How the Short-Handed Los Angeles Lakers Survived Without Kobe Bryant

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How the Short-Handed Los Angeles Lakers Survived Without Kobe Bryant
USA Today

A 106-100 road win against the now-4-13 Sacramento Kings may not seem like anything worth highlighting, but for these Los Angeles Lakers, this victory might as well be a clarion call for optimism in the City of Angels.

After Friday's fantastic finish, the Lakers sit at 10-9, just a half-game back of the Golden State Warriors for the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Without Kobe Bryant, who's been working his way back from a torn Achilles. Without Steve Nash, who's been out since mid-November with nerve root irritation in his back. With Jordan Farmar and Chris Kaman joining those two future Hall of Famers among L.A.'s walking wounded.

And as a result, with Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson and Robert Sacre (!!!) starting next to Pau Gasol at Sleep Train Arena.

So how have the Lakers kept their heads above water against the NBA's sixth-toughest schedule, with a league-average offense and a league-average defense?

They are doing it the way Mike D'Antoni-coached teams have always done it: by sharing the ball, running pick-and-rolls ad nauseam, jacking up threes and playing just enough defense to squeak by.

It all begins with a team-wide willingness to share the ball on the offensive end. D'Antoni talks incessantly about the need for the ball to "find energy" on the floor, and the Lakers have thus far obliged. 

According to NBA.com, 63.2 percent of L.A.'s makes have been assisted—the third-highest mark in the league behind only (if you can believe it) the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards. The Lakers actually came in under their season average on Friday, with 24 assists on 41 makes coming out to about 58.5 percent.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Just as importantly, the Lakers took care of the ball, as they have all season. They tallied just 12 turnovers on the night, with just three coming after halftime.

That degree of ball security falls in line with what L.A. has managed to do in 2013-14. Their 1.63 assist-to-turnover ratio is tied for fourth best, and their turnover ratio of 14.8 per 100 possessions is tied for the sixth best in the Association.

Surprisingly enough, the Lakers are merely middle of the pack when it comes to assisted three-pointers; having 86.2 percent of your triples come off a pass only puts you 14th in the NBA these days. That figure might look better if not for Nick Young's six unassisted treysand many more unassisted misses.

Still, that doesn't take away from the fact that the Lakers have lived by the three to this point. They've attempted the second-most triples per game (26.3) and, more importantly, knocked them down at the third-best clip (40.7 percent).

It should come as little surprise that no team in basketball has garnered a greater share of its points from beyond the arc than the Lakers have, at 31.6 percent.

Leaning so heavily on the three-point shot is a dangerous game, to be sure, but what choice do the Lakers really have? Pau Gasol (14.5 points on 41.8 percent shooting) has proven largely impotent in the low post this season, and D'Antoni has long been loath to rely on such inefficient possessions in the first place.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Moreover, L.A.'s roster is littered with cut-rate perimeter gunners. Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams are each making under $2 million this season, with the last three (and Nick Young) playing for veteran's minimum salaries.

Yet, those four combined to hit 10 of the Lakers' 12 threes in California's capital—in just 17 attempts, no less.

This isn't entirely shocking, if you've been keeping up with the Purple and Gold. Meeks, Johnson and Henry have all hit well over 40 percent of their three-point shots, and Williams, while not exactly a marksman, has converted a respectable 33.8 percent of his tries.

More often than not, their looks have come off pick-and-rolls involving Steve Blake and one of the Lakers' mobile bigs, be it Gasol, Sacre or the energetic Jordan Hill. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Lakers have scored 1.03 points per possession (10th best) on 53.9 percent shooting when the "roll man" finishes the play, with turnovers on fewer than 10 percent of those possessions.

That pick-and-roll attack has been rendered all the more effective by L.A.'s proficiency from the corners. The Lakers have launched the second-most attempts from the short corners (8.2 per game), just behind the Wizards (8.6).

All told, the Lakers offense has seen nine different players lead the team in scoring through the first 19 games, with Kobe likely to be the 10th before too long. According to the Associated Press (via ESPN), Meeks—who tied Gasol for the team lead with 19 points on Fridaysaid this after the Sacramento game:

We knew at the beginning of the season we were going to have to do it by committee. We don't have any superstars. Our superstar is coming back Sunday, but 19 games we didn't, so we had to share the ball.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

None of this should blindside anyone who's ever watched a Mike D'Antoni team, be it in Denver, Phoenix or New York. His squads play fast (99.7 possessions per game, third best in the NBA this season), they play loose and they launch threes with seemingly reckless abandon.

But the Lakers wouldn't have a winning record right now—or be anything close to it—without the stretches of pesky defense that they play from time to time. They held the Kings to just 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting in the fourth quarter, with a whopping five blocks and five steals contributing to the cause.

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And as has been the case on offense, those impressive numbers were cobbled together by the collective. Gasol poked the ball free twice, even while guarding the somewhat sure-handed DeMarcus Cousins. Johnson notched two steals of his own, in addition to a block. Sacre and Hill both got in on the block party, as did Young, whose "Swaggy D" yielded a steal as well.

No one player has made up the difference left behind by the Black Mamba, nor could any one of the Lakers' role players be expected to. Only a handful of players in the entire NBA would be able to fill Bryant's shoes, though even fewer would likely try if given the opportunity.

Come Sunday, the Lakers won't need anyone to try to be Kobe anymore. They'll have the Mamba back and in the flesh for their next home game—against the Toronto Raptors, whom Bryant famously torched for 81 points in a single game in January 2006.

That, along with their better-than-anticipated record without him, means the Lakers will be well-positioned to blow past preseason expectations and make something meaningful of what was otherwise thought to be a lost season in LaLa Land.

 

Get ready for Lakers fans to go nuts on Twitter...for better or worse.

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