There are a slew of mitigating factors that make a comparison between this year’s Los Angeles Lakers team to last year’s team. In general, the consensus is that the newest edition in Tinseltown is a decisive inferior to its predecessor.
That sentiment may be true in regard to talent and regular season success but there's a question: Could this Laker team—the one that exchanged Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown for Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy—actually fit the blueprint for playoff success more snugly than last year’s second seed in the Western Conference?
The numbers don’t lie, and they paint a compelling case in favor of that argument.
NBA fans are trained to believe that there are a few predictors of postseason success. When the game changes, coaches skew conservative in their game plans and full-court track meets give way to half-court slug-fests.
Time and again, we watch teams, like the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics, venture deep into May because of their readiness to play half-court offense and clamp down defensively, all emblazoned with a physical brand of play.
With a few notable exceptions, it is the teams which play stout defense, clean the defensive glass and win the battle in the paint that experience playoff success.
Though the matchless versatility of Lamar Odom now resides in Dallas, the Lakers, under new coach Mike Brown, are tailored for an extended playoff run because they have demonstrated the ability to do well the things that predict success over the protracted playoff schedule.
So what exactly is there to fear from a team with a superstar ball stopper in his 16th season, two all-star big men and the whitest bench in the NBA?
Coach Brown, a Gregg Popovich disciple, has infused his new team with the defensive prowess that enabled him to reach the finals while coaching the Cavs. So far, the Lakers have jumped to the top in a smattering of metrics that measure defensive impact, such as points allowed (90.4, fourth in the league), opponent field goal percentage (41.7 percent, second) and defensive rebounds (33.5 per game, first).
Last year, the Lakers ranked eighth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in those categories.
Further, the Lakers are taking care of the basketball with more frequency than past years, which helps to offset the nine-point decline in per-game average from last season until now. The Lakers are scoring just 92.5 points per game and rank 26th in three-point shooting, but lead the league in turnover margin, at plus-3.1, which is a substantial improvement over last season’s minus-0.5.
If the Lakers continue to value possession as they have thus far, they will swing the game toward their desired half-court setting and keep opponents from running out in transition, where LA is overmatched.
On the topic of pace, the Lakers are among the league’s elite in keeping opponent possessions at a minimum. Opponents average just 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes, which is third in the NBA (source: hoopdata.com). Last year, the Lakers allowed almost two full possessions more to their opponents, which, when combined with the negative turnover margin, gave other teams too many extra chances to score points.
This year, the Lakers are mitigating the opportunities of opponents to get good looks at the basket. When a shot is taken, the Lakers, with the help of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, eliminate second chances better than any team in the league.
The Lakers’ weaknesses—balanced scoring, three-point shooting, steals (last in NBA) and fast-break points (last)—have transformed what was formerly an offensive juggernaut into a punch-less, static unit that lacks an effective distributor and playmaker. Their offensive shortcomings have been their Achilles heel all season as they’ve stumbled to 16-12.
However, the Los Angeles defense is one of the best in the league, capable of garnering a stop almost at will. This capacity, when combined with a Laker-initiated slowdown, could lead the Lakers to unexpected heights once the postseason arrives.