EL SEGUNDO (AP) — This must be another coaching record for Phil Jackson. Just one week into the regular season, he has already minted a catchy nickname for the Los Angeles Lakers’ revamped group of reserves.
Meet the Renegades. They’re the reason the two-time NBA champions might be a whole lot better this season.
Newcomers Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff have joined returnees Shannon Brown and Sasha Vujacic on a bench that already looks exponentially more reliable than last season’s collection of castoffs and underachievers. What’s more, they’re still planning to add injured Luke Walton and sixth man Lamar Odom, currently a fill-in starter.
“I like the way this group is coming together,” Jackson said. “They have the potential to be very special.”
The Lakers were top-heavy during their two title runs, but this team appears to have enviable balance.
The unimpressive likes of Adam Morrison, Jordan Farmar and DJ Mbenga have been replaced by three tough NBA veterans with 29 combined seasons of experience. Blake, Barnes and Ratliff are former starters who swallowed their egos for the chance to join Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in another championship chase.
“Our bench is very solid, very solid,” Bryant said after Sunday’s 107-83 win over Golden State, moving the Lakers to 3-0. “They rarely make mistakes. They stay within the structure, and they play well together.”
They also add hunger: None of the three newcomers has a championship ring, and all three looked on in envy when the nine returning Lakers received the spoils of last season’s toils during last week’s ring ceremony.
“Everybody knows that’s the reason we’re here, and that’s the reason I chose the Lakers,” said Barnes, the hard-nosed swingman and longtime Kobe antagonist who is becoming a confidante to the two-time finals MVP.
Although Jackson slapped a couple of nicknames on his reserves during the last two title runs – the Bench Mob, and later the Minutemen – their struggles often forced the starters to play heavy minutes. Jackson already displays more confidence in his new bench, which scored 55 points in the Lakers’ first two games before logging major minutes in the blowout win over the Warriors.
“You can probably be a starter somewhere and not have a chance to play for a championship, or you can go to a situation where you have an opportunity to win,” said Blake, the Lakers’ most capable backup to point guard Derek Fisher in several years. “That’s what they did in Miami, and that’s what we’re doing here, on a little different scale.”
Blake hit the go-ahead 3-pointer and made a last-second defensive stop in the season-opening win over Houston, while Brown added 16 points in a flurry of outside shots from an acrobatic dunker with a rapidly evolving game. Brown has largely supplanted Vujacic as Bryant’s backup.
Sure, they can play – but what about this new nickname? Jackson hasn’t spelled it out, but it’s clear he hopes to instill a restless, aggressive spirit in the group. The reserves all love it, although Barnes also likes Lakers TV analyst Stu Lantz’s “Killer B’s” sobriquet for Blake, Brown and himself.
The common theme among the Renegades is hunger. While the 37-year-old Ratliff and Blake already have made good money, they need a ring to complete their well-traveled careers. Barnes and Brown are still chasing that big contract, and they believe it’s easier to get when you’re a winner.
Eager second-round draft picks Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter are also around to carry luggage and push the veterans in practice – and don’t forget, Odom will be back in charge of the bench when center Andrew Bynum recovers from offseason knee surgery, likely around Thanksgiving.
“We have guys this year that are accepting of their roles, and they’re professionals,” said Odom, who is averaging 16 points and 13.7 rebounds in an outstanding start. “They’re going to police themselves out there. If we can get something from 1 through 12, we can be even better.”
Odom didn’t mention Farmar by name, but the UCLA guard wasn’t content winning two rings while backing up Fisher. Proclaiming he deserved to be a starter, he left the Lakers for New Jersey – where he’s a backup again, but for a much worse team.
“This year, I think we have better chemistry, in terms of the pieces fitting better together coming off the bench,” Jackson said. “I knew as soon as we signed those free agents that we would be better, just because you know what they bring. You know what those pieces are going to look like.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)