The only thing consistent about the Lakers so far this season has been their inconsistency. So, in honor of that, this mid-season team evaluation will alternate views between the good and the bad.
Good: The Lakers record. For all the frustration Laker fans have felt since November, the bottom line is that halfway through the season the Lakers are four games above .500, are on pace for 45 wins, and if the playoffs started today would be the seven seed. Honestly, thatâ€™s about what most of us expected from them this season. While itâ€™s frustrating because we see flashes that let us know they are capable of more, theyâ€™ve still been above average. (I think years of being fans of and closely watching a dominant team make this year feel worse than it is.)
Bad: The upcoming schedule. According to Stats Pimp, so far this season the Lakers have had the fifth easiest schedule in the NBA. That changes in February and March â€” just look at it. The Lakers are going to have to play up to those promising flashes we have seen to maintain their playoff spot (right now they are percentage points ahead of Memphis, the nine seed).
As a side note, currently, the Lakers are 2.5 games better than the “Pythagorean Projection” for them this season, something that may catch up to them.
Good: Kobe Bryant. Iâ€™ve said it before: My biggest concern coming into this season is that the new-look Lakers would resemble the 76ers of the past couple seasons, with Kobe playing the role of a taller Alan Iverson. But it hasnâ€™t been that way. Kobeâ€™s shared the ball, and while the offense hasnâ€™t flowed smoothly at times, Kobe is largely doing his part.
Donâ€™t worry, Kobeâ€™s getting his â€” heâ€™s got a PER of 22.35 (13th best in the league), heâ€™s second in the league in points produced per game, and heâ€™s scoring 27.5 per game, second best in the league. (Put everyone on the same playing level by adjusting their scoring to points per 40 minutes played, and Kobe is fourth in the league at 26.1.) But more importantly, he has shared the ball, averaging 6.6 assists per game. As much as an assist from Steve Nash matters to his team, an assist from a scoring threat like Kobe matters even more. Let me steal the words of Dean Oliver from a recent message board post:
Guys who get double-teamed for their scoring — if they have good assist totals, it is hugeâ€¦ My work shows it. It’s theoretically sensible. Typically these are big men, but it can be other guys. MJ was a good example of a non-post player who had to be double-teamed. Kobe gets good value for his assists. There are others but not a lot.
Kobe has taken his share of bad shots this year (and Caronâ€™s share, and Lukeâ€™s share, andâ€¦.), plus it has taken a while for him to really start to trust his teammates in key situations. But the bottom line is you can see him evolving into a leader on the court and making the team his own through more than just launching up 35 shots a game. If that evolution continues, it bodes well for the future.
Bad: Turnovers. The Lakers defense creates fewer turnovers than any defense in the NBA, averaging just 12.3 per game. At the heart of the Lakers defensive problems is this passive play.
With the Lakers losing the turnover battle nightly â€” by an average of 3.1 â€” Laker opponents are averaging 7 more shots per game than the Lakers. That a nightly hole to dig out of that has held the Lakers back as much or more than anything this season. (The team’s recent struggles giving up offensive rebounds has exacerbated this problem.)
Good: The Laker offense. Once again, for all my frustration with it, the Laker offense is effective.
The Lakers have the eighth most efficient offense in the NBA right now, averaging 104.8 points per 100 possessions. They are ninth in the NBA with a team eFG% of 48.7% (above the league median of 47.9%). They get to the free throw line 26.5 times per game, eighth highest total in the league.
Thatâ€™s not to say things are all peaches and crÃ¨me on offense â€” the Lakers rely too much on isolation plays and three pointers. For example Kobe has had to generate his own shot 70% of the time this season, getting an assist on just 30% of his attempts. Thatâ€™s near the bottom of the league (25% is the lowest, thank you Stephon Marbury). And itâ€™s pretty typical of the entire Laker offense â€” the Lakers are 20th in the league in percentage of shots coming from an assist. Except for a brief flirtation with the triangle (which apparently went the way of the Dodo when Kobe went down), the Lakers have primarily been a team who lives for isolation plays (Kobe, Lamar, Atkins, Butler on occasion) where that player drives the lane and then, if itâ€™s not a easy shot, kicks out for a three (Atkins, Cook, Jones). Iâ€™ve written at length about how this style of offense should not be a surprise â€” itâ€™s pretty much what all Rudy T. coached teams have done.
I think we all had dreams this would be a running, athletic team more reminiscent of the â€œShowtimeâ€ era. So far this season, the Lakers are averaging 91.9 possessions per game, which is flat with the 92 they averaged last season. The run-and-gun is over in Phoenix.
The bottom line is, however, the Lakers score enough points to win most nights.
Bad: The Lakersâ€™ defense. It doesnâ€™t really matter how much you score if you canâ€™t stop the other team, and the Lakers rank 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 104.0 points per game.
A key part of the problem is the turnover discussion above. Teams have an eFG% against the Lakers of 47.3%, which is actually lower than the league average, itâ€™s just that their opponents are getting more shots.
The Laker defense is leaky everywhere but shooting guard, where Kobe has held down the fort (what theyâ€™ve missed most with him out is his defense). The Lakers opponents PER by position (remember, the league average is 15) are: point guard, 17; small forward 18.3; power forward 17.2; center 16. Four out of the five positions on the floor, the Laker defense has been worse than average â€” which is a kind way of putting it.
Good: Chris Mihm and Jumaine Jones. At the start of the season, I thought Chris Mihm would play 20 minutes a game tops, spelling Vlade Divac. Jumaine Jones was a guy I pictured losing the fight for playing time at the overcrowded three spot. Boy am I glad Iâ€™m wrong.
Mihm has the second highest PER on the team at 17.36 and on the season he is shooting 51.3%. Heâ€™s also been the best offensive rebounder the Lakers have, grabbing 10.8% of the missed Laker shots when he is on the floor. He has been a solid defender and by far the teamâ€™s best shot blocker, plus he can get out and run the floor. While he could use a couple more post moves, and at times it appears he has the Roberto Duran â€œmanos de piedra,â€ he has become a decent offensive threat. (Heâ€™s been slowed the past few games with a calf injury and shin splints. Iâ€™d say rest him for a few games if we had a capable back up, butâ€¦.)
Jones leads the Lakers in Roland Rating â€” when he is on the floor the Lakers are a much better team than when he is off it. He is second on the team in points per shot attempt at 1.21 and his eFG% is a team high 58.2% â€” he is a serious three point threat. Jones also has taken advantage of being put in the starting lineup with Kobe down.
Bad: Point Guard. While both Chucky Atkins and Tierre Brown show flashes â€” Atkins particularly in a couple of games after Kobeâ€™s injury â€” the point guard position has been the weakest link for the Lakers this season when you look at both ends of the floor.
Defensively, Atkins gets beat off the dribble regularly â€” part of the reason Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm have had foul trouble this season is sliding over to pick up a point who has blown by Atkins. Brown is no better. Opponents point guards are shooting an average of 46.5% (eFG%), with 10.1 assists and just 2.6 turnovers.
Offensively, neither Atkins nor Brown are the kind of playmaker points that can run the Laker offense. Atkins is a classic modern point guard who looks to shoot first, pass second. Brown looks to pass first but is reckless, turning the ball over plenty. Both Kobe and Lamar have said this season they would like to create fewer of their own shots and get some spot-up opportunities coming off weak-side screens, but right now the Lakers donâ€™t have a point who can get them the ball in those positions. Atkins would make a fine backup, but doesnâ€™t work getting 36.5 minutes per game.
Good: Rudy Tomjanovich. Rudy T. has been positive minded and open to player suggestions, a welcome change from the rigid system and mind games of Phil Jackson. He isnâ€™t using the media to motivate his charges. As best one can tell from the outside, the players seem to like him. The brief use of the triangle came after he asked the players for suggestions.
This was not supposed to be a season where the Lakers won it all, it was the first with a new cast and a reasonable goal was to make the playoffs, improve as the season went on and start to see what pieces fit together. Those goals are being met, for the most part.
Bad: Rudy Tomjanovich. John Nash couldnâ€™t figure out his player rotations so far this season. For example, against teams that were killing the Lakers inside, Chris Mihm sat the fourth quarter. If I tried to list all his odd decisions, Iâ€™d overwhelm the Blogger system with the longest post of all time (and this is already plenty long). It all seems to stem from playing guys that fit his core offensive philosophy â€” has a love of guys who shoot the three or penetrate (Brian Cook and Tierre Brown being the best examples) and sticks with them despite them going cold or being a defensive liability.
There are other problems that can be laid at Rudy T.â€™s feet. The biggest is that the Lakers (prior to Kobeâ€™s injury) had not found a way to get Lamar Odom consistently involved in the offense. With the Lakers penchant for the isolation and kick out, so many plays seemed to put the ball in Kobeâ€™s hands and clearing out space for him, while Lamar stood around with his hands in his pockets. Get Lamar the ball and the situation was reversed. No good balance was ever found for more than a game at a time.
As I said before I think itâ€™s too early to draw major conclusions on Rudy T., but Iâ€™m not sure heâ€™s a good long-term fit.