How Worried Should Los Angeles Lakers Be After Painfully Slow Start?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) looks at the scoreboard during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, in Phoenix. The Suns won 119-99. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

Let's have some fun with remarkably small samples. 

After a disheartening 108-90 loss to the Houston Rockets opened their 2014-15 season, the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Phoenix Suns by an even bigger margin one night later. Even though the 119-99 final score was embarrassing enough, garbage time narrowed the gap to a misleadingly small number by the time the final buzzer sounded. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, their offensive rating was just 101 after Oct. 29's 12-game slate, allowing them to sit at No. 20 among the 28 teams that had suited up for at least one contest by that date. The defensive rating was even worse, with the Lakers sitting in dead last and allowing 121.3 points per 100 possessions. 

To put that in perspective, my databases, which have information on every team since the 1951-52 season, show that no team's defensive rating has ever been on the wrong side of 115 at the conclusion of a season. The 2008-09 Sacramento Kings, 1990-91 Denver Nuggets and 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks are tied for the worst mark in league history: 114.7. 

Thus far, with the league-average offensive and defensive ratings sitting at 105.1, the Lake Show has earned a DRtng+ of 86.64, which would allow it to supplant the 1998-99 Nuggets (92.57) as the worst point-preventing unit of all time with plenty of room to spare, assuming that number is maintained throughout the season (which it most likely won't be). The Lakers' ORtng+ of 96.1 is better than only 123 of the 1,315 teams in my database, and the combination of the offense and defense is just atrocious. 

With a TeamRtng+ of 91.37, the Lakers have been worse than the 1997-98 Nuggets, 1982-83 Dallas Mavericks and—yes, it's true—2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats. No team in NBA history has finished a season with a TeamRtng+ lower than the Bobcats' record-setting 92.88 mark three seasons ago, and the Lakers are on pace to leave it in the dust.  

Fortunately, it's going to get better as that ridiculously small sample grows larger. Unfortunately, the Lakers still can't expect much success at all during the 2014-15 campaign. 

Any feelings of worry are grounded in facts. 

Heading into the season, the Lakers were already working with a shallow rotation, particularly at small forward. But injuries have taken their toll.

Nick Young is sitting on the bench in street clothes and nursing a torn ligament in his hand, while two rotation members were lost for the season before a single tick was made in the loss column. With nerve damage in his back, Steve Nash's year is over (and possibly his career). Given his advanced age, it's not exactly surprising, even if it's still a remarkably sad ending for the legendary point guard. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

What's more surprising is the season-ending blow that was dealt to a rookie who was born on the same day Nash made his sophomore debut for Santa Clara. Julius Randle was playing in the fourth quarter of his first professional game when he fractured his tibia, and he's since been ruled out for the season. 

Now, the depth chart looks quite troublesome without the veteran floor general and the young big man, one who the Lakers surely hoped would break out during his first season and become a key contributor: 

Los Angeles Lakers' Thinned-Out Depth Chart
PGSGSFPFC
Jeremy LinKobe BryantWes JohnsonCarlos BoozerJordan Hill
Ronnie PriceJordan ClarksonNick Young*Ed DavisRobert Sacre
Wayne EllingtonXavier HenryRyan Kelly*
*Injured, but expected to return during season

There's not much hope there, even if every remaining player exceeds even the most optimistic expectations. 

Though the Lakers don't deserve to be compared to the Philadelphia 76ers, who are bottoming out in the Eastern Conference and boast the services of only a few legitimate NBA players, they may end up finishing with a similarly poor record. Playing in the West tends to do that, as do the ill effects of old age and a thin rotation. Upside is hard to find on this roster. 

Even if Kobe Bryant looks like a 26-year-old superstar throughout the season, Ed Davis breaks out in a big way, Jordan Hill justifies his salary and Jeremy Lin brings back a bit of Linsanity, it's impossible to imagine this team having enough talent to surpass the 11 legitimate playoff contenders in the Western Conference.

It's a sad reality, one that might be tough to accept. But it's a reality nonetheless. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Head coach Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers works on the sidelines in the game against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on October 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Rockets won 108-90. NOTE TO USER: User ex
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Byron Scott's old-school style isn't exactly helping the matter, either. 

Over the last few years, the analytics community has almost universally agreed that it's best to avoid fouling. Additionally, shooting as many threes as possible is an advantageous strategy. Scott is doing the exact opposite, trying to send a tough and gritty message with his team's fouls while having them avoid triples and focus on getting to the basket. 

Problem is, the L.A. roster is filled with players who have trouble getting to the rim. So instead, they're simply struggling with their shot selections and dying by the mid-range attempts. Shield your eyes if you're prone to nausea, because this shot chart is rough

NBA.com/stats

No, your eyes aren't bleeding all over your computer, tablet or mobile device. That's actually their shot chart. If you're looking for the scariest Halloween costume possible, that's what you should dress up as. 

Sixty-seven mid-range attempts through two games is horrific, especially when coupled with only 49 shots at the basket and 23 three-point tries. It's essentially sacrificing the most efficient areas on the floor for the worst ones, which doesn't make even the tiniest lick of sense. 

Chances are, this will improve throughout the year.

Many coaches seem to use result-based analyses, and it's not like this strategy is going to start working all of a sudden for a team without many talented mid-range shooters. The Lakers will win a game now and then, but there won't be any easy success, especially against such a tough early-season schedule. 

"The first 15 games are all against opponents who are either heavy favorites to make the playoffs or can make a decent case: the Rockets (twice), Suns (twice), Clippers, Warriors (twice), Hornets, Grizzlies (twice), Pelicans, Spurs, Hawks, Mavericks and Nuggets," explains Scott Howard-Cooper for NBA.com. "And, there are four back-to-backs. At least eight of the 15 are at home."

Oct 29, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts to a foul call in the second half alongside Phoenix Suns guard Isaiah Thomas during the home opener at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 119-99. Mandatory Credi
USA TODAY Sports

This may seem like a ridiculous statement—and it might end up actually being one—but there's actually a chance the Lakers could enter the final days of November with a putrid 0-15 record. It's not likely, but it's a distinct possibility. Such futility could help the Lakers out in the future, though, as an anonymous general manager hinted at, via ESPN Insider's Chad Ford (subscription required): 

I don't think Mitch [Kupchak] has much choice but to find ways to lose. They're going to be bad anyway. You don't want to be just good enough that you lose the pick and still miss the playoffs. I don't think they have the assets to get good enough to make the playoffs and I don't think they have the [expletive] to trade Kobe. It's paradoxical, but right now losing seems like the only way to really get better.

Will the Lakers actually tank? 

Absolutely not, as this is a proud organization with an even prouder star player. Bryant would retire before playing for a team that wasn't actually going to end up competing to the best of its abilities. 

Nonetheless, that's how bad things have gotten in Tinseltown. Subtle hints about tanking being an advantageous strategy are going to become commonplace throughout the season, as are other interesting methods of roster construction that won't actually happen, like Ford's suggestion that the team consider trading Bryant. 

So how worried should the Lakers be after their painfully slow start? It depends on what they're after. 

Oct 29, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts in the second half against the Phoenix Suns during the home opener at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Lakers 119-99. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Spor
USA TODAY Sports

If they're concerned with finding ways to win and eventually advancing into the postseason, they should be extremely worried. Injuries have already taken a toll on the organization, the schedule isn't exactly favorable, the schemes of the new coach are predictably backfiring and the team doesn't have enough talent to rise into the realm of contenders. 

But if they're still thinking about the future, things might turn out rather nicely. L.A. owes its next first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns...unless it falls within the first five selections of the 2015 NBA draft. 

Should the early returns of the 2014-15 campaign become long-term trends, the team should just go ahead and focus resources on scouting the top collegiate and international prospects right away. We may only be two games into the season, but there are already too many signs of impending doom—for this season, and this season only—to ignore them all. 

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