It has been quite the tumultuous season for the Los Angeles Lakers, but as the adage goes, “just get in.”
The Lakers are on the verge of clinching a playoff berth, despite all that happened this season. Mike Brown was fired. Phil Jackson was expected to be named coach. Mike D’Antoni was hired. Dwight Howard was acquired but had offseason back surgery. Steve Nash missed the first month of the season, and now Kobe Bryant is injured during a crucial stretch run.
Regardless, how could any team feel comfortable facing the Lakers in Round 1 of the playoffs? First of all, there is Kobe Bryant, who can single-handedly win a game or two. Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and a vastly improved Earl Clark. Oh yeah, let’s not forget Dwight Howard, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the year.
For all that has gone awry, is it wrong to think that the Lakers are set up for playoff success instead of the anticipated regular-season success?
First, the Lakers are one of the most efficient and effective offensive teams in the league. According to hoopdata, the Lakers are eighth in offensive efficiency, sixth in points per game and sixth in true-shooting percentage. Although Mike D’Antoni’s system calls for pushing the pace in order to increase the amount of possessions in a given game, the Lakers are talented enough to score in a slow, half-court game.
Kobe Bryant is as lethal a one-on-one player in the history of the NBA. Dwight Howard is able to command double-teams in the paint and force defenses to collapse. Steve Nash is the ultimate maestro, setting up teammates for easy looks. Finally, once Pau Gasol is healthy, he provides another matchup problem for teams due to his passing and overall skill for a big.
The Lakers are fully capable of playing at any pace, but the slower the game becomes and the fewer possessions there are, the Lakers’ talent on both ends of the floor should theoretically take over. The only problem is that D’Antoni has refused to adapt his system to fit the strengths of his best players.
Second, Dwight Howard is one of the few players who is capable of changing an entire playoff series by himself. Howard’s playoff averages of 19.9 points, 14.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game is outstanding. His offensive effectiveness might not be as great as it was when he played for the Orlando Magic, but his defense is potentially series-altering.
Los Angeles’ defense has been the root of their problems all season long, but an engaged Howard and a shortened rotation could spell trouble for whichever team the Lakers face should they reach the postseason.
Dwight has not had a defensive rating of over 100 since his second season in the league, according to basketball reference. This year his rating is right at 100, but that is also considering his recovery from offseason back surgery, and a lack of defensive emphasis by the coaching staff.
The Lakers may not be able to fix all their defensive problems prior to the playoffs, but a motivated Dwight Howard can make things increasingly difficult for opposing teams.
Finally, there is Kobe Bryant.
Perhaps the most intense competitor since Michael Jordan, Bryant’s will to win is contagious. Every fan in Los Angeles expected to see Kobe lead the Lakers back to the top of the Western Conference standings. While that did not happen, anyone writing off a Bryant-led team in the postseason must not have been paying attention over the past 16 years.
Furthermore, Kobe is having one of his better seasons in years, and that is saying something considering how well he played last year. Not only is he third in scoring, but he ranks third among shooting guards in PER and second in efficiency. He certainly is going to be difficult to stop, with Dwight Howard lurking in the paint to grab rebounds and Steve Nash spotting up across the floor.
Essentially, the Lakers’ success, should they make the playoffs, will be based upon effort. All the tools are there for a first-round upset, but to do so the Lakers need to play hard on both ends of the floor. The defense has been brutal, but in a seven-game series will teams be able to exploit the Lakers’ flaws over and over? What Dwight Howard will show up?
There are plenty of questions, as has been the case all season. Notwithstanding, a healthy Los Angeles Lakers team is going to be a difficult out. They have the ingredients for playoff success, but do they have the right recipe?