One month into the NBA season, the view from the top isn’t exactly what people expected. The San Antonio Spurs (12-1) with the best record in the league? The Hornets (now 12-2 after a shocking loss to the Clippers) with the equal second-best record? The Miami Heat (8-6) struggling with losses to Memphis and Indiana and sitting an unthinkable 5th in the East? It’s all very surprising to say the least.

It seems the only two teams in the league you count on these days are the Celtics and the Lakers. But then the Celts go and blow games against the Thunder (without Durant) and the Raptors, and given their big man injuries (both O’Neals) and inconsistency of some of their starters (not looking at you Ray) you start to realise even they have their fair share of problems.

That leaves the Lakers. The two-time champs. They haven’t been perfect, but it seems you need to be perfect to beat them these days – just ask the Suns who nailed 22 threes last week and still almost lost. Watching the Lakers so far this season, I can tell you that they have at least one, perhaps two more gears they can go to above any other team. Bill Simmons’s solo-band analogy was nice and he tried his best to put the Lakers and Celtics on the same pedestal. But the truth is the Lakers are on another level.

The main reason? Their bench.

It has arguably been the achilles heal of this Lakers team the past few years – the striking drop off that takes place when key starters leave the floor. Leads would vanish, turnovers would spike, and Sasha Vujacic would have a basketball in his hands. So Phil would bring back Kobe or Gasol or Odom to stem the flow, and these guys are good enough to make up for that dip. Hell, they won two championships with a bench I can only describe as “serviceable” at most. That’s an indication of how good the LA starters have been more than anything else. But it should also strike fear into the hearts of every other team in the league, because this season it’s the same starting core – featuring Lamar Odom and the fire lit under his ass – with a bench that isn’t only serviceable, but downright dominant.

Shannon Brown can now shoot. What the hell did this guy do in the off-season? How many athletic freaks have we seen over the years and thought, “wow this guy would be killer if he just developed a jump shot?” I’m still waiting for Harold Miner to develop his. Shannon has made the transition look easy. He hasn’t just improved – he’s now the Lakers leading three-point shot maker. He’s now doing things like scoring 21 points on 7/9 shooting and shooting 51% from downtown for the season. And he’s getting props from none other than Kobe himself: “He’s even a better shooter than he was last year. You see him now making plays off the dribble, making plays for others, passing off the dribble. He continues to get better. This is just the beginning for him”.

Then there’s Matt Barnes, who I assumed was brought on board solely for some hard-ass defense, hustle and occasional dickhead antics to get under the skin of Wade, Lebron, Durant and Co. Turns out he is a far more talented dickhead than I ever gave him credit for. His game is more rounded than ever (all his numbers are up), but it’s his smarts and awareness that have impressed me the most. I swear he wasn’t this good in Orlando, especially not on the offensive end. When he came to Cali he must have kissed James Worthy on the dick because there’s smatterings of Showtime all over Barnes that I never saw before – the no-look passes, the alley-oop assists,  the adjust-on-the-fly passes (23 secs into this clip). Not to mention the fact he’s now shooting the three-ball at an incredible 47%. Just keep in mind this was a weapon the Lakers simply did not have last season. A tough, defensive-minded player who can shoot threes and make plays when needed. No question about it – Barnes has added another dimension to this bench.

Then there’s the Third “B” of the bunch. Mr Steve Blake. While his numbers aren’t as flashy and individually he hasn’t reached the heights of Brown and Barnes, make no mistake – Blake might be the Lakers most important piece on the bench. That drop-off I was talking about earlier – yes that was partly due to Kobe/Gasol/Odom leaving the pine – but it was also partly due to the fact Jordan Farmar has no freaking clue how to run the point position properly. He never was and never will be a true point guard in this league. Steve Blake on the other hand was born a point guard. His first word as a child was “pick and roll”. When he dresses up for “Come as your Dream Job” parties, he just wears his normal Steve Blake clothes. You see where this is going.

Blake is the reason that instead of the Lakers blowing leads and losing momentum when Kobe and Gasol hit the bench, they often pull even further away and completely bury teams. Blake is the reason the guys above – Barnes and Brown – are playing so well, because they are getting the right looks and touches when they need them. Blake is the reason the deterioration of Derek Fisher isn’t as much of an issue as it should be.

A lot of people are asking why the Lakers don’t seem as complacent this year in comparison with recent years. I think the answer to that is that in prior years they weren’t truly complacent – they just looked ordinary without their best-5 on the court, so they struggled to play 100% disciplined basketball for four-straight quarters. Steve Blake is a big part of that turnaround. He can’t play undisciplined. He can’t not make the right passes, run the fast break when needed, slow it down when needed, shoot-first when needed. He can’t not be a true floor general in every sense of the word. He is Steve fucking Blake.

——–

I also want to talk about one of the Lakers starters here. Pau Gasol has been off the charts and rightly so has been raising the question as to whether he is the Lakers MVP so far. Yes Kobe fans I just said that. Settle down. Truth is this will always be Kobe Bryant’s team and he still plays at an MVP-caliber level. But Pau Gasol this season looks to be turning in the most complete big-man season I’ve seen from anyone since Tim Duncan during 2002-2005 – and TD did win two MVPs during that span. Gasol is averaging a career high 22.8 points, a career-high 12.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists (his second best season), and as of now 56.4 FG% (his third best season). There’s little doubt then that Pau Gasol is the best or second-best (depending on how you rate Dwight) big man in the league right now.

I’ve read and heard some interesting arguments lately about Gasol and Kobe, specifically how Kobe has never enjoyed success in this league without playing alongside a true elite big man. It was Shaq earlier in the decade, now Gasol. It’s no surprise the motive behind some of these arguments is of course to undermine Kobe and prove that he is somehow overrated. I’m not going to touch that argument because I think it’s stupid, but I would like to step back and offer my view.

Pau Gasol, for most of the past decade, has always been viewed as a talented big man. During his best years in Memphis he was good for 18-20 points per game (at a high percentage), 9-10 rebounds per game, a few assists and a couple of blocks. He has always had great skills, a soft touch, and a wide-ranging arsenal of moves. From a statistical sense and a skill-base sense, Pau Gasol hasn’t really changed in the last five years between his peak in Memphis and his time in LA. What has changed is his mentality, his toughness, his one-on-one defense, and perhaps the biggest thing – his ability to win. Sure, it helps that he now plays for a winning team, but there’s no two ways about it – for six and a half years, Pau Gasol was essentially, a loser.

Even on a decent Memphis team that won 50, 45 and 49 wins between 2004-2006, Gasol’s Grizzlies lost in the first round every time. What’s worse – they didn’t win a single playoff game during that stretch. I remember following Gasol from afar during that time. I viewed him as an extremely talented individual, but one that lacked the fire and competitive spirit to truly lead a team. He didn’t look like a winner. He was too soft. Too timid. A choker. And watching the way he carried himself during those post-season exits, I distinctly remember thinking to myself the following: Pau Gasol will never amount to anything in this league.

Then through a fortuitous trade he wound up a Laker. And do you know what changed? Not Pau Gasol, that’s for sure. He was the same Pau. Incredibly talented but now playing for a team with the media and fan following to appreciate those talents on another scale. Playing in the triangle with Kobe, he looked at home. The Lakers looked amazing. Then they found themselves in a dog fight with the Celtics in the 2008 Finals. Gasol was beaten, bullied and embarrassed by a bruising Boston frontline. He exited the playoffs that year with the familiar haunting ghosts from his past… too soft, too timid.

He was the same Pau.

In 2009 Gasol and the Lakers won their championship, and in 2010 he avenged that Celtics defeat by returning a can of whoop-ass to KG and Co. Now we see him in a different light. As a mentally and physically tougher player. A player that knows how to win. But the question I have to ask is, what was really responsible for that change? What turned Gasol into the superstar we see today?

Was it simply losing to the Celtics in ‘08? The criticisms leveled at him after that series were no different to what he had already copped the previous few years in his career, so I don’t really buy that. He was always seen as a typically big soft European player.

Was it Pau’s inner drive to succeed? If it was, why didn’t that surface during the years he was repeatedly getting his butt kicked in Memphis?

Was it Pau getting better as a basketball player? Only partially. As I’ve already said, Gasol the basketball player hasn’t really changed in the last five years. You might find that hard to believe, but I’m telling you, it’s true. Pau Gasol was this good five years ago – he just never got the attention and never had the team around him to shine this bright. Think KG in Boston – his prime was 2003-2006. No one would argue the championship-winning ‘08 model KG was any better than those prior years in Sota. But with a better team and a bigger market, he was perceived as a better, more complete player.

What was really responsible for that change? I repeatedly keep coming back to the same answer.

Kobe Bryant.

Everything we saw as a weakness in Pau Gasol when he came to LA – his perceived softness, his lack of tenacity, his disappearance in big pressure moments – are things we saw as strengths in Kobe Bryant. Kobe is a ruthless, intolerant son of a bitch with a pathological need to win. He eats big pressure moments for breakfast. He was the Yin to Gasol’s Yang in that sense. When that trade went down I knew some of that stuff was going to rub off on Gasol, and I knew it was exactly what he needed.

You hear the same stories about players from the 2008 Olympics – what they learnt from Kobe about his work ethic, his preparation, his relentless drive to get better. That experience showed the likes of Melo, Wade and Lebron what it really took to be a winner.

You can’t help that think it was the same reason that caused so much friction between Kobe and Shaq earlier in the decade. The fact Shaq was a big goofy fun-loving character – and the team’s unquestionable leader – clashed with Kobe’s no-nonsense approach to winning. The story of Kobe calling Shaq “fat” during one of the pre-season camps doesn’t surprise me. If you’re the most obsessively prepared and conditioned player in the league – which from all accounts Kobe Bryant is – how would you respond to your partner in crime, the other half of your championship-winning dynamic duo, rocking up to training camp carrying an extra 40 pounds? It’s no wonder that dynasty fell apart.

Let me be clear on one thing here. I don’t mean to discount the huge wealth of talent that Gasol brought to the Lakers. Overnight he took them from a ‘decent’ team to an ‘elite’ team. But when trying to understand how Gasol went from an All-Star in 2006 to arguably the game’s best big man in 2010, don’t underestimate the impact of Kobe Bryant. Everyone seems preoccupied with the effect that Pau Gasol has had on the career/legacy of Kobe Bryant, when the vice versa, to me, is just as intriguing.

Pau Gasol wasn’t always the butt-kicking All-NBA player that we see today. In 2008 when that freak trade went down, the Lakers didn’t receive this model Pau Gasol. They received an older, more fragile model. A model that didn’t know how to win the race. The parts were all there. It had potential. The engine was still superb. It just needed someone to steer it in the right direction. To really drive it.

And I think Pau can thank Kobe for that.


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