The Lakers are 18-10, one game back of the vaunted Phoenix Suns (who the Lakers just handled nicely, thank you very much). Andrew Bynum is having a breakout year, Derek Fisher (with Jordan Farmar behind him) have been a huge upgrade at point guard and Kobe is being Kobe.
Yet, last year the Lakers were 26-13 at one point, looked like a team on the rise, then a couple of injuries sent them spiraling downward. They finished with 42 wins, barely made the playoffs and were first-round fodder for the Suns. What makes this year any different?
While we can talk about Bynum and other changes in the Lakers offense, they are playing no better on offense than last year compared to the rest of the league. And while offense can be streaky, defense never takes a night off.
Last year the Lakers had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions used) of 110, which was seventh in the league. This year, that has jumped to 111.3 (so far), but that is still 7th in the NBA. Shooting the Lakers are almost identical to last year, shooting 51.1% (eFG%) last year and 51.2% this year, The only real difference this year is the Lakers are getting to the free throw line a little more.
But on defense, the Lakers are nearly 5 points per 100 possessions better. Last year the Lakers gave up 110.5 points per 100 possessions (24th in the NBA) and this year it is 105.9 (9th). Last year opposing teams shot 50%, this season it is down to 47.7%. The Lakers are also doing a little better on the defensive boards and fouling less.
There are a few factors at work here. Derek Fisher is not a great defender, but opposing point guards have a PER against him of 16.2 (slightly above average) compared to the 18 that Smush Parker allowed last year. (Think of it this way, 16.2 is about the equivalent of Devin Harris, 18 is about a Deron Williams of this season. Which do you want to face?) Throw in the good defense of Jordan Farmar off the bench and opposing PGâ€™s have a PER against the Lakers of 15.2 this season (right at the league average) where last year it was a noticeably higher 17.
Another factor is the Lakers interior defense has improved. The energy of Ronny Turiaf, the maturity and improving defense of Andrew Bynum and the post defense of Kwame Brown (when healthy) have given the Lakers a boost in the defensive paint.
First and foremost that has forced other teams to shoot more from the outside â€” last season 37% of teams shots against the Lakers were close to the basket, this season that is down to 33%. That means more jump shots (which, obviously, are a lower percentage than stuff right around the hoop) but teams also are shooting a lower percentage on their jumpers â€” 44.8% last year down to 42.4% this year.
Finally, credit needs to go to the coaching staff, which clearly refocused on defense. The Lakers rotations are quicker, the team is playing the pick-and-roll better and there just seems to be more of a focus on the defensive end of the floor.
Things may even get better. The Lakers perimeter defense is improving with the arrival and increasing minutes of Trevor Ariza. Getting Kwame Brown back will give the Lakers another body inside.
The Lakers may or may not win 50 games, and the playoffs are a long way off. But when a team plays defense like this, you can start to dream a little.