Are you finished shopping for the holidays? If you’re Jewish your time is up, the rest of us have 18 days left until Christmas. I guess I need to start making out my list of who to buy for.
We Laker fans went into this season not sure what we would be getting for Christmas. Was this a playoff team? Would Kobe let anyone else touch the ball? Would we be running up and down the court like it was 1985? Would this team be more fun to watch than the past couple of years?
We’re 20% of the way into the season, and we’re starting to get some answers, so it seemed like time for an assessment. Lets take a look at the Lakers fans’ holiday shopping list:
We want well rounded play from Kobe. Check that one off the list. We can admit it now — we were all afraid that with Shaq gone Kobe Bryant would morph into a taller Alan Iverseron. He’s didn’t. Kobe is averaging 6.8 assists per game (eighth in the league), in his last three games he has had double digit assists and he appears to be making a serious effort to get teammates involved. When asked to sacrafice a little offense for defense, he stepped up and shut Michael Redd down. Twice.
Kobe’s offense hasn’t suffered much — he is averaging 26.8 points per game and his PER is 25.2, the kind of number you see from people getting MVP talk (the league average is 15). Meanwhile opponents PER against him is 11.1 — a huge advantage for the Lakers. He leads the team in Roland Rating (+20.7). Really, the only steady complaint you can make about his play is that he needs to not settle for jumpers — 71% of his shots are jump shots and his effective field goal percentage is just 38.7% on those, once he gets inside for close shots (23% of the total) his shooting eFG% jumps to 50.6%. Plus, when he penetrates he gets to the free throw line (he is second in the NBA with 195 free throw attempts this year, and is shooting 81% from the line).
So far, Kobe is everything we could have asked Santa for.
(Note: For the rest of this piece I’m going to put PER, oppoents PER and Roland Rating after a players name like this (25.2/11.1/+20.7). Knickerblogger did a better job of breaking this down than I could, so I’ll let him explain it: If you have any doubts that PER is a good measure of offensive ability, the last two years the top 5 PER belonged to Garnett, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe and McGrady, which passes my litmus test. oPER (opposition PER) is less accurate because of how defense is played in the NBA (switched defensive assignments, help defense, zone defense, double teams, etc.), but can still be valuable up to a point. According to 82games.com, Roland Rating “represents a player’s value to a particular team and are not intended to be an accurate gauge of the ability and talent of the player away from the specific team.” Since it takes the player in context of his team, and we’re only looking at the players on one team, it’s perfect for our needs.)
Bring in another star player to go with Kobe. We got one, but we’re not sure if it fits. Lamar Odom (21.4/19.7/-1.5) came in as an All-Star and Olympian, but so far he has struggled to find a comfort level playing alongside Kobe. As many people have noted, he seems to be playing passively, letting the game come to him to the point he disapears for stretches.
His lack of aggressivness stems, at least in part, from the defensive end of the floor, where Odom has struggled to contain other teams power forwards and has gotten in foul trouble consistently. Part of that foul trouble has been because he has had to slide over and pick up penetrating point guards who were not slowed out top. Once he gets fouls, he appears cautious. The one place Odom has remained aggressive is on the boards, where he averages 10.7 rebounds per game with 8.5 of those on the devensive end. The Lakers have struggled keeping other teams off the boards, but Odom has been a bright spot here.
So far, Odom is like that Christmas shirt you get and really like, but are not sure it quite fits. It may need to be returned someday for something that does, but you want to give it a chance.
Give us a more athletic Laker team that runs the floor. Well, they are more athletic but batteries appear not to be included. The Lakers definately got younger and more athletic. Caron Butler (16.8/20.2/-10.3) has shown that he can get into the flow of the game and score, and he (not Odom) is second on the team in points per game with 14.2. Butler is a tweener who has struggled to cover the threes in the west, but there are moments when he finishes a drive and I think he can be a poor man’s James Worthy. Brian Cook (24.1/19.6/+10) is big and athletic and has stepped up his game and his shooting — on jump shots he has an eFG% of 58.1% (he’s one of the few big men whose shooting percentage actually goes down inside, 45.5%). Is it just me, or is Cook starting to become the new Robert Horry?
But that and other athleticism is going to waste because this team does not fast break. The Lakers are averaging 91 possessions a game — actually down one possession a game from last season (and for comparison, this year Phoenix is averaging 100 possessions and even the Clippers are averaging 97). So far this season, 36% of the Lakers’ shots occur in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, while 39% happen in the last eight seconds. Each game, the Lakers seem slower and slower getting set up in what half-court offense they do run, as teams try to deny Kobe the ball.
Adding to the problem, this Laker team has done a poor job taking care of the ball. The Lakers are averaging three more turnovers per game than their opponents (that’s a six point swing per game), and lest you want to lay all the blame at the point guard spot the two people with the most turnovers per game are Kobe (4.47, but he handles the ball a lot) and Odom (2.47). The Lakers also have 28 more offensive penalties than their opponents.
Give us an inside presence to make up for what’s-his-name. We’ve got a piece or two, but more will need to be acquired. Chris Mihm (19/20.1/-2.5) has turned out to be a pleasent suprise — not an All Star player but he works hard and has done a solid job. That said, he’s not a great defender and good centers are burning us. Also, he is the only one near the boards on the offenseive end as the Lakers other inside players (Odom and Cook) spend their time out wandering by the three-point line. Brian Grant was supposed to help in this position, but he has played in only 11 games, started in one and was burned defensively (oPER 18.1) when he was in. If he comes back healthy, maybe he will bring the inside presence we expected.
Probably the biggest suprise on the Lakers this season has been the play of Jumaine Jones (11.3/17.0/+19.5). His offense statistics are not spectacular and he has trouble matching up defensively, but he hits the boards and plays hard — and when he is on the floor the Lakers are better. Really, isn’t that the bottom line?
That said, the Lakers are playing too much outside in rather than the inside out that comes with penetration (or good players on the low block). More inside presence is needed.
Give us a team that plays good defense. Still shopping. This is the other reason you don’t see the Lakers running — the fast break starts with good defense and creating turnovers or bad shots. This Laker team’s defense is so poor that Rudy T. said he was going to spend practicies during this four day break focused on it.
Unfortunately, in those practices he isn’t going to find a point guard who can stop penetration, something that has really hurt the Lakers. It’s not all showing up in the stats yet, but Chucky Atkins (13.7/16.9/+7.5) can’t hang with the quick points in the West (and niether can Tierre Brown). In addition, look at opponent PER and you see that the place the Lakers have the biggest weaknesses is at the four (17.8), the five (17.3) and three (16.9) — the Lakers are not doing enough to protect the rim.
Basically, the team defense is poor everywhere but the two, where Kobe plays 86% of the team’s minutes.
Give us a trip to the playoffs. On back order, we won’t know if we can get that in until April. Right now, the Lakers are on pace for 48 wins, which would likely get them in the seventh or eighth spot in the West. But there is a lot of season left, and several things may factor into whether Laker fans get a belated gift from Santa this spring.
For example, will Karl Malone return? Even an older Malone would give the Lakers a much needed inside presence and allow Odom to move to the three, where most people seem to think he’ll be more comfortable. But remember, Malone would be a band aid on the problem — he is not part of this team’s long-term future. Also, will the Lakers make any other moves, ideally something to bring in a point guard?
The bottom line for Lakers fans: Christmas is coming, the goose may be fat, but it will be a little while — maybe a couple of years — before we get what we really want and become an elite team again. Hopefully this year we can get enough to just tide us over.