There has been much discussion the last few days about the Lakers offense in the closing minutes of games. It began with a very biased and poorly supported article by Henry Abbott at ESPN in which he makes the case of Kobe being quite "unclutch" (here is a great post by C.A. Clark on addressing the many issues with Abbott's post). It continued today with another post by Abbott, this time saying isolations are the issue but again takes shots at Kobe for being the person who is doing the isolation plays. C.A. Clark presents another well written post addressing the isolation issue and that it wasn't just a Kobe thing. The Lakers offensive issues at the end of close games are serious and thus are coming under increased scrutiny. Before we can address the issue lets look at who and who is not delivering in these late game moments.
Let's start with the man that many look to first for the Lakers...
Kobe Bryant - in crunch time he is shooting and eFG% of 46.8% which is only a small decrease from his season average of 48.9%. Last year his clutch eFG% of 49.5% was right on his season average of 48.9%. Given last year's results and the fact that the current years difference amounts to only a one shot it would appear that Kobe shoots with the same efficiency from the field in the clutch as he does the rest of the game.
The part of his game that does change though is the percent of his baskets that are assisted. During the regular season last year and this year Kobe has had 41% and 40% of his baskets assisted but in the final 5 minutes of close games it drops down to 18% and 21% respectively. Obviously this is a result of the isolations that typically occur.
The other aspect that does change is that when Kobe does pass the ball he has been more efficient in the crunch time than during the rest of the game. The last two years he has averaged roughly 3.4 assists per bad pass turnover. In the crunch time he has racked up 22 assists and only 4 bad pass turnovers (a ratio of 5.5 to 1).
So with regards to Kobe Bryant, he still scores with the same efficiency even in iso-heavy mode and actually becomes a more efficient passer in the crunch time.
Pau Gasol - as the #2 option and arguably the most efficient scorer on the team, the Lakers ought to be able to lean on him at the end of games. Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between expectations and the reality of Gasol's performance down the stretch of close games. His eFG% in crunch time last year was an abysmal 38.7%! As if that isn't bad enough, it is an even worse 35.7% this year! Digging deeper yields an even bigger concern for the Lakers #2 option, he is 3 for 21 (14%) on shots not close to the basket. Basically if it isn't a lay-up, dunk, or short hook shot he probably won't make it. He is however, 14 for 24 (58%) on shots near the basket but was assisted on 60% of those attempts. That means that the only shots where he was efficient required someone else to set him up for over half of the possessions. Gasol doesn't seem to be a reliable option for the Lakers when they need a basket.
Gasol isn't only required to be the Lakers second option scoring, but he is also the Lakers 2nd best facilitator. His scoring potential forces double teams in the post and he constantly finds shooters or cutters for easy baskets. Gasol has averaged roughly 3.6 assists per bad pass turnover over the last 2 years. In the clutch however he has been more turnover prone as his ratio has dropped to 2.25. Basically Gasol's scoring ability and passing have taken a dive when needed most.
Andrew Bynum - The Lakers promising big man has shown some strong footwork in the post and could be a 3rd option for the Lakers. Unfortunately, despite taking almost every shot from within 4 feet of the basket, his eFG% is only 46.2%, lower than Kobe's. Additionally he has been assisted on two-third of his makes so he (like Gasol) appears to be heavily dependent on someone to create a good shot opportunity for him.
Lamar Odom - Odom is probably the only other Laker outside of Kobe and Gasol that can both generate his own shot or create one for a teammate. So how has he faired? His eFG% is a remarkable 70%! While it is quite impressive, it should be taken with some caution as it came on only 12 attempts and required that his teammates set him up on 75% of his baskets! Last year Odom had an eFG% of 48.6% (just short of Kobe) on over three time the number of attempts so his true "long-term" ability to score in the clutch is likely around 50%.
As for creating opportunities for others, over the last two seasons Odom has had only 5 assists! Yes that is correct... 5! Off all the time he has spent at the end of close games he has only created 5 assists and to make matters worse he has had 4 bad pass turnovers during that same stretch. A ratio 1.25 is significantly below his regular average.
The Shooters - The rest of the Lakers key players are basically spot up shooters. Fisher, Brown, and Artest are not really guys who will create opportunities for others. Their role is to simply catch and shoot. So how have they done?
Fisher had an eFG% of 36.4% last year and is an even worse 25.0% this year.
Brown had an eFG% of 41.7% last year and is also worse at 25.0% this year.
Artest had an eFG% of 29.5% last year and is similar this year with 30.0%.
None of the other Lakers have been on the floor in the close games to make any comments on. Clearly the shooting by the Lakers "spot up shooters" has been horrific to say the least.
So based on the data, Kobe appears to be the most efficient scorer in the clutch, even in isolation mode. Kobe also creates the most assists with the fewest turnovers as well. Kobe is the only Laker whose clutch stats match his normal efficiency.
Is ISO-mode the answer? Probably not. The Lakers offense obviously struggles in close games and that is when they become very iso-heavy and I doubt this is by chance. But putting the blame on Kobe seems like quite a stretch by Abbott as the results have shown that all the other Lakers have failed to covert shots at the same rate they normally do while Kobe has maintained his level of efficiency.
My two cents (it's coaching) - We all love Phil Jackson and he is without a doubt one of the greatest coaches in history but he isn't a late game coach. When people discuss Phil his biggest attributes are managing head cases (Artest & Rodman), managing ego's (Kobe, Shaq, Jordan, etc...), and managing a season (not calling time-outs). You don't hear people say "Phil is a great X's and O's guy". Think about the Lakers and their "plays"... they have a back door lob that they run out of EVERY time-out, they have a stacked "I" in which everyone breaks out and Kobe cuts to the ball for end of game situations, and they have the triangle. That's it... I just described basically every play the Lakers have ran for the last 4 years! When I look at the success that teams like the Spurs and Celtics have had at the end of games I see Greg Popavich and Doc Rivers calling plays with multiple screens, action on the weakside, action to take the focus away from the real play (decoy's) etc.... the plays they design use all 5 players with a ton of movement and typically create a lay-up or a wide open three (in the case of Allen with Boston). I don't see them calling wing isolations. It is the one part of the game where I truly feel the Lakers are at a disadvantage. Phil just isn't the type of coach to design a great X's and O's play to get a great look, instead he puts the ball into his stars hand (first Jordan and then Kobe) and lets them create the opportunity. Sometime a great play can be more efficient than even the best player in the game and that is where the Lakers stand in my opinion.
** All Stats based on www.82games.com as of 1/31/2011