The Lakers have now surpassed last year's championship squad in terms of wins at this point of the season. They are 16-1 in their last 17 games, not so coincidentally corresponding with the return of Pau Gasol to the lineup. At times during this stretch, they have looked unbeatable. At other times, they've looked quite mortal. But, save for one excusable outing in Utah, the Lakers have not lost in quite a while.
The stunning development regarding this year's Lakers squad has been how cohesive and effective their defense is. Go into any one of SS&R's game threads, and you'll see hosts of comments about how bad Andrew Bynum's defense is, or how slow Derek Fisher is. And yet, the Lakers have the best defensive numbers in the league, and there isn't even a close 2nd.
Not including last night's game (because as of the time of this writing, the numbers haven't been updated), the Lakers are ranked first in the following defensive categories: Defensive rating, eFG%, TS%. They are also 2nd in defensive FT/FTA. So, they are allowing more than a full point less points per 100 possessions than anybody else, even the vaunted defense of the Boston Celtics. They are holding opposing teams to extremely poor shooting, with an opposing FG% and 3 pt FG% both a full tenth of a point lower than the next best team. And they are doing it all without fouling anybody. There's no telling for sure that early season results will bear out over an entire season, but people are taking notice. The Lakers currently look like an absolutely dominant defensive team.
A fair amount of the credit for this new-found defensive dominance is the addition of Ron Artest to the roster. Anybody claiming that Trevor Ariza was a better defender than Artest, kindly slap yourself across the face. Artest is still one of the premier defenders in the NBA, and his performance on that end of the court has been nothing short of spectacular for Los Angeles. Most impressive is his energy. He doesn't seem capable of not going all out all the time, and that energy has infected the Lakers. They don't always go 100% every single night, but they do seem to be bringing a consistently high level of effort on the defensive side of the ball.
But the Lakers defensive improvement goes beyond "Artest > Ariza". It also has to do with the fact that the Lakers now have a ridiculous number of defensive options. Ariza was a very good defender, but he played defense almost exactly like Kobe (in style, not in quality). He played passing lanes, he helped off of his man. But he was not a physical defender, because he is not a physical presence himself. Artest is the polar opposite of Ariza in defensive style. He sticks to his man like crazy glue. He doesn't play passing lanes, but instead gets most of his steals with cunning reaches and prods as his man has the ball, or in help situations. And he is the most physical perimeter defender in the NBA.
Last year, the Lakers had a great 1-2 combination of perimeter defense with Kobe and Ariza. But that combo was weak in the sense that there was a certain kind of player that both struggled to guard, the more physical SF. Guys like LeBron, Carmelo, PP didn't exactly have a field day against the Lakers, but stopping them was entirely due to team effort, not individual brilliance. Now, with Artest in the fold, no matter who you have on the perimeter, the Lakers have that covered. There is no player at the 2 or the 3 that can't be guarded well by either Bryant or Artest. I'm not saying Artest can shut down Melo or LeBron 1 v. 1, but he can certainly make their lives difficult, and that's all you can ask.
Lost somewhat in the Lakers defensive brilliance, their offense has definitely taken a step back. They went a bit without Pau Gasol, and they are integrating Ron Artest as well, but the offense hasn't improved considerably since Pau's return, and I think the struggle goes far beyond Artest. Ariza shot the ball better than Artest has, but not by a wide margin (Ariza's eFG was .511, Artest's is .498). Ariza did attack the rim more, and had better success at the free throw line than Artest has, but that can't explain all of the Lakers' offensive problems.
No, the Lakers issue is far easier to diagnose. They can't shoot. Across the board, the Lakers are struggling to put the ball in the basket, with one extremely notable exception, Kobe Bryant. Kobe is having his best shooting year ever, in large part because much more of his shots are being taken from 15 feet and in, but he's also shooting the worst from 3 pt range of his entire career. Pau Gasol is struggling with shots he normally makes, stuff close to the rim, Lamar Odom is shooting well below his career average. And the bench ... well, the bench shooting couldn't get much worse. As a team, the Lakers eFG is below 50%, and that will not get it done.
I don't want to get into the possibility of signing other players, or getting someone via trade, because it seems highly unlikely. The Lakers have the highest payroll in the league, and and there's no reason to expect them to increase it. Further, the Lakers list of tradable assets reads something like this: Andrew Bynum (not happening), Jordan Farmar (maybe), Adam Morrison's expiring contract. That's not much to work with. Don't count on any outside help.
So the question is whether or not the current group can bring it back around. And the rest of the league better hope the answer is no. Last year the Lakers won the championship with a great offense and good defense. This year, they have great defense and ok offense. If they put both sides together, nobody in the league, not even the Celtics, can touch them. IF.