Just how much better?

Kurt —  October 3, 2006

The opening of NBA training camps is, well, pretty cold and professional, especially when compared to the youthful exuberance of “midnight madness” for college teams. But, just like the Dodgers at Vero Beach in the spring, optimism abounds — Laker fans just feel their team is going to be better this season. Logical reasons can be found, but the first day of camp is not a time of logic, it’s a time unbridled optimism. Even in Atlanta.

However, Laker fans can fall back on recent history to feel a little more secure in those feelings — look at Phil Jackson’s track record and it’s a safe bet that 06-07 Lakers will be better than the version on the court last season.

We can all agree, the Lakers made no dramatic moves in the off-season. Yes, there is the signing of a new starter in Vladimir Radmanovic, added depth with Maurice Evans (plus maybe Shammond Williams) and drafted point guard Jordan Farmar, who showed promise at the Summer Pro League. But the Laker roster was not shaken up top to bottom, no huge trades were made.

Rather, the Lakers are counting on a second year in the triangle offense, a second year of Phil Jackson’s tutelage to bring improvement from within. But just how realistic is that? How much do teams improve in Jackson’s second year?

I looked back at Phil Jackson’s other two coaching stints — the run in Chicago and the first tenure in Los Angeles — and compared how his first year teams did compared to the second year.

Bottom line: We can be sure the offense will get better, and maybe the defense as well.

The bottom line for last season’s Laker offense was that it was surprisingly similar to the first time Jackson took over the Lakers. In 98-99 season (under the coaching of Del Harris, Kurt Rambis and Bill Bertka for one game) the Lakers had an offensive rating of 107.5 (points per 100 possessions), second best in the NBA. The first season in the triangle the Lakers won the NBA title but the offense earned a rating of 107.2, almost identical to the season before.

However, the next season, after a season to figure out the triangle, the Laker offense jumped up to a rating of 109 (second in the league). That second year pattern was also true when Jackson headed the Bulls — his first season the rating was 112.5, but the second season it was a league-leading 114.9.

Last season the Lakers offensive rating was 108.6 (eighth best in the league), almost the same as the 108.2 in the Rudy T./Hamblin disaster year. But this year, with key players such as Odom and Kwame Brown having seemed to grown into the system, plus the sharp shooting Radmanovic and the depth provided by Evans, an improvement seems likely. A rating in the top five in the league is within reach.

What may ultimately determine the Lakers fate is how much the defense improves.

Last season the Lakers made big defensive improvements — in the 04-05 season the Lakers had the worst defense in the league, with a defensive rating of 111.3 (points per 100 opponent possessions). Last season that improved to 105.5, 15th in the league, based in part on the fact that the Lakers started creating turnovers (thank you Smush).

That’s pretty similar to the impact Jackson had his first time around —he got a peak-form Shaq to play aggressively in the middle, surrounded by role guys who new how to play team defense, and that propelled those Lakers to a championship. The 98-99 Lakers had a defensive rating of 104.4, 24th in the league. The first year under Jackson, the rating was 98.9.

The next year, that Laker team took a step backward defensively for much of the season. They finished, with a rating of 105.6 (21st in the league). But that is a bit misleading — the last month of the season that team flipped the switch and again became the best defensive team in the league, then steamrolled through the playoffs with just one loss on the way to another title.

Back in Chicago, Jackson’s team got even better defensively his second season, improving from mediocre defensive rating of 108.8 to 105 (6th in the NBA). They won an NBA title.

I have concerns that this year’s Lakers could be more like their former Laker counterparts than the second Bulls season under Jackson, I’m concerned we’re still to slow on the perimeter. But if another year in the same defensive system, the return of Jim Clemons as an assistant coach (with a good defensive reputation), maturity and a little luck can help this Laker team follow in the footsteps of Jackson’s second year Bulls squad, then watch out. That optimism will be well deserved.