Picking Up the Scattered Pieces

lakersjazz01

Right now, the Utah Jazz are better than the Los Angeles Lakers. It doesn't necessarily mean the Jazz will win at Staples tonight, or that they should be favored to win the Western Conference, or that they'll beat the Lakers if and when the two teams meet in the playoffs. But at this moment in time, with Utah cruising and the Lakers in something resembling a state of collapse, the teams' respective recent track records give the Jazz every right to consider themselves the Lakers' superiors.

Check out the following comparison of performance since the All-Star break.

 

Won-Loss

Home/Away Split

Opponent Win%

Net Points Per Game

Lakers

13-8

8/13

0.492

+1.5

Jazz

18-7

10/15

0.449

+8.8

The Jazz have had basically the same road-heavy schedule, albeit against a somewhat weaker slate of opponents. Even taking into account schedule effects, their play has been overwhelmingly better than the Lakers'. In full-season results as well, they've surpassed the Lakers in both net points per game (+6.1 to +5.3) and in net points per possession (+0.064 to +0.057). These numbers confirm what our eyes have been telling us: the Lakers are staggering. Their sloppy recent play has closed the gap between them and the other top Western Conference contenders.

(Not-so-fun fact: since the All-Star break, the Lakers have more double-digit losses (3) than double-digit wins (2).)

So consider tonight's game something of a benchmark. Even the most sanguine of "it's just the regular season!" optimists have to admit that the Lakers can't go into the playoffs looking like this. Like a team that gets tooled on by the Hornets and can't even give an honest game to the Hawks. At least the lack-of-effort excuse isn't being trotted out anymore. Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest separately confirmed after the Atlanta beatdown that yes, the Lakers have indeed been playing hard, just not well.

Now the difficult work of rehabilitating the team begins. Everyone in the organization needs to perform their job more intelligently and professionally. Ron has to get back to playing dominant man-to-man defense and hitting open threes. Lamar Odom needs to own the glass. Kobe has to stop wandering away from the guy he's assigned to guard. Pau Gasol needs to think back to last year's playoffs and remind himself that he can play the center position perfectly well. The Laker medical staff needs to find a way to get Andrew Bynum functioning again.

And Phil Jackson needs to end this juvenile snit he's got going with Sasha Vujacic. In the history of the sport, has a player ever been benched for a more trivial offense? The guy traded words with Brian Shaw when he got sick of assistant coaches yelling at him. Guess what, Phil. Most adults don't enjoy being yelled at. If they get yelled at enough, yeah, they'll generally talk back. It happens every day in countless workplaces in America. Let's get past this in the hopes of, you know, maybe winning another game at some point.

It's also time for Phil to end his sentimental attachment to Derek Fisher. As you might have noticed, Jordan Farmar is on a really solid run. On the five-game road trip, he made 12 of 22 three-point attempts. This, on a team that's in the bottom third of the NBA in three-point accuracy. No, Farmar's not perfect. We're all familiar with his flaws. He's not even really a starting-caliber point guard. Unfortunately, the Lakers don't have a starting-caliber point guard on the payroll, so they need to give the bulk of minutes to whoever, among the various suboptimal candidates, will give them the best production, and that's indisputably Farmar. Let's stop volunteering to play 4-on-5.

Surely licking his chops at the thought of being, ahem, "guarded" by Fish is Jazz point guard extraordinaire Deron Williams. Clearly, that's a devastating mismatch, and Phil shouldn't even think about giving it a try. If he insists on putting Fish on the court, either Kobe or Ron should be assigned to check Williams, with the hope being that the Lakers can hide Fish defensively on low-usage guys like Wesley Matthews or Kyle Korver.

Another key will be how well Lamar can handle Carlos Boozer. He has the length and mobility to trouble Booz, but he'll have to fight through screens to do it. Boozer loves to get the ball about 12 feet out on the pick-and-roll and hit that little fallaway jumper. Of course, over the past several games, Laker P&R defense has been even worse than usual. They're not going to become great at stopping the pick-and-roll overnight, but it can't be the total catastrophe that we've seen lately. It's the responsibility of Phil and his emotionally fragile coaching stuff to instill better defensive execution. The Jazz are one of the best shooting teams in the league, both on twos and threes. The Lakers will need to locate and close out on shooters in significantly improved fashion.

When the Lake Show has the ball, we'll see the usual brand of physical, foully Jazz D. Their shot defense is just OK, but they excel at forcing turnovers and cleaning up the defensive glass. One advantage the Lakers may have is the absence of Andrei Kirilenko. He's missed three games with a calf injury and is listed as day-to-day. Their other wing defenders - Matthews, Korver and C.J. Miles - aren't nearly as good, so without AK47 easy looks for Kobe and Ron will be easier to come by. Making free throws will be important, as the Lakers will likely get a lot of them.

There seems to be a sense that the Lakers are locked into their playoff position, that all matters of home-court advantage have been effectively determined, but that's not the case. Orlando trails the Lakers by only a game at this point. If the Lakers' slide continues, they could well surrender HCA in a potential Finals matchup with the Magic. Just another reason they need to get their act together, starting now.

FREE SASHA VUJACIC!

Lakers

Jazz

RECORD

54-21 (2)

50-26 (4)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+5.3 (4)

+6.1 (3)

PACE

93.0 (13)

93.5 (9)

OFFENSIVE RATING

109.1 (10)

111.0 (6)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.5% (5)

14.0% (25)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.29 (20)

0.34 (4)

Free-Throw %

76.5 (12)

74.0 (24)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.23 (12)

0.18 (25)

3PT% (Off.)

34.3 (21)

36.4 (7)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.9 (14)

52.5 (4)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.2 (15)

56.5 (5)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.5% (10)

26.8% (15)

DEFENSIVE RATING

103.4 (5)

104.6 (10)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.3% (19)

14.3% (5)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.26 (1)

0.35 (29)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.23 (22)

0.24 (25)

3PT% (Def.)

32.5 (1)

34.9 (14)

Effective FG% (Def.)

48.2 (5)

49.0 (11)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.9 (2)

54.1 (15)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.5% (9)

75.3% (5)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

Follow Dex on Twitter here.

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