If this is the last time the mediocre will inhabit this stage, if this is their last taste of glory and stardom until it all changes and they are on someone else’s bench, then it makes sense that in the short time left we can root for them before we forget their names. Or we can wait for it all to end the way we always knew it would. There is something about auditioning for next year that is uncomfortable. It is a reminder that things do end. Sometimes it brings out the absolute worst in the ones who are trying to hold on to the last threads of their dwindling careers. You know what they are trying to do but sometimes it is a lost cause. The national television schedule makes it even that more glaring, the separation between next year’s role players and next year’s- where are they now? Jodie Meeks drops 40 against the Thunder and is celebrated. Chris Kaman gets every shot at the rim blocked by Dwight Howard and is ridiculed.
Which players have earned the privilege to stay. Which players are gone? Only Mitch Kupchak knows for sure. But Kobe Bryant chimed in when he told Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report he could envision five players returning. Of course Kobe has no front office power. If he did Derek Fisher would still be a Laker. And Caron Butler. And Steve Blake. And Lamar Odom. But Kobe’s stature in the NBA as he plays out these last two years is one in which he says what he thinks and millions take it seriously, hanging on to his every word as if it is theology. He has become the soul of the NBA, its truth teller and there is no argument about Kobe’s intellect, his basketball i.q. or his desire to play with skilled teammates. All this is true. But he must not have watched a lot of Lakers games this year. Here are his five.
Jordan Farmar- injured much of the year he is a solid back up point guard. He is not explosive enough to be a starter in this league. He can’t blow by defenders. He over dribbles because he can’t get into the paint with ease. He doesn’t finish through contact and is iffy at the rim. He shoots 43%. He doesn’t have a midrange game and is not a creator off the dribble. But he is a good three point shooter (46%) that spreads the floor for big guys to maneuver in the paint. He is tough and committed and driven. He has been on a title team so he knows what it takes. He goes through stretches when he just can’t miss. And he is mature. His best game was against Sacramento last month. 30 points and 7 assists. He was 8 of 10 from three. His worst game was against the Timberwolves in November. He missed 6 of his 7 shots. He had 0 assists and 3 turnovers.
Jordan Hill- tough in the paint. He is a rebounder who is physical but he lacks the athleticism to jump high and get balls over the rim or to chase down misses. His offensive game is hit or miss but he is the type of player who does the little things that don’t end up in the box score. He falls awkwardly and has never played an 82 game season but is an unsung hero on a team that values toughness. His best game was against Detroit in November. He had 24 points and 17 rebounds as he was facing the big front line of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. His worst game was against the Celtics last month. He had 2 points and 1 rebound.
Chris Kaman- not much more than a backup at this point in his career. He still has post moves but he has no foot speed and struggles defensively in an athletic league. He is guarding 26 year olds who can leap out the building and block shots and then he is embarrassed. He can’t chase down missed shots. Offensively he slows the game down. His best game was against the Jazz. He had 25 points and 14 rebounds but the Lakers lost which is the irony of Chris Kaman. His best games mean nothing; the Lakers lose. It is a predictor of his value. His excellence does not translate towards the team. Against the Bulls he went 27 and 10; the Lakers lost. Against OKC he went 19 and 10; the Lakers lost. Against the Warriors he went 10 and 17; the Lakers lost. His worst game against Minnesota he had 3 rebounds and 6 points and the Lakers won.
Wes Johnson- super athletic but what does that even mean? He can’t rise up and shoot over his defender. He shoots 43%. He can’t put the ball on the floor and create, he has a terrible handle. He can get to the rim but cannot finish if it is not a lob or dunk. He has no mid range game, no three point game, he is a terrible passer, he has no court vision, he gambles on defense and does not read situations. If his man is taking a three it will be Wes Johnson fouling him for a four point play. If his man goes right instinctively Wes will play him to go left. But he is a good shot blocker, the reason the Lakers are third in the NBA in blocked shots. But he plays a casual game, as if it doesn’t mean anything. His best game was at Detroit. He had 27 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks. His worst game was against Utah. He had 0 points, 0 blocks, 0 assists and 0 rebounds.
Pau Gasol- he still has two or three years left as an offensive player but he has lost elevation and his defense is atrocious. He doesn’t give sustained effort. He doesn’t get into guys, isn’t physical. He can’t jump and get offensive rebounds. His hands are his enemy, balls just slip through them as if he washed his fingers in butter. He still hasn’t learned how to play out of a double team. The ball gets stripped or he turns it over on a woeful pass. The rap on Gasol is that he isn’t a tough player but that isn’t exactly true. The thing about Gasol is that he can’t translate his toughness into inspiration, victories or leadership. But he will give you 16 and 10 every night if he is playing for a coach not named D’antoni. His best game was against Utah, 23 and 17. He had a five game stretch of 20 and 19, 22 and 11, 21 and 11, 20 and 13, 20 and 13 but they were all losses. He was a complimentary player at Memphis and in Los Angeles too. He cannot be your best player. Pau’s worst game of the year was against Portland. He missed 12 shots and had 6 points and 5 rebounds.
Kobe has always valued tough players and committed players; he wants to play with guys who are going to give everything. Because he gives everything. But Wes Johnson is not an annotated version of Trevor Ariza. Chris Kaman is playing in a league where 80% of the league is 30 years old or younger. Since training camp Jordan Farmar has struggled to stay healthy. And Pau Gasol is a one way player whose emotions affect his output. Kobe trusts veteran players. It is not his fault that he sees one thing and Mitch Kupchak and the rest of the league see another. Kobe is loyal to the tough minded player who has been through things. He wants a team of gritty hard nosed players. But that era of the NBA ended four years ago. This is a young, explosive league in which players have to be skilled on the perimeter, athletic around the rim, explosive finishers, and willing to fight for their game and their place in it. The league Kobe remembers and longs for is a league that has long been buried.