Lakers’ bench has gotten an upgrade
Remember when Lakers forward Robert Horry drilled that game-winning three-point shot in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings?
Or when Brian Shaw made those crucial three-pointers in Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals to bring the Lakers back from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit in a stirring victory over the Portland Trail Blazers?
Now think back to May of this year, when Steve Blake missed a wide-open, potential game-winning three-pointer in Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder — a shot that was a microcosm of the dreadful year the Lakers’ bench had.
But the worst bench in the NBA production-wise has improved markedly on paper in the off-season.
Gone are reserves Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Christian Eyenga.
The key new Lakers reserves are veteran forward Antawn Jamison and young guard Jodie Meeks, both signed as free agents.
Jamison, 36, has played 14 seasons in the league, but the two-time All-Star can still play. The 6-9 Jamison is versatile enough to play both power and small forward, and he averaged 17.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in 33 minutes a game last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Meeks, a 6-4 guard, averaged 8.1 points on 41.1% shooting, 37.1% on three-pointers, over his three-year career, and he started 50 of 66 games last season for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Lakers new bench may not rival the unit of Horry, Shaw, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher — Fox and Fisher eventually became starters — but this new group is a vast improvement over the 2011-12 crew that averaged only 15.6 points a game last season, last in the 30-team NBA.
Barnes led the Lakers’ reserves, averaging 7.8 points on 45.2% shooting, 33.3% on three-pointers. Blake averaged only 5.2 points on 37.7% shooting, 33.5% from three-point range.
But just adding Jamison was an upgrade for the Lakers.
Getting Meeks to sign, and re-signing athletic forward Jordan Hill, made the Lakers’ bench that much stronger. Hill came alive in the playoffs last spring, averaging 6.3 rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench.
Blake still is around, small forward Devin Ebanks re-signed and point guard Chris Duhon and forward Earl Clark came over in the Dwight Howard trade.
“They’ll either have Metta World Peace or Jamison coming off the bench, and that immediately makes their bench better,” Phoenix Suns Coach Alvin Gentry said. “Then you throw in Jodie Meeks, which to me is like a great fit.”
Jamison, 36, who signed a one-year, $1.4-million contract with the Lakers, has mostly been a starter. But he knows something about coming off the bench, and was the NBA’s sixth man of the year in 2004 when he played for the Dallas Mavericks.
Meeks, who signed a two-year deal worth $3 million, turns 25 on Tuesday and will back up Kobe Bryant. Bryant, who turns 34 on Thursday, averaged 38.5 minutes a game last season, the most on the team.
“Compared to last year, this bench is a massive upgrade,” Fox said. “But I don’t know if you’re going to see a lot of the bench. I don’t know if the bench is going to be asked to do a lot because of the four All-Stars on the team.”
Fox was referring to starters Bryant, Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
Horry, Shaw, Fox and Fisher played major roles when the Lakers won championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Shaw recalled how Phil Jackson had a unique way of developing his reserves when he coached the Lakers.
“He kept the starting unit together in practice so they could develop a chemistry with each other,” said Shaw, the associate head coach of the Indiana Pacers. “Then he kept the second team together so they could develop chemistry together. Then when it got to playoff time, Phil would take the eight or nine guys that were in the rotation down to his end of practice and develop that chemistry with the group that you’re going to be out there on the floor with.
“But I think an accurate way to judge a bench is, do they lose the lead? Do they hold the lead or do they increase the lead? We did a good job of not losing leads and we had a calmness about us when we came off the bench.”
And that will be the challenge for the Lakers’ bench this season, as the team tries to make good on its position as one of the preseason favorites to win the championship next June.
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