Ranking the L.A. Lakers' 5 Most Improved Players This Season
In the midst of a Lakers resurgence, it is clear that the Los Angeles has finally found a winning formula that has worked and allowed their roster to improve and flourish.
While most of the credit can go to Kobe Bryant's discovery of the fountain of youth, it is apparent that a slower pace and a more deliberate dictation of the tempo of the game has allowed the Lakers to make full use of each of their weapons.
While a lot of the Lakers' role players have had struggles throughout this season, the majority of them have found their respective niches and are developing real cohesion and chemistry.
Although it is hard to deliberate who has truly improved more than another on a roster where under-performance was such a huge factor earlier on, it is apparent that the only way to truly determine this is via the intangibles they fill.
Thus, the three factors used in this list of the top five most improved players this season are:
- Contributions to the system
- Defensive Impact
- Offensive Impact
Stats are accurate as of March 8.
5. Antawn Jamison
Contributions to the System:
Antawn Jamison started off the season in a very similar manner to the Lakers' Pau Gasol.
Without a clearly defined role outside of contributing off of the bench, it was hard for Jamison to score and defend in the same manner fans are accustomed to seeing him produce.
However, as the season progressed, he has gradually warmed up to his role as a scoring punch off of the bench.
Despite head coach Mike D'Antoni's initially inconsistent distribution of minutes, Jamison persevered through this and used his ability to stretch the floor to really impact the offensive system.
Whether the Lakers are running a run-and-gun system on which success is predicated on quick, perimeter jumpers or if they're slowing down the pace and working the ball through an offensive conduit, Jamison's ability to stretch the floor, hit the open basket and contribute on the glass make him an integral part of the system.
Jamison has never been much of a defender, even in his prime.
Thus, he gives a very minimal impact in terms of stealing the basketball or blocking shots. However, despite his lack of presence on the defensive end, he has always been a very good on the glass.
Playing 25.9 minutes per game in his last 10 games, Jamison has been able to accumulate six boards.
Thus, his ability to rebound the ball has helped the Lakers dictate the tempo of the game, despite his inadequacies in other aspects of defense.
At this point in his career, Jamison is no longer a primary scoring threat the same way he was in Washington.
However, scoring 13.5 points per game in his last 10 games while shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from distance, Jamison has proved that he is still a very capable and dangerous threat.
With Jamison giving Bryant a lot of space in the lanes with his ability to stretch the floor and hit his open jump shots, Jamison has played his role perfectly as of late.
4. Steve Nash
Contributions to the System:
Steve Nash started off the season in relative mediocrity.
With an injury that derailed the first part of his season, Nash returned to uncertainty. Switching between being a spot-up shooter and a facilitator, his passing ability didn't seem to impact the Lakers the way D'Antoni thought it would upon his return.
However, during the Lakers' recent surge, Nash has thrived in his role as a supplementary player to Bryant.
While initially forced into one role or another, Bryant and Nash are now enjoying a very symbiotic relationship with one another.
When Bryant focuses on his scoring, Nash is asked to do what he does best: which is facilitate. However, when Bryant uses the attention he receives on the defensive end to create for others, Nash is a more than capable shooting threat.
Thus, this allows for Bryant to play naturally based on the flow of the game and this symbiosis is the perfect role for Nash as his career winds down.
At 39 years of age, Nash is nothing more than a defensive liability.
Even during his MVP years, Nash has always been one of the weaker defensive guards in the NBA. Thus, it is apparent in recent games that nothing has changed.
Point guards routinely have a field day on Nash, causing breakdowns on defense.
Often, going up against an offensively dominant point guard would require the Lakers to put another defender on the guard and switch Nash off of him.
Despite Nash's improvements in other areas this season, his defense is not one of them.
Playing partner-in-crime with Bryant, Nash has been able to dish out close to six assists per game in the last 10 games while scoring 12.1 points on 46.2 percent shooting from the field.
His efficiency creating for himself and for others and shooting the open jump shot make him a versatile threat on offense.
Despite not playing in as uptempo an offense as he is accustomed to, it is clear that Nash has been able to adapt his game to the slower pace.
Furthermore, as the season has progressed, Nash and Bryant have built a rapport on the offensive end that has made them both very difficult to read for defenders.
3. Earl Clark
Contributions to the System:
While Earl Clark is no Gasol, he has filled the "Trevor Ariza" role for the Lakers this season.
Although he has a hard time creating baskets for himself, he is a very capable finisher at the rim and does a lot of the dirty work on both ends of the floor.
No matter if the Lakers are running up and down or if they're deliberately slowing down the pace, Clark's athleticism and length has made him an ideal garbage player for a Lakers team that is in need of youth and enthusiasm.
Clark has gradually earned more minutes with the injuries to Gasol and the inconsistency of veterans such as Jamison.
He has made the most of these minutes and has become a staple in the Lakers' rotation.
Clark may not be a prolific shot blocker; but he is effective in the passing lanes and gets his fair share of rebounds.
in 27.8 minutes in his last 10 games, Clark has 1.3 steals per game and 6.3 rebounds.
Especially important are the rebounds, which allows the Lakers to dictate the tempo of the game.
Both his steals and his boards allow the Lakers to either push the ball up the court or slow it down and keep the pace at a manageable level for veterans like Jamison and Nash to thrive.
Clark may not be able to create for himself; but he has the length and athleticism to create a lot of problems on the fast break and via the pick-and-roll.
Though he may not have many plays called for him, his constant movement allows him to generate some easy buckets for a team that has to work so hard for baskets.
Furthermore, outside of Dwight Howard, Clark is the only other healthy big man on the roster that can finish at the rim and through contact.
This makes him a valuable asset when players like Nash and Bryant get collapsed on as they penetrate the paint.
2. Dwight Howard
Contributions to the System:
After the circus that was his departure from Orlando, Howard has been labelled the villain and his lackluster performance this season has been overly criticized by analysts and the media.
With that being said, Howard is still an exceptional defensive player whose shot blocking and help defense has covered up for a lot of the Lakers' defensive mistakes.
Despite being inconsistent due to his back and shoulder issues this season, Howard has shown flashes of his former greatness and has been much more consistent on the glass following the NBA All-Star weekend.
Although he hasn't been living up to expectations until very recently, it is clear that he is the most integral part of the Lakers' defense and a vital part of their offense.
In his last 10 games, Howard has gobbled up 14.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.0 blocks per game.
Howard's slow start to the season has been met with a resurgence on the defensive end as of late. With his numbers nearing his Defensive Player of the Year form, it is apparent that his quickness and ability as a help defender is slowly returning as well.
Though he isn't as springy and consistent as he was when he was healthy, he has shown real strides and should continue to improve as the season progresses.
While his defense has improved leaps and bounds as of late, Howard continues to struggle on the offensive end.
Although he is still shooting 55.6 percent from the field, he is only scoring 15.2 points per game in his last 10 games in limited touches and is shooting an atrocious 42.1 percent.
While 15.2 points is still a decent output and the balanced scoring the Lakers are currently producing as a product of Bryant's offensive dominance could be a factor, Howard is capable of so much more as the most physically imposing player in the NBA.
Howard's offensive production alongside his defensive resurgence could be the difference between a playoff push and an early exit for the Lakers.
1. Kobe Bryant
Contributions to the System:
This has been a very odd season for Bryant.
Earlier in the season, Bryant shot over 50.0 percent from the field for a stretch and averaged roughly 30.0 points per game while his team struggled to win.
Eventually, his scoring regressed and his assists rose as the Lakers fought their way back from mediocrity.
However, that trend didn't last and they lost their composure despite Bryant's emphasis on facilitation.
As the season progressed and the Lakers found their groove, it was apparent that Bryant's improvement came in the form of determining when to score and when to facilitate.
Although Bryant has always averaged close to five assists to go along with his scoring numbers, they often came as a result of open shots from his teammates as he passed out of a double team.
Bryant has now found a balance between looking for his own shot and being the assassin we all know and love with actively creating easy baskets for his teammates.
With Nash playing a supplementary role for Bryant, he has been able to just play basketball and do what feels right.
Although he is still a lethal scorer, his new-found ability to actively create for his teammates is what really makes the Lakers' offense thrive.
Although Bryant is still the Lakers' best perimeter defender, he doesn't have the stamina he used to have.
Consider Bryant's three most important skills within a triangle framework. These skills consist of scoring, facilitating and lock-down defense.
At this age, Bryant can only do two of those three things excellently within a single game.
Most of the time, Bryant will still play impressive defense; but the emphasis would be on scoring and facilitating for his teammates.
However, as shown in games against top point guards like Kyrie Irving and Brandon Jennings this season, Bryant has shown that he is able to both facilitate on the offensive end as well as lock-down his match-up on the defensive end.
With that being said, he is still versatile and conditioned enough that he can be a consistent defensive pest despite his age.
Furthermore, his six rebounds per game in the last 10 games has allowed him to personally dictate the tempo and either initiate a fast-break on his own or slow down the pace and implement himself in the post.
Nothing has changed in the last decade, as Bryant remains the Lakers' spark plug and conduit on offense.
Scoring 28.6 points per game in his last 10 games while shooting an amazing 52.6 percent from the field, Bryant is scoring at the most efficient rate of his career.
On top of that, he is also dishing out seven assists in that span, which makes him the leading facilitator on the team as well.
The numbers and results speak for themselves, as Bryant's efficiency and assist-rate has correlated to seven wins in the Lakers' last 10 games.