The Los Angeles Lakers entered the 2013-14 season needing contributions from all over the roster. Kobe Bryant’s torn Achilles and the offseason departure of Dwight Howard left the Lakers noticeably short-handed, but Xavier Henry and the rest of the Lakers' eclectic bench have exceeded every expectation.
While the 22-year-old Henry and the second unit have been a huge encouragement for the Lakers, they're not the only positive signs this team has experienced.
The Lakers have kept their heads above water with a 2-2 record highlighted by the season-opening win against the revamped Los Angeles Clippers. The early upset proved that the Lakers could be better than people expect, but there is still work to be done if the Lakers hope to make the playoffs in 2014.
The following early positives will have to continue until Bryant returns to alleviate some of the pressure.
Note: This article was written prior to the Los Angeles Lakers game against the Dallas Mavericks. All stats used in this article are accurate as of Nov. 5 (prior to games played).
Head coach Mike D’Antoni has the unenviable task of finding productive players in the absence of Bryant. And although role players like Henry, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson are getting big minutes and taking on bigger roles, it hasn’t hurt the Lakers in the turnover department.
In fact, the Lakers only turn the ball over 15.3 times per game, which ranks 10th in the league. They need to do a better job forcing turnovers (just 14 per game for the Lakers' opponents this year), but limiting their own miscues has been a positive sign.
Pau Gasol and Farmar are the only Lakers averaging at least three turnovers per game thus far. The 3.3 turnovers-per-game average for Gasol would be a career high if sustained throughout the year, but don’t expect that to happen.
As long as the Lakers continue to limit their turnovers, they’ll keep competing in close games without Bryant.
After shooting 35.7 percent from three-point range last season, Jodie Meeks is knocking down 42.9 percent of his threes in 2013-14.
The Lakers offense has been surprisingly solid, averaging exactly 100 points per contest. That ranks 12th in the NBA.
Their ability to score points without Bryant can be attributed to their success from beyond the arc.
Coach D’Antoni’s short-handed squad has been knocking down three-pointers at a 39.4 percent clip. Their efficiency from long range ranks them ninth in the NBA.
Steve Nash and Gasol are both shooting 50 percent from deep.
Henry has had a hot hand shooting 45.5 percent from distance.
Meeks (42.9 percent) and Wesley Johnson (40 percent) have shown huge improvements compared to a season ago, and the veteran tandem of Steve Blake (38.9 percent) and Farmar (38.5 percent) continue to impress.
The only Laker who has struggled from downtown so far is Nick Young, who is arguably the streakiest shooter on the roster. He could easily heat up and improve his 30 percent clip in the coming weeks.
Considering that the Lakers are shooting just 41.1 percent from the field as a team, it’s evident that their hot shooting from three-point land has saved them in the early going.
Now, they just have to hope those hot hands don’t cool off.
The Lakers defense is still a work in progress. They’re allowing 105.5 points per game, which ranks 25th in the league.
Although the defense has been mediocre—as many pundits thought it would be—L.A. is doing a tremendous job rebounding, specifically on the defensive end of the court.
The Lakers rank fifth in the NBA with an average of 47.5 rebounds per game. Gasol is back to double digits by averaging 11 rebounds per contest, which is a big improvement from the 8.6 rebounds he posted in a down year last season.
The big Spaniard isn’t the only reason why the Lakers have been so efficient cleaning the glass, however.
In addition to Gasol, eight Lakers players are averaging 3.3 rebounds per game or more. They’re rebounding by association and making a group effort to limit opponents to just one offensive possession. The Lakers actually lead the NBA in defensive rebounds per game with 37.3.
With so many players making a concerted effort to rebound the ball, the Lakers should draw envy from the Miami Heat, a team that ranks dead last in rebounds yet again so far this season.
The Lakers have out-rebounded opponents in each of their two wins, which will continue to be a key to their success moving forward.
It’s impossible to mention positive signs from the Lakers' first week without mentioning the play of Henry.
Henry’s performance thus far in 2013-14 has been great, but it may not come as much of a shock for those who watched him during preseason.
In eight preseason games, the 22-year-old guard averaged 11.9 points per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three-point range. He set a nice tone from the outset, posting 29 points and seven rebounds off the bench in the Lakers’ preseason opener against the Golden State Warriors. He shot 9-of-15 from the floor and got to the free-throw line 11 times.
Henry certainly set a high bar for himself, but he’s continued his solid play during the regular season. The youngster is finally getting acclimated to the NBA atmosphere after three forgettable years with the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets.
He scored 18 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks and posted a 22-point, six-rebound effort off the bench in the season-opening win over the Clippers.
It’s impossible to replace Bryant’s usual production, but Henry has won over Lakers fans by making the most of his opportunities.
Who honestly would have thought that the Lakers' bench would be its biggest strength this season?
Considering that there were significant questions regarding the Lakers starting lineup—specifically how L.A. would manage to replace Bryant with either Young or Johnson—the performance from the bench has been a huge surprise.
The Lakers second unit wasted no time raising eyebrows this season. In the season opener against the rival Clippers, the Lakers' bench scored an absolutely ridiculous 76 points. Needless to say, purple and gold got the upset over “Lob City.”
So far during the 2013-14 campaign, the Lakers' bench ranks first in points (55.3) and rebounds (26) per game, according to Hoops Stats.
Just a season ago, the Lakers bench ranked 28th in the league with a measly 25.8 points per game. Only the second units of the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers were worse from an offensive standpoint in 2012-13.
The Lakers' bench has made a complete 180 this season in terms of efficiency. Coach D’Antoni finally has guys he can trust off the bench who are contributing to the overall product.
It will be interesting to see if the bench continues performing once Bryant returns.