Lakers Transform from Pseudo-Contender into a Different Kind of Pseudo-Contender

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterApril 17, 2012

The Lakers have predictably lived in a state of turmoil this season. Mike Brown's effectiveness and job security have been debated at every turn. Kobe Bryant has been both propped up and criticized consistently. Pau Gasol began his season as a seven-foot lightning rod, but he's since reverted to typically impressive form. Andrew Bynum has elevated his game, but in the process he's managed to turn himself and his team into a punchline by way of his inexplicable delusions of three-point shooting grandeur.

There's a story of triumph and failure seemingly behind every game, because the flames of the Lakers are stoked like few on this planet.

Yet while all of the shiny, surface-level churning drew the attention of the masses, the Lakers subtly reworked their entire disposition over the course of the season. A team that began the year as a shallow, defensive-minded club on the contending fringe has transformed into a slightly less shallow, offensive-powered team that's, well, still on the contending fringe.

Here's a look at how the Lakers' offensive and defensive performance has changed over the course of the season, which is broken down here into 10-game chunks for statistical stability's sake:

For the uninitiated, ORtg is a measure of how many points a team scores per 100 possessions, while DRtg is a measure of how many points a team allows per 100 possessions.

Data used for this chart is courtesy of NBA.com.

Or, to crystallize the change in a different way: After spending the initial stages of the season saving games with defense as the offense failed to gel, L.A. has posted the third-best offensive marks and the fifth-worst defensive marks in the NBA over the last 10 games.

The dynamic has completely shifted, as the Lakers now force their opponents into far fewer turnovers and surrender a much higher effective field-goal percentage while grabbing more offensive rebounds and surrendering fewer turnovers of their own.

It's not a change that's easily attributable to Brown, Bryant, Gasol or Bynum, although there's certainly an argument to be made for the profound offensive impact of Ramon Sessions. The Laker offense has picked up in most dramatic fashion in the last 20 games or so, which falls almost perfectly in line with Sessions' 18-game stint in L.A. thus far. That same notion bears out in Sessions' on/off data as well; according to NBA.com, the Lakers are 11 points per 100 possessions better with Sessions on the floor on offense alone, and they've actually posted slightly superior defensive numbers as well.

He may not be an elite playmaker, but relative to how little the Lakers were getting out of Derek Fisher and Steve Blake to start the season, Sessions may as well be.

Still, the defensive drop-off has been persistent, considerable and without easily traceable explanation. Depending on your perspective, that could be either reassuring or particularly troublesome; there's no reason these Lakers can't be better defensively than they currently are, and yet, well, there's no reason these Lakers can't be better defensively than they currently are.

The general trends in the data and the context with the team make this seem like an issue of motivation and execution, and although there's a caveat in that L.A. can be better, should that discrepancy between possibility and performance really be the source of any optimism?

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