Worst Misconceptions About the Los Angeles Lakers' Sluggish Start
Unless you've been living under a rock or stuck in a soap opera-style coma of late, you've probably noticed that the Los Angeles Lakers have issues, to say the least. A 113-103 loss on Dec. 2 to the visiting Orlando Magic, from whom the Lakers stripped Dwight Howard, would suggest as much.
The defeat dropped the Lakers record to 8-9 through the first 17 games of the 2012-13 NBA season. This, despite playing more home games (12) than any other team and being gifted one of the easiest schedules in the league by opponent winning percentage (per ESPN).
Of course, it doesn't help that those 12 dates at the Staples Center have yielded only seven wins, or that they've now lost to six teams that don't currently own winning records.
But the problems that currently plague the Lakers (of which there are many) have less to do with locations and opponents and more to do with their own internal discord. You can point the finger of blame in any number of directions—be it at the turbulent coaching situation, the remade roster, muck amongst management or the lack of energy and/or consistency on the defensive end.
Just don't lay the culpability for the Purple and Gold's paucity of success on these five factors.
Not entirely, anyway.
The Lakers Woes Start on Offense
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It feels like eons since folks in L.A. were crowing about Mike Brown and the inefficacy of the Princeton offense. Mike D'Antoni's arrival would usher in a new era of offensive basketball for the Lakers that would hearken back to the halcyon days of Showtime.
Except, that hasn't quite been the case. The Lakers have failed to crack the 100-point mark in four of their six games under D'Antoni, including a 77-point plodder against the Indiana Pacers at home.
Still, it's not exactly fair to pin the Lakers failures on their offensive output. According to Basketball Reference, they rank ninth in unadjusted offensive rating with 107.6 points per 100 possessions and 10th in adjusted offensive rating (which accounts for the strength of the opposing defense) at 107.5 points per 100 possessions.
Nor can the Lakers be fairly blamed for playing too slowly. They're third in the NBA in pace with 94.1 possessions per game, per NBAstuffer.com.
The shooting numbers check out, as well. The Lakers are seventh in field goal shooting (.457) and three-point accuracy (.374), third in points per shot (1.29) and tops in free throw attempts (31.3).
To be sure, there's plenty of fault to be found in L.A.'s performance from the stripe; they're 30th in foul shooting at 66.5 percent, thanks in no small part to Dwight Howard's futility (more on that later). Nor does it help that the Lakers have been so sloppy with ball, turning it over a league-high 16.7 times per game.
On the whole, though, the Lakers have had little trouble scoring.
Pau Gasol Needs New Pants
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At the center of the Lakers' perceived offensive woes are those of Pau Gasol.
The former All-Star has been a font of futility this season, showing both his age (32) and the wear and-tear on his tendinitis-plagued knees at nearly every turn.
His 11 points (on 4-of-11 shooting) and seven rebounds against Orlando were in lock-step with his 2012-13 averages of 12 points on 42 percent shooting with 8.8 rebounds. The former two, along with his attempts from the field (11.8) and from the free-throw line (3.4), represent career nadirs.
His rebounding is at its lowest level since the 2007-08 season, when he first made the trek from Memphis to L.A. And if that weren't bad enough, Gasol's been picked apart defensively, particularly in the pick-and-roll.
All told, Gasol's efforts on the court have been regrettable enough to allow D'Antoni to leave him on the bench during crunch time (even as Howard clanks away at the line) and cause Kobe Bryant to claim that Pau needs to put his "big-boy pants on" and adjust (via Joe McDonnell of FOXSportsWest.com).
As paltry as Pau's play has been, as hesitant as he's been to assert himself at times, the blame isn't entirely his to bear. He's been run ragged since the start of the 2011-12 season, through the 2012 London Olympics and into the present day, weakening his knees and sapping him of any semblance of athleticism.
Along the way, Gasol's been moved hither and yon in his roles, from that of a back-to-the-basket center to that of a power forward who pops out to 20 feet. Where once Pau attempted nearly half of his shots at the rim, he now takes just over a quarter of them in close and 47 percent from long-two range.
And for those who'd prefer the Lakers to trade Pau rather than allow his knees to heal, consider that the Lakers have been far better with him on the court than they have when he's been planted on the bench, according to both 82games.com and NBA.com/stats.
Steve Nash to the Rescue!
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Of course, it's not entirely fair to judge the Lakers based on how they've looked through the first month or so of the season. After all, they've been lending heavy minutes to their third- and fourth-string point guards over the last few weeks, ever since Steve Blake joined Steve Nash in street clothes.
The optimists in L.A., including Mike D'Antoni, have hitched their respective wagons to Nash. As the argument goes, the two-time MVP has played but a game-and-a-half of regular-season ball in a Lakers uniform, and when he did, it was in a marginalized role amidst Mike Brown's ill-conceived Princeton-ish offense.
With his old pal D'Antoni stalking the sidelines at the Staples Center, Nash should be able to rekindle the magic that turned the Phoenix Suns into an offensive juggernaut between 2004 and 2008.
Those points carry some weight, as Nash, at the very least, is a more competent NBA player at the point than Darius Morris or Chris Duhon could ever hope to be, even if you melded the two.
But, by the same token, the Nash of 2012 isn't the same Nash who once served as D'Antoni's coach on the floor. Even a healthy Nash, at the tender age of 38, wouldn't have had the same quickness and foot speed that an early-30s Nash once possessed. A fracture to his fibula—which has proven trickier from which to recover than anyone originally anticipated—doesn't figure to make Nash any more effective in dribbling his way out of traps on one end or keeping up with opposing point guards on the other.
And, as great a shooter and all-around offensive player as Nash is, he can't be expected to clean up their turnover-prone play entirely. For his career, Nash has given the ball away one nearly every five possessions (per Basketball Reference).
Dwight Howard as Brick Layer
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As for L.A.'s other big summer acquisition, Dwight Howard hasn't exactly been a picture of perfection, either.
His on-court effort has come off as inconsistent, presumably because he's still not fully recovered from late-April back surgery. As such, Howard has dominated at times, though his rebounding numbers (11.2 overall, 7.6 defensive, both his lowest since his rookie season) point to a player whose body and mind reveal something other than complete comfort or fitness.
The most blatant boondoggle of all for Dwight, though, has been his free-throw shooting. He's shooting a career-worst 46.5 percent from the line—a dip made all the more apparent by his league-most 11 attempts per game and the frequency with which opposing coaches have instructed their players to play Hack-a-Dwight.
Presumably, then, if Howard hit more of his free throws, the Lakers would've won a few more games than they have to this point.
But is it really fair to pin L.A.'s lame performance thus far on Dwight's inability to connect from 16 feet? Suppose Howard were an average free-throw shooter, which, according to Hoopdata, would have him converting freebies at a 75.7 percent clip.
Which, mind you, is a generous supposition for a guy who's hit just 58.4 percent of his foul shots as a pro.
At that rate, only one of the Lakers losses—a 79-77 stinker to the Pacers, in which Dwight missed nine of his 12 attempts—would've definitely turned out differently. An average pace might've sent the Lakers to overtime against the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs, but only if we round up the numbers (and rather charitably, at that).
Better free-throw shooting would likely dissuade teams from fouling Howard intentionally, but it wouldn't make it any easier for the Lakers to hunker down on defense, which has been their biggest concern and certainly was during the 40-point fourth quarter they yielded to the middling Magic on Sunday night.
Kobe Bryant as Savior
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So, while Gasol buys new trousers, Nash allows his shin to shape up and Dwight learns how to flick his wrist properly, it's up to Kobe Bryant to carry the team, right?
I mean, the guy's having a phenomenal season so far. Through 17 games, Kobe is leading the league in scoring at 27.3 points per game while posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.493), three-point percentage (.395) and free-throw percentage (.828).
Oh, and he's chipping in 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists for good measure.
Oh, and he's 34, with 16-plus seasons of NBA mileage on his worn-out wheels.
Clearly, then, Kobe should be the one to lift the Lakers out of their up-and-down funk...
Not exactly. For one, the added responsibility of playing the point and running pick-and-rolls more than ever before has only inflated Kobe's proclivity toward turnovers. In fact, only three players (via espn.com) in the entire NBA—Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday and James Harden—average more giveaways per game than Bryant's four.
Also, as mentioned just a few lines ago, Kobe's not exactly a spring chick anymore. The Lakers would be tempting fate to entrust Bryant with such a heavy load, be it scoring, facilitating or actually showing up on the defensive end.
Not that they haven't already. Interestingly enough, Kobe's scoring has correlated much more closely with losing than with winning. To date, the Lakers are 2-8 when Kobe accounts for more than 25 points, including a 1-6 mark when he pops off for 30 points or more.
Which is to say, the Lakers can ask the Black Mamba to do what he does best, but only at their own peril.