Mark Twain, the greatest of American authors, once wrote that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
Though, if the statistics in question are those concerning the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, then the only lies involved are those that the players, coaches and fans still tell themselves about the team's chances of bringing another Larry O'Brien Trophy back to the Staples Center in June.
The causes for the collapse from preseason title contender to eighth-seed scrapper extend well beyond anything that even a handful of numbers could describe with any accuracy. Injuries, personnel turnover, poor team chemistry and turmoil in the upper crust of the organization all contributed to what's arguably been the most disappointing season in franchise history, if not in all of professional team sports.
That being said, there are a few stats in particular that help to tell the story of how the Lakers became less of a star-studded championship threat than an uber-expensive Schadenfreude spectacular.
Dwight at the Line
You don't have to be a stats whiz to figure out that Dwight Howard has been nothing short of awful at the free-throw line this season. Howard's 9.4 free-throw attempts per game are second only to James Harden's 10.1 and his 646 total free throws rank behind Harden's 716 and Kevin Durant's 700, but well ahead of Kobe Bryant's 563.
But of Dwight's 646 attempts, only 314 have found the bottom of the net. Astonishingly, that's still good enough to place Howard ninth in total makes and makes per game (4.6).
Even though Howard's percentage (.486) is dead-last among those who've stepped to the line often enough to qualify for the free-throw crown.
That clip doubles as the lowest of Dwight's career. He hit his free throws at a 49.1-percent rate in 2011-12. Howard was hardly a free-throw-shooting savant prior to his final season with the Orlando Magic, though he did shoot between 58.6 percent and 59.6 percent every year between 2005 and 2011.
Howard's decline over the last two years isn't the first of its kind in his career. He shot 67.1 percent from the stripe as a rookie before settling in as a sub-60-percenter thereafter.
Crazier still is how Dwight's single-season struggles compare to those of Steve Nash, arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history, over the course of his Hall of Fame career (via Bryan Armen Graham of Sports Illustrated):
Dwight Howard has missed more free throws this season (332) than his teammate Steve Nash has missed in his entire 17-year career (322).— Bryan Armen Graham (@BryanAGraham) April 4, 2013
A few more makes here and there, and who knows? Maybe the Lakers aren't sweating it out for the eighth seed in the West right now.
Tying the Hands of a Legend
Speaking of Steve Nash, injuries and old age have taken a sad and serious toll on the man's productivity. He's played in just 50 games this season, missing a multitude more on account of injuries to his left leg, hamstring and hip.
Not that the Lakers have exactly done a bang-up job of putting his particular set of skills to proper use. He's using fewer possessions (17.8 percent), tallying fewer assists per game (6.7) and accounting for a smaller share of his team's assists (32.6 percent) than he has at any point since 1999-2000—his second season with the Dallas Mavericks, per Basketball Reference.
|Usage Rate||Assists/Game||Assist Rate||TO Rate||Games/Season||Mins|
|99-00 (w/ DAL)||14.5||4.9||25.5||20.3||56||27.4|
|04-12 (w/ PHX)||21.8||10.9||48.6||21.4||75||33.9|
|12-13 (w/ LAL)||17.8||6.7||32.6||19.3||50||32.5|
Nash missed 25 games that year with an ankle injury and started just 27 of the 56 games in which he played and had yet to blossom into the star that he became shortly thereafter. Interestingly enough, that was also the last time the Mavs missed the playoffs. They finished ninth in the West with a record of 40-42 before embarking upon a string of 12 straight postseason appearances in which Nash's Lakers may well play an ending role down the stretch.
To be sure, Nash's lack of control over the Lakers' offense is hardly surprising. He's been hurt all season, has lost a step or two at the age of 39 and (most of all) has had to share a backcourt with another ball-dominant guard in Kobe Bryant.
Still, considering how great Nash still is in the pick-and-roll—according to Synergy Sports, he runs it 53.1 percent of the time, with an average of .86 points per possession that ranks among the league's elite—and how able Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are as finishers, it's a shame that Steve hasn't had more opportunities to run the show.
Kobe in the Clutch?
That part of the Kobe-Nash dynamic, though, is certainly understandable. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, Bryant is a fantastic passer when he wants to be. He's keenly aware of how his movement shifts opposing defenses and creates space for his teammates.
But what he still seems to lack is enough trust in those teammates to defer to them in big moments.
Kobe has been plenty productive in clutch situations. According to NBA.com, Bryant has scored 135 points in the final five minutes of games when neither team is ahead or behind by five points—second only to Kevin Durant's 152.
However, with that scoring comes Kobe's plus-minus rating of minus-four, which brings to mind concerns beyond sheer point production. He's shot just 41.4 percent from the field under those circumstances, with 16 assists against 10 turnovers in 128 total "clutch" minutes.
This wouldn't be such a big deal if the Mamba were the only creative perimeter force in LA's employ, but he's not; Steve Nash happens to be a fairly nifty clutch performer in his own right:
|FG%||3P%||AST/TO Ratio||Usage Rate|
That last number is particularly startling in this context. Percentage-wise, Kobe still uses up nearly four times as many "clutch" possessions as Nash—and almost half of the Lakers' "clutch" possessions on the whole—despite Nash's superiority as a ball-handler and shooter under those circumstances.
This isn't to suggest that Bryant shouldn't be LA's go-to guy in crunch time; he's still the Lakers' best playmaker by a considerable margin.
But that doesn't mean he shouldn't give the ball up once in a while when his own look clearly isn't the best the Lakers can do. Too often has Nash—again, maybe the greatest shooter ever—been left to watch as Kobe clangs shot after contested shot off the rim in key situations.
It doesn't matter if Bryant dribbles around to his heart's content, so long as he's not afraid to defer to Nash from time to time, who just so happens to be the fourth-most efficient spot-up shooter in the NBA, per Synergy Sports, thanks to a sizzling mark of 1.34 points per possession with .514/.481 shooting splits on such shots.
A Pau-nding on Defense
In all honesty, the Lakers offense is fine. The defense, on the other hand...not so much.
The Lakers have surrendered 103.6 points per 100 possessions on the whole this season (18th in the NBA), but, as Zach Lowe points out, they've been noticeably worse since Pau Gasol returned from a torn plantar fascia.
In the six games since his return, the Lakers have given up 105.9 points per 100 possessions overall, 109.4 when Pau's on the floor (compared to 99.8 when he sits), and a devastatingly poor 112.0 when he's paired with Dwight Howard, per NBA.com. When compared to the rest of the league this season, the first of those three numbers would rank 24th, on par with the Detroit Pistons, while the latter two would rank dead-last, behind even the bumbling Charlotte Bobcats.
Stranger still is how poorly the Lakers have crashed the defensive glass when Gasol's in the game. Over their last six games, the Lakers have collected 71 percent of their opponents' misses when Pau plays (which would rank 28th) and 79.2 percent when he sits (which would rank first by a country mile). When we bring the Pau-Dwight pairing back into play, that number plummets to 69.2 percent—"good" enough for last in the league.
In theory, having two long-armed, seven-foot rim protectors like Gasol and Howard should make scoring on and collecting offensive rebounds against the Lakers that much more difficult. In practice, though, that hasn't quite worked out, to say the least.
More Dunce Caps on D
However you slice it, the Lakers defense has been nothing short of atrocious, particularly on the interior. According to NBA.com, they've allowed the fifth-highest total points in the paint and rank 23rd in points in the paint allowed per 100 possessions at 45.8. The Lakers have also allowed the eighth-most shots in the restricted area on a per-game basis and have seen their opponents convert them at the league's ninth-highest rate (61.8 percent).
Of course, Howard and Gasol aren't entirely at fault for all of this. Those two have been operating at less than 100 percent since the start of the season, and Jordan Hill's season-ending hip injury only compounded the situation up front.
Moreover, the Lakers' lack of speed and athleticism on the perimeter has been all too predictable and apparent throughout the campaign. Kobe Bryant's play on that end has been lackadaisical (at best) and Steve Nash has always been a sieve. Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake have tried valiantly as backups, but neither is anything close to a specialist in that regard.
Metta World Peace, though slower in his age, had enjoyed sum success against bigger forwards and slipperier wings, thanks to his strength and hustle. But he's out on account of knee surgery and is unlikely to return until the Lakers are long gone from the playoffs.
All of which has left the Lakers with a number of deficiencies that even a three-time Defensive Player of the Year like Dwight Howard can't mask on his own.
Most notably, the Lakers have been terribooo in transition, due in no small part to their age and the lack of speed that naturally accompanies it. According to Synergy Sports, the Purple and Gold give up 1.15 points per possession on the break and, per NBA.com, 16.4 fastbreak points per game. Those numbers place LA 21st and 29th, respectively, in the league.
And if that weren't enough, the Lakers have hardly improved at forcing turnovers since last season's debacle under Mike Brown. LA's opponents have given the ball away just 13.2 percent of the time in 2012-13 compared to 12 percent of the time post-lockout. Only the Orlando Magic have forced turnovers less frequently this season.
The Not-So-Fab Five
It might seem easy to simply chalk up the Lakers' across-the-board woes to the fact that their ideal five-man lineup of Kobe, Pau, Dwight, Nash and Metta has scarcely shared the floor.
Except, even that small sample—189 minutes across 19 games, to be exact—suggests problems for this less-than-funky bunch.
That talented quintet knows a thing or two about putting the ball in the basket. According to NBA.com, they've averaged 108.9 points per 100 possessions together, which would check in a shade above the New York Knicks' third-best mark.
But, as you might expect by now, their play on the other end has left much to be desired. They've allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions—slightly worse than the Dallas Mavericks' 20th-ranked unit.
Which team will finish 8th in the West?
LA's All-Star squad has also forced turnovers a measly 10.2 percent of the time. That wouldn't just be the worst in the NBA today; it'd also be the worst of all time, according to Basketball Reference.
So maybe, then, it's a blessing in disguise that all five of those guys have been sidelined at some length along the way...?
Probably not. Injuries have only hampered their individual abilities and postponed the necessary process by which most teams develop chemistry by, you know, playing together. Give these guys a summer to recover, a full training camp under Mike D'Antoni and another season in which they can learn and grow together and they might just blossom into a true title contender.
Either way, not even the snappiest of pseudonyms could shade the Lakers' "Big Four" era thus far as anything less than an abject failure.