The Lakers have played 41 games, exactly half the season, and if you had told me before the season their record would have been 22-19, I would have taken it. I think things will improve in the second half, but this is the perfect chance to do a mid-season breakdown. Weâ€™ll look at the team management, offense and defense today. Individual players get broken out tomorrow.
Team Management/Coaching â€” B
Phil Jackson is getting as much out of this roster as a coach can, but he doesnâ€™t have a deep roster to work with.
Therein lies what you see with the Lakers â€” Kobe having to take on a high percentage of the teamâ€™s scoring because the other players canâ€™t be counted on to do so consistently; the more intent focus on defense, which has seemed to laps lately; the second youngest roster in the league; inconsistency.
The key to the coaching end of the equation will be detailed a little farther down â€”Jackson has this team playing defense (we expected the offense to come around). Last season the Lakers played mediocre man defense (insert your own Chucky Atkins joke here) but the biggest problem was the rotations. Or, more accurately, the lack of them. This season you see big guys doing a better job of picking up guys in the lane, Chris Mihm is getting blocks and Brian Cook is taking charges. The Lakers are longer out top and that is bothering teams.
When you looked at this team on paper before the season it seemed mismatched on offense, but Jackson and crew have done a good job of getting players to fit the system and adjusting the system to fit players. Theyâ€™ve convinced Kwame Brown to try to be a poor manâ€™s Dennis Rodman, defending and grabbing boards (how good he is at that role is another question) and get some points in the paint. Guys like Smush Parker and Cook are finding their space in the triangle. One change from previous years is that before Phil would be willing to lose a game to let his team learn a lesson â€” I think back in, say, 2001 he would have benched Kobe rather than let him go for 81 and let the rest of the players learn to step up. But back then there was no question the team would make the playoffs, so the goal was to be at your best for the postseason. Now, wins are at a premium, and if Kobe has to be a one-man show to get a win, so be it.
That mismatched roster falls in part on Jim Buss, Mitch K. and the rest of the front office. Their made the choice to make cap space down the line the priority and left holes in the current lineup as the price. They drafted Andrew Bynum, who may well work out, but the fact they have had to depend on him this year as a raw 18-year-old speaks to the lack of depth up front. They took a risk on Kwame Brown, trading valuable assets on the market in Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins to get him. I questioned at the time if that was the best they could get for that valuable a trading chip, but they hoped Brown would finally fulfill his potential. Brown is starting, but heâ€™s basically putting up the same quality of numbers he did in Washington (more on him tomorrow). They have a direction and some building blocks, but as of now they have a ways to go make this a well-rounded roster.
Team Defense â€” B-
Back in mid-December, the Lakers had a defensive rating of 104.5 (points per 100 opponent possessions) and that was in the top 10 in the league. It was a huge step forward for a team whose rating was 107 last season, 29th in the league.
But the reason for the B- grade is that as of right now the Lakers have a defensive rating of 106.2, 16th in the league. In the last 10 games, that rating is 107.9 â€” the Lakers are 7-3 in that stretch but it is thanks to the offense (in case you missed it, Kobeâ€™s playing pretty well right now).
That said, the Lakers are still much better defensively than last year. That starts out top, where Smush Parker has been everything Chucky Atkins was not â€” heâ€™s long, he moves his feet and he defends the three. That has been one key: teams are shooting just 32.6% from beyond the arc against the Lakers, the second lowest percentage in the league. Sasha Vujacic deserves some credit for playing solid defense off the bench most nights.
That said, point guard is still the weakest defensive spot for the Lakers, opponents average a PER of 18 against the Lakers, basically the equivalent of the opponent starting point guard having a Barron Davis or Mike James quality night every night.
The biggest problem with the Lakers last year was they didnâ€™t create turnovers â€” only 12.5% of opponent possessions ended in a turnover last season, dead last in the league. This season that is up to 15.5%, 24th in the league. However, this is a key part of the recent defensive slide â€” in the last 10 games the Lakers have created turnovers on 12.1% of opponent possessions.
Another positive is that guys are rotating now. That was really the big problem with the Lakers defense last year â€” make a couple passes and other teams got a good look. Last year teamâ€™s shot 49.2% (eFG%) against the Lakers, this season that is down to 47.4%.
The bottom line â€” the defense is better than last year but needs to be an area of focus again.
Team Offense â€” B
While the defense has been sliding backwards, the offense has been getting better. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) The team is getting more used to the triangle; 2) Kobe.
Right now the Lakers have an offensive rating of 107.8 (points per 100 opponent possessions), 11th best in the league. That compares pretty well to last season â€” the Lakers finished with an offensive rating of 104.8, seventh best in the league. Look at it this way â€” last season the Lakersâ€™ rating was 1.6 points higher than the league median, this season they are 1 point higher.
The reason for the B grade is the often-discussed need for consistency and balance outside of Kobe Bryant. Part of this is the roster â€” are we really going to expect Smush and Luke Walton to be an offensive force every night? â€” but part of it is just players not yet feeling comfortable in the offense. At the heart of this consistency issue is Lamar Odom, a nightly matchup nightmare for the opponents who takes nights off. Some have tried to lay this at the feet of Kobe, saying he doesnâ€™t get Lamar involved, but watch the games and you see Lamar has his chances, he just seems to pass them up some nights. He is the one Laker who needs to get his shots and score nightly, who needs not to defer to Kobe every trip down. He does that, but only in spurts.
As for the Kobe 81 (and 62 before that), I think Phil put it well in the LA Times today, there can’t be a steady diet of that and the responsibilty to ensure balance belongs to everyone.
“The onus is on Kobe to stay inside the team offense,” Jackson (said). “The onus is on the players to pick it up a little bit better. The onus is on me to provide players out there that can help [win]. The onus is on the general manager to provide players that are a good enough talent. There’s onus on everybody.”
One quick note about the lineups â€”the standard starting five (Smush, Kobe, Odom, Brown and Mihm) beats the players it is matched up against 47% of the time. However, remove Kwame and put in Cook and that improves to 63.6%. Put Devean Geroge in the Kwame spot and that five beats its matchup 60% of the time. Put Walton in the Kwame spot and it jumps to 64.2%. Draw your own conclusions.
What keeps the Lakers going is Kobeâ€™s Jack Bauer-like confidence, which sometimes the other players feed off of, but sometimes simply defer to. For the Lakers to make the playoffs, it is the cast around Kobe that must put down roots and grow despite being in his shadow.