Mike Brown and the Lakers admit they are still getting a feel for their team. Adding in a new starter midseason in Ramon Sessions did not help, but this season has been an experiment for Mike Brown in his first year as coach. The Lakers have faced their bumps and bruises in that time.
One thing that has been pretty consistent is that Brown has relied heavily on his three main players — Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. All three of those players are averaging more than 35 minutes per game with Bryant leading the way at 38.6 minutes per game. That is not the highest average in the league, but his 1,928 minutes played this season are the most total in the league.
Brown is weighing heavily on his three key players this season and that could become costly considering Bryant is 33 (an old 33 because of those extra years playing NBA basketball and his extensive Playoff mileage) and Gasol is 31. And of course there is the schedule and its rushed nature as we hurdle toward the Playoffs. Even the Playoff schedule is going to be a bit cramped and rushed.
That is going to test every team’s player management skills and stamina when push comes to shove in a few months.
The Lakers have been on a tear lately despite these heavy minutes from their stars — and now Ramon Sessions is averaging 28.7 minutes per game since joining the Lakers. Los Angeles has won seven of its last 10 games to overtake its cross-arena rival and take advantage of its swoon to get to the top of the Pacific Division.
Mike Brown though admitted after the team’s narrow win in Oakland that the team is still figuring out who it is and that is why players continue to play extremely heavy minutes.
The question is will this really affect a veteran team like the Lakers in a negative way when the postseason begins?
Los Angeles is not San Antonio, as Brown pointed out to the media when asked about resting some of his players in advance of the postseason. The Lakers have not had a lot of time together. This is still their first year playing for Brown and there have been some bumps in the road — Bryant has returned to some of his ball-dominating ways and Gasol is averaging a career-low 16.8 points per game. That does not even mention Andrew Bynum’s sudden fascination with shooting 3-pointers.
Brown said he has to continue playing his guys hard and resting them a bit more in practice not only to maintain their playoff positioning but also to ensure they get used to playing together.
Still, Brown is getting a feel for his players and that was pretty evident in Sunday’s loss to Memphis when Brown had Bryant on the bench for the final six minutes of the game and the outcome still somewhat in doubt. The media was predictably all over Brown on this decision, but both Bryant and Brown played it off as if it is nothing. Both have had to fight off rumors of discord between the two, especially when the team was struggling.
“It’s his decision to make. … He’s the coach. If you guys are looking for a story I’m not going to give you one. I can’t sit here and criticize his decisions,” Bryant told J. Michael Falgous of USA TODAY after Sunday’s game. “That’s something I can’t afford to do. I’ve got to have his back. I’ve had his back the whole season. I can’t do something crazy now. It makes no sense.”
That would make you think things are settled. And they very well may be. But that does not mean things will stay that way. Bryant judges his season on his performance, and his team’s performance, in the Playoffs.
Last year, Bryant averaged 33.9 minutes per game, his lowest total since his second year in the league. Playing Bryant heavy minutes might correlate with the team’s general success.
But can one team rely so heavily on three players and win?
It is somewhat commonplace to have three players averaging at least 30 minutes per game — Dallas did last year, and that was a veteran team — but 35? That seems like a whole lot and Bryant will probably be playing more than 40 minutes per game when the postseason comes around.
The Lakers’ title team in 2010 had Bryant and Gasol playing more than 35 minutes per game, and Bynum, Metta World Peace and Lamar Odom logged more than 30 minutes too.
No team has won a championship with three players averaging more than 35.0 minutes per game since the 2004 Pistons when Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton met that mark. And Billups and Hamilton were averaging 35.4 and 35.5 minutes per game. The last one before that was the 2001 Lakers led by Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant and Derek Fisher.
This is not an unusual occurrence, but it is not commonplace either. And you can definitely argue that all three of those players on those two teams were contributing at the top of their games.
Gasol is having a career-worst season scoring-wise. Bryant has been inefficient with a career-worst 46.0 percent effective field goal percentage and a career-worst 52.6 percent true shooting percentage. Bynum is the only player on the way up in his career, coming off his first All-Star appearance.
Does this sound like the team that is going to be able to survive the gauntlet of this season and go deep in the Playoffs?
It certainly is possible. But only if they don’t wear down first. Brown needs to get a feel for his team, wrap up that Playoff spot and get these guys some rest or the Lakers could be running on fumes again late in the season.