There hasn’t been much news on the Lakers front since the team hasn’t played since their Thursday loss to Boston, but we did learn over the weekend that Kobe is (hopefully) on his way back into the Lakers lineup for their Tuesday matchup in Memphis, where the Lakers lost earlier this month. He was able to go through their Saturday practice and said that he’d have to see how it felt on Sunday. The Lakers did not practice on Sunday, but Bryant did go through some personal drills and testing – no word yet on how that went.
We also learned that Sasha Vujacic had a Grade-1 shoulder sprain and will end up missing a couple of weeks nursing that injury. From Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog:
“It’s pretty painful,” said Vujacic, who is receiving ultrasound and laser treatment but has declined to wear a sling. “It’s frustrating.”
That feeling has permeated throughout most of the season with Vujacic playing a mostly limited role. But his minutes had picked up ever since Bryant’s absence, and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson credited his defense in last week’s game against Utah and in Thursday’s game against Boston. There was also a clear increase in production in the last five games during Bryant’s absence compared to his season average, including points (2.5, 4.4), rebounds (1.1, 2.0) and assists (.6, 1.8). Obviously, Bryant’s injury is the most consequential, but Vujacic’s absence definitely strikes a blow to the Lakers’ rotation.
Because of the Lakers’ success without Kobe, a lot of people have began to wonder if the Lakers are a better team without Number 24 on the floor, a ridiculous thing to wonder to say the least. Joseph Treutlein of hoopdata.com wrote an article for the New York Times analyzing the Lakers’ offensive and defensive ratings with and without Kobe and came to the ultimate conclusion that, ultimately needless to say, the Lakers are not a better team without Bryant.
On the surface, it appears the offense must be performing better sans Kobe. But looking deeper into the numbers, the surprising truth is that, despite the Lakers’ dominance over those five games, they’ve actually been performing noticeably worse than normal. Indeed, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency, on average, during the past five games has been 102.8 — 3.8 lower than their season average. While these numbers don’t definitively prove anything, they likewise don’t provide any evidence that the offense performed better without Bryant; the opposite has been the case.
So how do we explain the Lakers’ excellent play these past five games? Surprisingly, it’s on the defensive end where they’ve stepped up their game, playing far above their standard. For the season, the Lakers rank second in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.6 points per 100 possessions, but in the past five games they’ve allowed an average of just 91.5 points per 100 possessions.
…So what exactly have we learned here? Mainly, that anything can happen in a five-game stretch, so we shouldn’t read too much into it; and that nothing that’s happened in the past five games suggests the Lakers are better without Kobe Bryant anyway.
Brian Kamenetzky over at Land O’ Lakers took a look at Treutlein’s article, and was able to break down the numbers a little further and provide some insight as to why there were the slight changes in efficiency in Kobe’s absence.
Treutlein correctly notes five games isn’t a large enough sample size to draw sweeping conclusions, but the numbers seem to confirm what the eye saw. The Lakers were outstanding offensively in Portland, the first with Kobe on the sidelines, posting 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Against San Antonio the Lakers were again strong, at 107.4.
From there, things got increasingly less efficient: 101.3 against Utah, dropping to 98.1 against an absolutely wretched Golden State defense, and 93.5 against Boston, the stingiest team in basketball.
In a pair of those games (at Portland, vs. San Antonio), the Lakers were more efficient than earlier matchups against the same opponent earlier in the year with Kobe available. One was basically a wash (at Utah), and in two they were less efficient (vs. Golden State, vs. Boston). Don’t look for any “smoking guns” in relation to Kobe’s performance, either. In L.A.’s first visit to Portland, Kobe was a high volume, low percentage shooter (14 for 37), In San Antonio on Jan. 12, he was a tidy seven for 10.
What people around the league should be saying about the Lakers is that the team has a much deeper talent pool than what we may have thought before Kobe sitting out as Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated has said.
Finally, Land O’ Lakers have broken down every trade and analyzed it, telling us how it affects the Lakers. Here’s a tidbit on how Kevin Martin to Houston could potentially affect the Lakers, as this is one of only two trades of consequence for a team the Lakers could potentially see in the postseason before the Finals:
As for the Rockets, Martin could pay serious dividends. Houston values efficiency, but could use a little more ‘zazz. Martin supplies both with his low volume high scoring. Dude fills it from inside, outside, at the line, playing off ball, running back cuts, etc. And he already has a feel for Rick from their Sacto days. It remains to be seen how he and Aaron Brooks–a much better scorer than pure point– mesh, but in theory, I like this deal a lot. Landry is a bigger loss than people may realize, but if you can get Martin, the still-developing Hill, and picks for Landry and the burden of one season paying Jeffries (a decent defender), that’s a good return.
The most underrated part of this trade? Martin’s presence means fewer responsibilities for Trevor Ariza, which could be a fantastic case of less being more. Right now, Ariza’s operating well beyond his capabilities and often flailing in horribly inefficient fashion. If/when Yao Ming returns healthy, that’s even less on TA’s plate, which ultimately makes him a better and more dangerous player.