Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lakers' Season Start: Whose Head to Place on a Pole

Only a couple games into the season, people nonetheless are drawing conclusion, and obviously there are some scary and strange conclusions out there. Take a random sample of two to three consecutive games during a season, and you can find some really strange statistics like Andre Miller leading the league in points, Jordan in blocks, Manute Bol the three-point sniper, or Jamaal Tinsley the shotblocking king. Last season, people were excited to see DeMar DeRozan's development as an outside shooter, but by the end of the season he had slumped to 26% from the three-point line. Are we really going to live in a world where Brandon Jennings is the assist leader, Durant in rebounds, Hawes in blocks, and Chandler at 100% from the field? Of course not.

The Lakers are being trashed right now for not winning anything, even a preseason game, while the hiccups are becoming serious from a Nash injury to Bryant's dead foot. With a new offense and an expectation of greatness from the mere presence of the Canadian overlord, the fact that they aren't scoring 140 points a game has Lakers fans readying with pitchforks to storm the castle. My prediction of the Lakers' success this year looks dumber by the minute, and I should have included more of a penalty for team fit and coherence along with Dwight's injury. But in actuality, looking at the stupidly small three game sample, their offense has been fine; it's their defense.


Los Angeles Lakers
League average 2013
League average 2011
Offensive efficiency
104.4
102.3
107.3
Defensive efficiency
114.4
102.3
107.3
Pace
93.2
94.0
92.1
TS%
56.8
52.0
54.1
Effective field-goal %
53.9
48.0
49.8
FT/FTA
0.267
0.214
0.229
FT %
63.7
74.5
76.3
Turnover %
18.7
14.5
13.4
Offensive rebound %
31.9
26.5
26.4

I included the data from the 2011 season because lockouts typically have reduced, messier offenses. The Lakers' offense is ranked 11th (according to basketball-reference), but looking closer the problem is turnovers. Their shooting percentages are stellar, and although their free-throw percentage is low (because of Dwight Howard) they're getting to the line a lot (also because of Dwight Howard), and shooting 63.7% is still better than an average possession shooting from the field. They're also offensively rebounding very well (again, Dwight Howard), pulling their numbers further up. The turnovers, however, are stunting the offense, which should be near the top four or three in the league. With Nash at the helm and Bryant still a major force, someone who can take a large number of shots without losing the ball, this shouldn't happen. An easy explanation is that they're trying to incorporate new players onto the team and they're using a new offensive system, and that's reasonable enough. Strangely though, the Heat's defense is rated as the worst, an indication we shouldn't put faith into early season numbers, but we can analyze how the Lakers are losing.

The defense is a complete wreck. They're second from last in the league giving up an effective field-goal percentage of 52.0 while never forcing turnovers (second from the bottom in that respect too). They're also letting the opponent get to the line at a high rate. In summary, their defense is failing in multiple respects, and it's hard to blame that on their schedule: Dallas was without Nowitzki, Portland's relying on rookies, and the Clippers are the only formidable team.

So who's to blame? Mike Brown is the obvious scapegoat for fans, but in terms of players Kobe Bryant's name is coming up too often.



Steve Nash
Kobe Bryant
Pau Gasol
Dwight Howard
Points/36 mins
6.5
28.8
14.8
21.3
Assists/36 mins
5.8
1.2
3.3
2.9
Rebound %
7.3
6.8
18.5
17.8
Turnover %
20.0
18.9
9.7
15.9
TS%
37.5
71.3
48.8
61.4
PER
7.4
26.1
19.6
24.5
Win Shares/48 mins
-0.056
0.160
0.121
0.162
+/-
-3
+1
+1
-18


No one saw this coming, but as much as people want Pau Gasol executed for his shooting percentages he's leading the foursome in turnover % by a landslide, and he's even outrebounding Howard. Dwight's basic stats seem alright until you get to his plus/min: -18 in three games, and considering their bench this is impressive. Nash has been complete trash and he'll be out a few games, where he's not even hitting his jumpers, but at least the Lakers played decently when he was on the court. Kobe Bryant, however, has a sterling record: an amazing 71.3 TS% and a plus/minus of +1, which on an 0-3 team is not easy to tally when you play big minutes. His turnovers, however, are historically high, and it would be silly to assume both he and Nash will continue to turn the ball over like they have been. Even if just those two control the turnovers, and Nash shoots near his career averages, the offense should be spectacular. Controlling turnovers will also help the defense by limiting opponent's transition plays.

Some people will try to blame Kobe's defense since he's been playing hurt, and it's hard to find evidence to support or deny the conclusion, especially so early in the season. Trying to go deeper into the numbers, when Kobe Bryant is off the court the opponents average 130 points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency), which compared to the Lakers' average of 114 and the league is an absurdly high number. During one stretch the Blazers killed the Lakers on the offensive boards, which isn't Kobe Bryant's job to prevent, but even when that's excluded from the numbers it's 120 points per 100 possessions. I will stress that one should not hold these plus/minus numbers with any confidence because it's only been three games, but the evidence available suggests Kobe isn't the problem on offense.

There's another player pushing through an injury: Dwight Howard, who's replacing Andrew Bynum, not exactly a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Healing from his back injury, his recoveries are slow and opposing guards are zipping to the basket unimpeded. Last year the Lakers were middle of the pack in defense with the Magic barely ahead, but the Howard drama zapped both the team and the center of the effort necessary to dominate; the season before the Magic were ranked third despite really only possessing one good defensive player: Dwight. Given that the Lakers are decent without Howard, if Defensive Player of the Year Howard shows up at a game and the Lakers control their turnovers, this team should easily be one of the best in the league. He's only 26 and should regain his mojo eventually, but we don't know when that will be, and Los Angeles will have to wait patiently.

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