You want to believe the Los Angeles Lakers have gotten better since their early season implosion, you really do. But you can't.
Not when the Lakers continue to make the same mistakes over and over and over again.
In some ways, however, they are better off.
There's even a case to be made for Los Angeles' heightened sense of camaraderie and established chemistry. Bursts of competency sans Kobe Bryant left the masses convinced that the Lakers had turned a corner.
But have they? Has Los Angeles really passed the point of panic? Are the Lakers finally fit for contention?
Three-quarters worth of lethargy against the Golden State Warriors says no. The version of the Lakers that fell just six points shy of overcoming an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit suggests otherwise.
With the regular season winding down, we're obligated to concede to the former.
Losers of their last three games, two of which were against sub.-500 factions, the Lakers find themselves just one game ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
Amid pleas for Hollywood's finest to hurl themselves at the panic button, Bryant himself refuses to do so (via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports):
The Lakers (36-35) also felt pain with their third straight loss that caused them to lose ground for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers, currently in the eighth spot, have three teams on their heels as the Utah Jazz (35-36) are a game behind, the Dallas Mavericks (34-36) trail by 1 1/2 and the Portland Trail Blazers (33-37) are 2 1/2 out.
Kobe Bryant showed no concern.
"I've been relaxed all year," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "I was relaxed when we were five games out telling everybody we are going to be all right. So now we are ahead in the eighth spot and we're supposed to panic?"
Panicking isn't a desirable quality in a playoff team, and it's a foreign concept to the ever composed Black Mamba. Urgency, though? That's a necessity. And right now, the exigency of the situation isn't resonating with Los Angeles.
"Our offense was anemic," Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni said following the loss to Golden State (via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times).
Anemic, feeble, pallid, apathetic, complacent—those are words that shouldn't be synonymous with Los Angeles. Inside of 15 games to go, they should be fighting for their postseason lives, banding together to render the critics mistaken.
They should be learning from their mistakes.
But they haven't.
The Lakers were thought to have changed because the results have changed. Heading into the break, they were 25-29. Since then they're 11-6.
Something had to have changed, they had to have adjusted in some aspects, and perhaps they did.
For the most part though, we've seen different results, but the same Lakers.
Through the first 54 games of the season, Tinseltown was dropping 101.6 points (sixth), 22.2 assists (15th), shooting 45.7 percent from the floor (eighth) and 35.1 percent from deep (15th) per game. Los Angeles was also allowing 100.9 points (23rd) and coughing up the ball 14.9 times (fifth) a night. Hollywood's plus-0.7 point-differential ranked 12th as well.
A Lakers team that was four games under .500 and falling out of the playoff picture fast.
To escape the expensive and unforeseen hell that became their season would be a massive undertaking. It would require Kobe and crew to resolve their deficiencies or at the very least mitigate them.
One streak that saw the Lakers win 11-of-17 later, they're back in the playoffs. Three successive losses to outfits they're supposed to be better than wasn't ideal, but their record supported Bryant's Buzz Lightyear-esque refusal to panic.
The Lakers had evolved. With a playoff berth nearly in their possession, they had obviously gotten better.
Or you know, maybe not.
In their last 17 games, the Lakers are averaging 103.5 points, dishing out 21.4 assists, shooting 45.9 percent from the floor and 37.9 percent from three a game. They're also allowing 102.1 points and committing 13.9 turnovers per bout.
Is that necessarily better?
Los Angeles is scoring more points, shooting a higher percentage from the field and committing fewer turnovers but also allowing more points and passing less. The team's plus-1.4 point-differential doubles that of what they posted before the break, yet is still hardly indicative of a team that has it all figured out.
As the above graph shows us, the Lakers' stats this side of the break are almost identical to that of before it. Their record is better, but statistically, they're not.
These Lakers still allow 15.9 fast-break points per game (29th). They still relinquish 44.4 points in the paint a night (28th). They still rank 19th in defensive efficiency, 25th in points allowed (101.2), 22nd in assists (22) and 22nd in bench points (26.9). They still have the second-worst road record (13-23) of any playoff team.
They're the same. In so many ways, they're still struggling where they have all season.
Take their colossal letdown against the Warriors.
We saw Kobe shoot 11-of-27 from the floor and dish out just three assists, when nearly every statistic implores him to do just the opposite.
Ready for the real kicker? Los Angeles is 19-5 when Kobe combines his deft passing (at least five assists) with a controlled trigger-finger (fewer than 20 shot attempts).
In a game where Bryant himself said he needed to get the ball to Howard more, why is he heaving 27 shots toward the rim?
He has an innate reaction to carry the Lakers when they struggle, which we can respect, but he also has an inherent desire to win. When will the latter trump the former?
We know the Lakers are better when Bryant balances facilitating with shooting, and so does he. Why would he ever stray away from following that blueprint?
And why are we still seeing games where Howard fails to take even 10 shots?
Los Angeles is aware that he needs the ball more. Wins begin to pile up when he scores.
Howard has attempted fewer than 10 field goals 34 times this season. In those 34 games, the Lakers are 10-24. He's also dropped fewer than 15 points on 27 occasions. Los Angeles is 10-17 in those instances.
When he topples those plateaus though, the Lakers are exponentially better.
“We need to figure out a way to get him some more looks down low," Bryant said after the Lakers lost to the Warriors (via Bleacher Report's Jimmy Spencer). "And I tried to step back as much as I possibly could and allow that to develop."
Yeah, the Lakers do need to find a way to get Howard involved more. And if that was Kobe taking a step back against the Warriors, he needs to take another giant leap in that same direction.
These aren't new problems the Lakers are dealing with. Every loss, it's some combination of the same story.
Are the Lakers a better team since the All-Star break?
Bryant shot too much. Howard wasn't involved enough on offense. They committed too many turnovers. The urgency behind the game itself doesn't resonate with them until the fourth quarter.
Yet, we're supposed to believe the Lakers have improved. That they're prepared to make a deep postseason push.
That they're actually better.
"If you want to win games, you've got to play the right way," Howard said (via Bresnahan).
Sometimes, the Lakers play the "right way."
As for those times when they don't, well we're just supposed to sit back and buy into the notion that the Lakers are better than they were before.
When they're actually not.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.