What We Learned from the First Quarter of the L.A. Lakers' Season
Now that the NBA season is in full swing, we've got enough of a sample size to make some determinations about what we've seen. That applies to the Los Angeles Lakers, who have had an eventful first quarter of the campaign.
We've learned which facets of the team aren't playing up to expectations, which players are shouldering big workloads, how the little things can manifest into big problems and which players are struggling to adapt to Mike D'Antoni's offense, among other things.
With that in mind, here is what we've learned from a very action-packed first quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' season.
(Note: all stats reflect games played through Dec. 10)
The Lakers Really Miss Steve Nash
Steve Nash hasn't played since the second game of the season, and the Lakers have posted a 9-10 record without him in the lineup.
Because Nash has only played in two games, we can't say with any certainty that he'll immediately fix what's ailing this team. But judging by what head coach Mike D'Antoni says on the matter, that certainly appears to be the case.
"Our record won't be as good. We've got to get him back," said D'Antoni, according to the L.A. Times. "His effect is going to be big. If we have these problems when he's out there, then we need to sit down and examine some stuff."
It will be interesting to see what Nash's actual value is to the team once he returns. But his perceived value is extremely high, considering expectations for this team were through the roof and he's acknowledged as the main reason they've failed to meet them so far.
The Bench Isn't as Improved as We Thought
Heading into the season, one of the main reasons this year was going to be different than the last was L.A.'s improved bench. After all, the Lakers' bench was the lowest-scoring reserve unit in the NBA last season at 20.5 points per game.
With the additions of Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon, along with incumbents Jordan Hill and Devin Ebanks, the team looked to have a much deeper bench. And Jamison in particular has found his groove of late, averaging 13.7 points over his last nine games (in fairness, he has started four of those contests).
But as a whole, the Lakers still have one of the worst bench units in the NBA, averaging only 23.9 points per game, which is ranked 29th of 30 teams. It figures to see some marginal improvements as players return from injuries; however, it's hard to envision it going from one of the worst units in the league to one of the best.
Kobe Bryant Is Playing a Ton of Minutes
With the additions of Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Antawn Jamison, the Lakers were supposed to be in a position where they could cruise through the regular season with relative ease and keep Kobe Bryant fresh for the postseason. Instead, Bryant has been forced to play tons of minutes just to keep the team afloat.
Bryant's 37.4 minutes per game are tied for 14th-most in the NBA. But of the top 20 players in minutes per game, Bryant is the oldest on the list, and one of only three (Joe Johnson and Zach Randolph are the others) who's older than 30.
With D'Antoni's offense, not only is Kobe playing a lot of minutes, but he's also doing a lot of running as the Lakers are fourth in pace factor (possessions per 48 minutes), up 3.4 possessions per game compared to last season.
Now is the time of year when Bryant should just be cruising along, or getting nights off altogether like the San Antonio Spurs do with their elder statesmen.
The exact opposite has occurred—Bryant is playing a ton of minutes, and he's doing it in a very physically demanding offensive system.
Pau Gasol Doesn't Fit into Mike D'Antoni's Offense
Since he entered the NBA in the 2001-02 season, Gasol has been the definition of consistency...until now, that is. Under D'Antoni, Gasol has failed to find his groove, and it's costing the Lakers valuable production from one of their best players.
Gasol has shot at least 50 percent from the field in 10 of his first 11 NBA seasons. The one year in which he didn't reach the 50 percent benchmark (2003-04), he was still close with a 48.2 percent field-goal percentage.
This season, Gasol has shot an unacceptable 42 percent from the field.
Because of the correlation between making shots and scoring points (imagine that!), Gasol's scoring is also down this year. Prior to this season, Gasol had averaged at least 17.4 points per game. This year, that number has dropped to 12.6 points per game.
Gasol's lack of production has led to speculation that the Lakers will trade him, even prompting Timberwolves GM David Kahn to deny any trade discussions have taken place between the two teams.
A Lot of Little Things Can Add Up to Big Problems
The main thing we've learned from the Lakers in the first quarter of the season is that everything matters, even the little things. There are a couple different examples of this.
The first one is free-throw shooting. The Lakers own the league's worst free-throw percentage at 67.8 percent. That one aspect won't make or break your season but it can cost you in individual games, just like it did when Dwight Howard couldn't put the Houston Rockets away from the charity stripe on Dec. 4.
Another example is turnovers. Turnovers, like free-throw shooting, won't make or break your season. The Oklahoma City Thunder led the NBA in turnovers last season and made it to the NBA Finals. OKC is leading the NBA in turnovers again and is still one of the top teams in the league. The Lakers, however, are right behind them, ranking 29th in turnovers per game and 29th in turnover ratio.
If you're a team that creates a lot of turnovers, it's easier to withstand turning the ball over because you'll get an opportunity to make up for it. If you're a team that misses a lot of free throws but attempts a lot of free throws, you'll also be able to offset that lower percentage simply by shooting more free throws than your opponent.
The Lakers, however, are 28th in defensive turnover ratio, and they're 20th in free throws attempted. Those two little categories end up being a big factor.
Consider this: The Lakers are eighth in offensive efficiency, seventh in points per game and seventh in field-goal percentage. They're 13th in opponent field-goal percentage, 14th in defensive efficiency and 17th in points allowed per game.
All of those statistics imply the Lakers' record should be much better than it is—somewhere around fifth- to 10th-best in the NBA. In fact, their Pythagorean wins (13)—which estimates a team's record based on points scored and allowed—is ranked sixth. The reason their record isn't in line with that is because the Lakers haven't been doing the little things with any consistency, like closing teams out from the line or protecting the basketball.
On the bright side, this also shows that the Lakers aren't too far away from putting it together. So while we've learned the little things can add up to make a big difference between winning and losing a game, we've also learned the Lakers are only a few little tweaks away from getting this thing back on track.
Championships Aren't Won or Lost in December
This probably could go without being said but we'll say it anyway: what happens now is of little consequence to what happens in the playoffs.
Sure, a slow start may have an effect on your playoff positioning, it may cost a head coach his job (like it did with Mike Brown) and it may cause plenty of media scrutiny. What it doesn't mean, however, is that your season is doomed.
We've yet to see this team in full swing. Steve Nash has only played the two games, Dwight Howard still hasn't fully recovered from offseason back surgery and the team is still struggling to grasp D'Antoni's offense.
There's still plenty of time for everybody to get on the same page and turn this thing around. Now, that doesn't mean it will happen, but it certainly doesn't mean we should freak out because it hasn't already.
We've seen plenty of teams get off to scorching starts in November and December only to fade down the stretch. We've also seen other teams start off slow and come on later in the season en route to an NBA title. That's because championships aren't won or lost in December.
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