It took nearly a season’s worth of frustration riddled with injuries and reduced playing time.
But Chris Kaman has finally received his wish. He will start tonight with Pau Gasol when the Lakers (25-48) host the Portland Trail Blazers (48-27) tonight at Staples Center, a combination Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has resisted for over four months.
Kaman has shared his frustration on and off this season about his reduced role. But he took the diplomatic route this time.
“It’s a frustrating situation for a lot of people. Coach, for as much as he takes, I don’t think he has had a fair shot with the injuries,” Kaman said. “People might not agree with the way he does things or his style of play. But it’s not about that. Players have to respect that position to the coach. He is our coach. What lineups he decides and way he decides to play is based on what he thinks is the right move. We have to respect that. It’s not always easiest when you sit there for a while and not play. But I don’t think he’s trying to hurt anybody or purposely do anything negatively. He’s trying to do the best he can with what we got.”
Kaman also complimented the flurry of frontcourt players who have taken away his playing time, including rookie forward Ryan Kelly and second-year center Robert Sacre.
“Rob has come a long way this year,” Kaman said. “I was impressed with where he’s started. He works hard. So does Ryan. Those two guys are the two hardest workers other than Steve Nash. They both have been rewarded by that and sometimes it needs to happen.”
That’s not exactly what Kaman envisioned when he signed with the Lakers to a one-year, $3.2 million deal. He did so partly because he envisioned playing with Gasol where the two would complement each other well with their versatile skillsets. Gasol could operate out of post without Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum in the way, while Kaman could play off the pick-and-roll. Gasol could tap into his passing abilities as a facilitator, while Kaman operated down low. Anytime either player needed a breather or fell to injuries, the other would be there to fill the void.
Rarely have those scenarios unfolded.
Kaman and Gasol played in four of the five exhibition games averaging double digits. But Kaman sat out for 10 days because of a stomach illness during the Lakers’ pre-season trip in China. Kaman returned for the Lakers’ first 12 games, averaging 8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds until back spasms kept him out for three weeks. Gasol and Kaman started in three games, but went 1-2 in a stretch that included a loss to Minnesota on Nov. 10 in which the Lakers conceded 47 first-quarter points. A string of DNP’s then played a large part in Kaman sitting out of 38 of the 75 games this season.
“He went away from it right away and it left a nasty taste,” Kaman said. “But now looking back, we got smoked a couple a times. Im not trying to make a joke. I’m just stating the facts. Whether or not it was the bigs, I don’t know. It’s so hard to say and hard to dwell on the negative side of things. But you’re human too just like everybody else so it becomes a frustrating thing. You try to battle that. It’s a demon you’re battling all year.”
D’Antoni has often described Kaman as simply a casualty of a frontcourt in which he prefers floor spacers (formerly Shawne Williams and currently Ryan Kelly) and better defenders (Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre). D’Antoni also yanked Kaman after five minutes in the Lakers’ loss last Friday in Minnesota after Nikola Pekovic scored eight of his team-high 26 points.
“I think part of it too is the style that he likes to play defensively, we don’t fit the best,” Kaman said of himself and Gasol. “He needs someone to stretch the floor, someone like Ryan or someone who is more active defensively. HE tries to make up for that with Jordan Hill’s activity on both the offensive and defensive glass. Ryan can stretch the floor and create the space for that big to dive and open up passing angles for the other guys to shoot the 3. The game is changing and evolving. It’s a lot faster pace than it used to be and it’s all about the highest percentage play, which is the 3 pointer now. You see more teams going to that now. There’s a lot more teams and very few of those teams that slow down ans play. They’re becoming a dying breed. We’ll see how long they last. Hopefully they can last a little longer and we can continue to thrive. But it’s becoming a tough thing to play a slow down game because of the way teams are playing offense.”
But Kaman has played considerably well through the circumstances. He has averaged 10.3 points and 5.6 rebounds this season. Through 12 starts during Gasol’s absence because of various ailments, Kaman has averaged 14 points on 49.7 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds. Kaman’s 28 points on 13 of 19 shooting and 17 rebounds in the Lakers’ win Sunday over Phoenix eventually convinced D’Antoni to change his sentiments.
“That’s never my intent. I come in the game each game and help as much as I can and whenever I can,” Kaman said. “Some games I feel more comfortable and into it with a rhythm. Some games I feel like I’m struggling.”