The Lakers are old and slow. That has been the consensus opinion all season long from NBA analysts and followers of the Los Angeles Lakers. Heck, even the Lakers leader, Kobe Bryant, admitted as much after a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers at StaplesCenter.
“Cause we’re old as s*#t” replied Kobe Bryant to a reporter’s question about the team’s energy. “You just saw an old damn team…I don’t know how else to put it to you. We’re just slow”
Kobe is 34. Nash is 38. Gasol is 32. Jamison is 36. Metta World Peace is 33.
When most of the people that cover the Lakers are asked what this team needs in order to improve the response is usually that the need to get younger and more athletic.
During this whole season the Lakers have had a guy on the roster that seemed to fit that description to a T and that’s Earl Clark who many Lakers fans were finally able to see play substantial minutes in the last 2 games. Earl Clark, filling in for the Lakers depleted front court, was impressive scoring a career high 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in Wednesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
The question that many Lakers fans are now asking is who is this guy and where has he been all year?
Earl Clark is a young 24 years of age and he’s athletic. To go a little deeper with his skill set, Earl has nice handles for a guy his size, has soft hands and a good touch around the basket. He is not the most adept outside shooter but he is an adequate one, has a nice stroke and is what he primarily depends on to score.
Unlike the young guys on the Lakers roster, Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris and Robert Sacre who were never seen as players with much upside coming out of college, Earl Clark has always had the physical tools since coming out of Louisville which is the reason the Phoenix Suns took him with their lottery pick (14th overall pick) in the 2009 NBA draft.
The knock on Earl Clark coming out of college was his tendency to settle for outside jumpers instead of using his size, length and athletic ability to score closer to the basket. He was seen as a player without a position, guard skills in a big mans body. Questions were if he was skilled enough to play and defend the 3 at the NBA level or was he strong enough and able to develop a post game to play the 4 position.
Earl has had some opportunity in the past to make his mark in the NBA and hasn’t been able to crack a rotation to this point. In his first year with Phoenix he appeared in 51 games and had a few stretches where he played double digit minutes; however, outside of a few games he didn’t impress. To be fair, Earl would have really needed to perform in order to convince Coach Alvin Gentry to take minutes away from established forwards on the roster like Amare Stoudemire, Channing Frye and Grant Hill.
Earl got a better opportunity when he was traded to Orlando in the following season (2010). In his first season with the Magic he got an opportunity during a 6 game stretch where he averaged a little more than 19 minutes per game, but his production was merely adequate; Earl averaged 8.6 ppg and 4.8 rebounds per game in that span.
The best opportunity that Earl Clark received was last season after Dwight Howard was lost for the remainder of the season due to his back injury. Earl Clark became the primary forward off the bench for the Magic and got significant minutes in the last month of the season. In the final month of the regular season Earl received 20 minutes per game but was only able to produce paltry numbers; he averaged 5.1 ppg on 36.8 % shooting from the field, and pulled down just 4 rebounds per game.
Earl was equally unimpressive in the Magic’s playoff series last season against the Indiana Pacers where he received 17 minutes per game off the bench and only produced 4 ppg and 6.6 rpg.
The upside is there with Earl Clark and he showed in his last 2 games that his particular skill set and physical tools are something that can be of great value to the Lakers for the rest of the season. While he hasn’t showed much up until this point in his career, he is only 24 years old and playing in just his 4th NBA season so this could be where Earl Clark begins to start parlaying those abilities that made him a lottery pick into a productive NBA level player; more importantly, a productive role player for the Lakers this season.
Earl will probably get a few more games to build on the 2 good games he has already played for the Lakers and then make it tough for the coaching staff to take him out of the rotation when the injured front court trio begins to return. When Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Jordan Hill do return from injury, it’s going to be hard to find minutes for Earl Clark; however, because he possesses enough ability to play 2 positions, if he continues to perform like he did against San Antonio, he might be able to split minutes at both the 3 and 4 position.
What is clear at this point of the season is that whatever it is that the Lakers are currently doing, system wise, rotation wise and overall philosophy, it’s not working. It does appear that overall team speed, athleticism and energy are lacking. It is something that Earl Clark at a minimum definitely brings. It is now up to Earl to make the most of his current opportunity. At the same time, it is up to the coaching staff to take notice and make the tough personal decisions if needed. If Earl Clark is the answer to the Lakers problems, the coaching staff has to put aside salary, stature and hurt feelings of the established players and insert Earl in the rotation somehow. Does this coaching staff, specifically Mike D’Antoni, have the backbone to make such a move? We’ll soon see.
– Fern Rea “@fullcourtfern”