The Lakers played most of the season without their starting small forward (metaphorically and physically). He’s back, will it be enough to get them past the first round?

Death Dealer | Daily Girth

Wanted: a starting small forward to keep up with the likes of Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

The ideal candidate should consider defense his top priority. Rebounding is a must as is physicality. The ability to get under the star small forward’s skin is a big plus. Championship experience is preferred, but not required. The ability to knock down the open shot is mandatory.

Once upon a time, the Los Angeles Lakers had this player. In fact, they won back-to-back championships with two different players that fit this description.

Trevor Ariza was the perfect small forward for a Lakers team loaded with stars. He didn’t care about scoring, checking the other team’s top gun took precedence. Contract negotiations went sour, and strangely, Ariza took almost the same dollar amount as his Lakers replacement (five years, about $33 million).

Now Ariza is stuck in the black hole of New Orleans and his replacement has the 2010 NBA title added to his resume. His replacement hit the championship-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 against the Celtics.

This player was once a fearsome competitor, the type you hated to play against because of his tenacity. In his younger years, his low post game and drives to the basket were almost unstoppable.

He even got suspended for like, a whole season (73 regular season games and 13 playoff contests) after he fought some fans in the Pacers-Pistons Brawl in Detroit.

Afterward, our anti-hero was so clueless about his actions, he asked then-teammate Stephen Jackson this: “Jack, you think we going to get in trouble?”

After this fiery competitor won the NBA title, he changed. He wasn’t as feared a player thanks to a newfound calmness. This player sold his championship ring, donating all of the money to charities. He advocated heavily for mental health awareness.

Before this season, he took the extreme step to changing his name to Metta World Peace. This guy simply wasn’t the same player. Because of the lockout, he reported to camp out of shape. His play suffered, bricking open shot after open shot. The calmness that slowed his game the previous year was more apparent now — he was a beast that lost its fangs.

It was as if the Lakers had four players on offense. Their small forward wasn’t getting it done. He gave them nothing except a low shooting percentage and the occasional defensive stop.

When star shooting guard Kobe Bryant sat out seven straight games in April, the Lakers’ starting small forward, who started the season coming off the bench, flourished. With more confidence, better conditioning and a desperate need for scoring thanks to the Black Mamba’s absence, No. 15 put up double figures in six of those seven games, including a stellar 26-point performance to lead a route at San Antonio.

This guy simply wasn’t the same player. Because of the lockout, he reported to camp out of shape. His play suffered, bricking open shot after open shot. The calmness that slowed his game the previous year was more apparent now — he was a beast that lost its fangs.

A deep playoff run seemed like a possibility for the Lakers. Why not, the duo of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol had been dominating the paint, Bryant seemed rested thanks to the injury, newcomer Ramon Sessions provided point guard play the Lakers hadn’t seen since speedy Nick Van Exel suited up and their small forward problem was solved.

Until it wasn’t.

Sure, World Peace got a chance, but we all know conflict is bound to happen. Against Oklahoma City on the second to last game of the season, a vicious elbow knocked the Thunder’s James Harden out of the game. That elbow belonged to No. 15 in another foolish display that would hinder him and his teammates.

A seven-game suspension followed, meaning the Lakers would be without a starter, weakening their already thin bench. Sitting out one meaningless regular season game against Sacramento didn’t matter; missing the first six of the playoffs has mattered.

Now, the prodigal forward returns in Game 7, a potential franchise changer if L.A. loses in what would be a monumental collapse. A loss would mean the team could be gutted, once again, everyone would be expendable except for Bryant.

As for No. 15 who gave the team virtually nothing at the start of the year and gave them completely nothing the past few weeks thanks to his suspension, his time may be up regardless of what happens.

The Lakers still haven’t used their amnesty clause to waive any player to save on their salary cap. Their starting small forward, thanks to his fat contract and inconsistency, is a prime candidate to get cut.

The player with the former initials R.A. is on borrowed time. Anything less than a championship is a failure for the Lakers and the way they’ve looked in 2011-2012, that title won’t be hoisted by the purple and gold. Don’t expect the former R.A. to knock down championship-clinching shots. He may help them get past Game 7 tonight, but anything else is questionable, just like his play this season.

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