The Los Angeles Lakers are 9-12 through the season’s first quarter of the season, and they’ve lost four of their last five. They’re still missing Steve Nash and Pau Gasol – though both may be back in the lineup this week – but the Lakers are going to be heading east for a four-game stretch on the road this week, and they’re 2-6 so far on the road this season. So what’s happening to the darlings of the offseason, a team that was supposed to supplant both the Spurs and the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy? Why are they marred in mediocrity? It’s actually not that simple, while at the same time it’s pretty clear: they need to get healthy, protect the ball better, and start giving a crap about defense again.
Currently on the season, the Lakers are ranked in the top 10 for both defensive rating and offensive rating, according to Hoopdata. They’re only giving up 99.4 points per 100 possessions, good for eighth in the league; although, NBA.com has them ranked right in the middle, at 15th in the league for defensive rating. They’re also scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that’s fifth in the NBA. So how in the Hell are they stuck below .500 on the season after last night’s 117-110 loss to the visiting Utah Jazz?
Well there are a couple factors at work. One of them is turnovers. Currently, they’re next to last in turning the ball over (per NBA.com), but the Oklahoma City Thunder are giving the ball up more than the Steve Nash-less Lakers. The Lakers aren’t forcing many turnovers either, but again, neither are the Thunder. OKC is in the bottom third of the league, forcing just 13.3 turnovers per game, good for 23rd in the league, and they’re second-to-last in the league for turnover differential. The Lakers aren’t far behind, forcing just 13.13 turnovers per 100 possessions and sitting at 27th in the league in turnover differential. So turnovers can’t be the only reason, since OKC is surviving them, but it’s still not a good sign they’re coughing the ball up so much.
How about free throws? They’re tops in the league in free throw attempts at 40 a game, and they’re fifth in the league in free throw attempts given up, with their opponents only averaging 24.5 a game. That translates into the best free throw differential in the league. So they’re in the top 10 for offense rating, in the top half of the league for defense rating, and they’re tops in the league in free throw differential. Huh? Even though they’re one of the worst teams in the league forcing turnovers and they give the ball up a ton, they still turn the ball over less than Oklahoma City. But the Thunder are at 17-4 and the Lakers are 9-12? How does any of this make sense?
It might go back to Dwight Howard and those awful looking free throw attempts. The Lakers are currently dead last in free throw percentage as a team, per NBA.com. They’re first in the league in attempts and second in makes, but they’re shooting at such a low percentage, 66.5 on the year, it doesn’t even matter. That’s primarily on Dwight, who has regressed at the free throw line for the third straight year and is currently hitting just 47 percent from the charity stripe. Maybe it’s the pressure of playing in a large media center like Los Angeles, or Kobe‘s snarky quips to the press, but Howard was so bad at the line earlier this month the Hack-a-Dwight strategy actually paid off for some teams, like Houston’s come-from-behind victory on December 4. But Dwight’s struggles at the line can’t be the only thing wrong with this Lakers team.
They’re also pretty lethargic at getting back on defense, and even though they’re okay on defense for the season, they’re giving up enough points in December to be ranked in the bottom five for defensive rating since December 1 (per NBA.com). They’ve regressed on defense right when they need to get better because Gasol and Nash are out. Mike D’Antoni might place less of an emphasis on defense than Mike Brown did, but if they Lakers want to right the ship, they’ve got to shore up their porous team defense, especially when they turn the ball over and give up easy buckets in transition. Since they don’t force many turnovers themselves, they’re giving opponents more easy looks, and that’s gonna translate into losses no matter how man All-Star appearances your lineup has between them. What’s really scary for Lakers fans is even as they’ve struggled this season, their best player has been playing out of his mind.
The craziest thing about the off-kilter start to the season for the Lakers has been the unbelievable play of Kobe Bryant. He’s leading the league in scoring again, like he did for most of last year before Kevin Durant overtook him in the season’s final month, but he’s been a lot more efficient while doing so. He’s shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from beyond the arc on the season. Those percentages are the highest of his Hall of Fame career. So what the Hell, Los Angeles, Kobe’s holding up his end of the stick. Just think if Kobe had struggled to start the season like most of his teammates? They could be in even more of a hole than they are now. But there are simple explanations for some of their struggles.
Basically, a lot of the Lakers’ issues turning the ball over and not getting back on defense can be tied to all the changes this offseason and the quick coaching change to start the season. New coach Mike D’Antoni is still figuring out what works with his new personnel, and after the Lakers tried the Princeton offense to start the season, now they’re playing the up-tempo D’Antoni style he favored in Phoenix. Except, they’re playing with Chris Duhon at point rather than Steve Nash, and all of the players – not to mention plays – are in a state of flux. They’re basically playing without a training camp like last season, so growing pains are to be expected.
But if the playoffs started today, the Lakers and their $100 million payroll wouldn’t make the cut. Through the season’s first quarter, they’re 11th in the Western Conference after last night’s loss at home. Maybe their trip to the East will help them bond, and maybe Nash and Gasol come back during their road trip to help right the ship. But right now, today, Lakers fans have to be worried. Their wheelings and dealings this offseason, not to mention their coaching change after just four games, don’t seem to be working. While it’s not quite time to panic, obnoxious Laker fans shouldn’t exactly be boasting right now. They’re a messed-up bunch, with only three quarters of the season left to figure it out. God only knows what will happen if this trend continues.
What’s really wrong with the Lakers?
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