he will be able to enact some sort of revenge against his former employers in June.
Josh Powell is a burly, 6’9″, 240 lb. defender that can also score and rebound. Replacing the departed fan favorite, Ronny Turiaf, Powell brings more offensive polish to his position and is capable of knocking down the mid-range jumper. He is also a tremendously strong rebounder who can provide the starters with valuable time to rest and regroup. His contributions and playing time are spread thin, but Jackson does not hesitate to insert Powell to stem a bevy of offensive rebounds by the opponent.
Likewise, back-up center DJ Mbenga is another brute who sees limited action. Often the odd man out, Mbenga prepares the squad by playing hard against them in practice scrimmages. His flashes of brilliance sends the crowd into a delirious frenzy as the bench explodes into a jubilant uproar with his successes. A recent string of games with numerous blocked shots and mid-range jumpers had folks wondering if we really needed Bynum back after all. Enthusiastic and always encouraging, Mbenga is the perfect teammate and consummate professional. Plus he’s one big dude to have around. He may come to play a pivotal role in helping to slow down the gargantuan 7’6″ Yao Ming in the second round of the playoffs.
The challenges that face the new look Bench Mob can be summed up in one word. Maturity. As they grow more accustomed to one another and their roles, there is no reason why they can’t regain their earlier glory. With Bynum’s return, and Lamar’s subsequent return to the bench, they have their true leader back again. And with the emergence of Shannon Brown to match Trevor’s energy and high voltage, the Bench Mob only needs to find the consistency in which it played prior to its disruption. Farmar too, can contribute greatly as well. His playing time has dwindled to almost nothing, yet his rededication to the team concept is a welcome sight. My gut tells me he will be an important factor in the success of the team as the playoffs move forward. Sasha has tempered his shot selection as the stakes have risen. But his tenacity in which he takes them make up for any of his breaches. He is extremely capable of knocking an opponent out with a single shot, and has proved that he can step up to the plate and bang one out.
Regrouping so late in the season has clearly shaken the Bench Mob. But the more time that they spend together, both in practice and during games, will increase their confidence and cohesiveness. Executing plays at opportune times will also strengthen their resolve and spending quality minutes on the floor will greatly help boost their confidence. The camaraderie displayed by the Bench Mob is paramount to the team’s overall success. They feed off of one another’s energy and delight in their brief moments in the spotlight. And if they continue to gel and play as a cohesive unit, these past few difficult weeks will all be a distant memory, allowing them a return to glory as the best second unit in the NBA.