We’re 30 games into the season, in the midst of a lengthy break in between games, and approaching a new year – feels like a good time to take a long look at where the team sits, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how it compares to its chief competitors. In that spirit, and to try and encourage objectivity, I’m going to throw out buckets of statistics to try and spark informed discussion of the team’s current state.
• Looking at big picture stats, the Lakers appear weakness free. They score, defend, and rebound at top 5 rates, and their turnovers are respectable.
• They have made significant inroads in catching up to the best defensive teams compared with where they were at last year (now only 4.3 behind the league leader/Boston, compared with 6.6 last year). However, as we’ve all seen, the defense has been inconsistent, with an impressive start and last few games, but a scary stretch in between. Hopefully, increasing confidence in and execution of Rambis’ strong side zone will lead to results closer to what Boston and Cleveland are doing.
• Offensively, they probably are not going to get much better, as they are just off the league leading pace this year (Portland) and last year (Utah).
• They are a strong rebounding team, on both ends of the court, another area where they have caught up to the elite teams compared with last year. As we all hoped, Bynum’s presence alone seems to have solved that problem (which was gaping during the playoffs).
• Their point differential is almost at double digits, and about where the league leader sits each year. Last year they relied on offensive dominance to overwhelm other teams; this year they combine this offense with much improved defense and rebounding, leading to more stable, consistent success.
• Comparing LA to the other two elite teams, Boston and Cleveland, it appears we are right with them, but no one is set apart from the pack. Boston and Cleveland have marginally better point differentials and overall efficiency numbers, but we have the best records vs. playoff and contending opponents.
• It is noteworthy that Cleveland is significantly worse against playoff and contending teams than LA and Boston, perhaps suggesting that their success somewhat comes from beating up on bad teams (and that LA indeed has a boredom problem).
• Records vs. elite teams seems particularly illuminating to me in differentiating between real and pretend contenders. For example, note that Phoenix has 11 losses against playoff teams, is 1-6 against contenders, and is 2-7 against playoff teams on the road (with the wins coming against NJ and Milwaukee). Championship teams bring their A game in “test” games, especially on the road. LA is passing those tests so far.
• As expected, we dominate at SG, PF, and Center. The Bynum/Gasol combination at center puts us at first in the league in net production (PER differential).
• Point guard is a glaring weakness, especially defensively as Fisher and Farmar combine to allow an 18.4 PER. Tellingly, our PGs allow opposing PGs to shoot .500 eFG, the highest of any position against us. It is extremely rare for a team’s PGs to lead in eFG, given that they take so many perimeter shots (on our team, PGs shoot the lowest eFG at .489, with our centers shooting .537).
• Our PFs and Cs are extremely efficient shooting the ball, at .531 and .537 – we really should pound the ball inside at every opportunity. Other teams don’t have an answer for the length and skill of Gasol and Bynum (or Odom).
• Our best lineups feature a few common ingredients: Kobe and Ariza. Odom, Gasol, and Bynum are fairly interchangeable, although Odom appears more often than the others.
• Bynum is featured in all of our best defensive lineups, which we’d expect. This makes it all the more puzzling why Phil has often take Bynum out in offensive-defensive substitutions at the ends of game when transitioning to defense.
• Our team stands out in its depth. While it lacks one uber-dominant offensive or defensive lineup (compared to league leading lineups), it boasts the highest ratio of top 10 or 20 such lineups – there are just endless combinations of effective lineups for Phil to play with. I believe the best is Fisher, Kobe, Ariza, Gasol, Bynum – which should become our closing lineup in the playoffs.
• Odom is the best individual player in point differential per 48 minutes (+15.6), the best on offense (110.6 rating), and the second best on defense (95.0).
• Five other players have a +9.0 or greater point differential rating, revealing incredible depth: Fisher (+12.9), Kobe, (+11.5), Ariza (+10.9), Bynum (+9.9), and Gasol (+9.5).
• The team is 4.6 points better on offense with Gasol on the court than Bynum, and 4.9 better on defense the other way – meaning we get almost identical results, but at opposite ends, when we replace one with the other.
This team feels a lot like the 1999-2000 Shaq-Kobe Lakers, which was the most talented, but least experienced of the three title teams. That team was loaded. They finished 67-15, started Shaq, Kobe, Rice, Harper, and AC Green, with Fox, Fisher, Horry, and Shaw all coming off the bench (at a time when most of them were in their primes). Imagine bringing those four off the bench. They finished first in defensive efficiency and fourth in offensive efficiency. Shaq was unequivocally the best player in the league, averaging 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks. Yet, despite their regular season dominance, they struggled through the playoffs, beating the Kings 3-2, needing the miracle 4th quarter comeback against Portland in game 7, and letting the outgunned Pacers take them to six games in the Finals. On paper, they were unbeatable, yet they hadn’t quite learned how to play as one and execute under pressure – resulting in choppy playoff play. The subsequent title teams were significantly less talented and deep, had worse regular season records, but were much more dominant come playoff time. I think this current Laker team is going to similarly end up with a sparkling regular season record (64-68 wins?), but struggle against less talented teams in the playoffs as their role players learn to deal with pressure and execute seamlessly, especially on defense (Bynum, Ariza, Farmar). We saw some of the same last year, with players like Farmar, Turiaf, and Sasha struggling at key moments — so hopefully some of the growing pains are behind us — but two of our top 5 players are still not battle tested. In the end, I think whether we prevail against teams like the Spurs, Celtics, or Cavs in intense series will come down to mastery of the small things – which Boston embodied so annoyingly last spring. If we can progress through the season and give our key young players the experience they need, then we should be the champions. No other team is as talented, balanced, or deep (unless, of course, team Lebron trades Wally for a few all stars…).