What We Learned on the Road

Welcome home, Lakers! We hope you didn't get any of that Eastern Conference stink on you while you were away. Once you're done unpacking and sorting through your mail, let's sit down for a little progress report, shall we?

The curtain has fallen on the season's first true road trip, and on the whole we should be pleased with how it went. Four wins and a single loss, not against a slate of heavyweights mind you, but taking care of business all the same. The Celtics have demonstrated their ability to roll into visiting arenas and hang L's on the lower rungs of NBA society - at home against the Sixers is a different matter - so it was reassuring to see the Lakers keep pace. No real letdowns or bad upsets to anger the blood.

Did the five games away from Staples teach us anything about the Lakers we didn't already know? I think they did. Let me break it down for you, girl.

1.  For Kobe, his latest injury ain't no thing.

It's been 10 days since Kobe Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture to his right index finger. When he decided he would play through it, none of us knew really what to expect. His pain tolerance is to the far right end of the human bell curve, of course, but we just didn't know how the injury would affect his game. Now we do, and the answer is: not much at all.

Here are Kobe's numbers from the road trip, along with his season averages for comparison. The stat categories are explained here. Usage refers to his usage rate, or the portion of the Lakers' offensive possessions he uses while he's on the floor.

Mins/G

Usage

EFG%

TS%

Pts/40

Reb/40

Ast/40

TO/40

Stls/40

Road Trip

40.0

33.3

49

54

30.8

5.6

4.2

4.0

2.2

Season

37.4

31.5

51

57

30.9

8.2

4.5

3.3

2.2

The finger hasn't lessened his minutes or forced him to reduce his role in the offense. His shooting numbers were a bit down but not any more than we'd usually expect from playing on the road. Assists and steals were basically unchanged. When you remember that the stats include the game in Utah when Kobe was ill, it's even harder to discern that the injury is hampering him in any meaningful way.

The one significant dip is in his rebound rate. Looking only at that number, one could guess that Kobe's shying away from the paint for fear of getting the finger hit again. That just hasn't been the case, though. The shot charts show that the big majority of his attempts are coming from 17 feet and closer, so it's not like he's floating on the perimeter. The rebounding numbers look like small sample size noise to me.

All good with the Kobester, in other words.

2.  The Laker defense is special. The Laker offense isn't, yet.

The Lakers began the road trip ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. By the time they got home, they ranked first. Over five games they allowed opponents to score less than a point per possession. (Composite Laker and opponent stats for the road trip are at the bottom of this post.) Their last two opponents, New Jersey and Detroit, didn't even break 0.90 points per possession. I can't lie to you guys: these numbers make me wet ‘em.

The offense doesn't get me nearly that excited. The Lakers rank 13th in offensive efficiency and scored only 1.05 PPP on the trip. (League average is 1.07.) Granted, that's dragged down by the Taco Unit debacle in the fourth last night, but if we exclude that quarter's results we're still at only 1.08. Not a terrible mark, but it doesn't blow one's doors off either. It's not like the Lakers were going up against the '93 Knicks.

The main problem, as I apparently never tire of pointing out, is three-point shooting. For the trip, 30% of the Lakers' field-goal attempts were threes, and they made only 24%. Yuck. Of their regular long-distance options, only Derek Fisher was on target. Here's how the shooters fared from three on the trip compared to their season and career averages.

Road Trip

Season

Career

Kobe Bryant

5 for 26 (19%)

29%

34%

Ron Artest

5 for 21 (24%)

36%

34%

Jordan Farmar

2 for 12 (17%)

33%

35%

Lamar Odom

2 for 11 (18%)

28%

31%

Derek Fisher

5 for 11 (45%)

32%

37%

Shannon Brown

4 for 11 (36%)

35%

34%

Regression to the mean suggests we can look forward to some improvement from Kobe, maybe a little from Lamar, and a continued bounceback from Fish. Those career rates do, however, tell us something a bit unsettling about this team: it doesn't have any elite three-point gunners. The league as a whole makes 35% of its threes, so really what the Lakers have is a bunch of OK long-distance shooters. That's useful but not ideal.

Before you say, "Well, it didn't matter last year when they won the title," remember that during the playoffs the Lakers enjoyed some unusually hot shooting from certain players. Odom made 51% of his threes in the postseason, and Shannon made 48%. That's not repeatable. Trevor Ariza also hit 48% of his playoff threes, a clip that his replacement Artest will be hard-pressed to match.

Conventional wisdom seems stuck on the notion that if the Lakers make a trade this season, it will be to upgrade the point guard position. I don't think that's the case. The real need is for a Jason Kapono-type who can bring the rain from behind the arc. Who's down to see Peja Stojakovic in purple and gold?

(Peja for Adam Morrison, Sasha Vujacic and Josh Powell works under the cap and would give New Orleans badly needed salary relief next year. Something to keep in mind if the Hornets fall apart and activate Cheapo Fire Sale Mode.)

3.  Pau Gasol rules but, repeat after me everyone, needs more touches.

Pau's a monster. I don't think anyone here needs to be convinced of that. Just to give the kid his dap, though, here are his numbers from the road trip.

Mins/G

Usage

Pts/40

TS%

Reb/40

Ast/40

Blck/40

TO/40

41

17.0

15.6

57

16.4

3.6

1.8

2.4

At this point he's working in the Duncan-Dirk-Howard stratum of superelite big men. All of the above numbers are good to great, and none of them looks flukish. The contract extension he's reportedly about to sign will keep him a Laker through the prime of his career, which should include numerous All-NBA appearances.

The one thing sticking in my craw is that usage rate. It's just too low. For the season he's at 18.6 usage, meaning when he's on the floor, less than a fifth of the Lakers' offensive possessions are running through him. He's getting a number of touches through offensive board, but the team could be putting him to much better use if they just got him the rock more. The Lakers have one of the best post scorers of this generation, and they too often treat him as a tertiary role player.

For illustration, these are some guys with usage rates similar to Pau's: Marco Bellinelli, Eddie House, Rashard Lewis, George Hill, Willie Green. Like I said, role players. I get that the Lakers have a lot of guys who can score. The line to claim possessions, though, should run through Kobe first, then Pau, and then everyone else. There's ample room for improvement in this offense, and looking to Pau more often is one of the easiest ways to find more points.

In any case, it's good to have him and the rest of the guys back home. The Thunder visit tomorrow night, and then there's the Christmas day holy war against LeBron and the Cavs. Should be a fun week.

Composite Road-Trip Stats

 

TO%

FTA/
FGA

FT%

EFG%

TS%

Off Reb%

Def Reb%

PPP

Lakers

16

0.30

79

49

54

26

72

1.05

Opponents

16

0.22

72

45

48

28

74

0.98

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