Playoffs: Keys to the Lakers Past Success and How the Current Team Compares

[Editor's Note: I'm labeling today Feature Our Members day.  You folks are doing some fine work in the fanposts, and we don't do a good enough job of highlighting that work, so we will be front page-ing some of the recent high quality contributions to the site from non-authors.  Starting things off is the most recent in a long line of awesome analysis from Actuarial Sound - C.A. Clark]

Earlier this afternoon C.A. Clark wrote a good article discussing which Lakers issues are real or fake.  He touched on quite a few of the items that have crossed my mind recently as I think about the Lakers and their quest to three-peat.  In support of whether certain issues are truly real or fake I think it would be beneficial and hopefully enlightening to take a look back at the Lakers last season and what allowed a team that was facing many of the same issues to take home the championship title.

Theer are many differences between the regular season and the playoffs.  The typical items discussed are a slower pace, more physicality, and ultimately more defensively focused grind-it-out style of games.  While those items are somewhat true, the biggest difference between the regular season and playoffs is rest.  Their are no back-to-back games in the playoffs and often times there will be longer breaks (3-5 days) between series.

So what does the additional rest mean?  It means that teams can use their starters more and not worry about fatigue.  A team must have a decent bench if it is to endure the grind of a 82 game regular season but come playoff time coaches shorten the rotations and play their starters at or close to 40 minutes.  Here is a chart showing the number of minutes played per game by the Lakers main eight-man rotation during the regular season and then the playoffs (excluding the four blowout games).


In playoff games that were not blowouts, the Lakers played the starters significantly more minutes while reducing the minutes for the role players.  Kobe and Pau both played over 40 minutes, Artest 37, Fisher 34, and Odom and Bynum shared duties alongside Gasol getting 30 minutes apiece.  Brown and Farmar saw significant decreases down to only 13 and 12 minutes respectively and the rest of the bench unit didn't play unless it was a blowout game. 

Another interesting piece of information was the +/- statistics for last years playoffs.  Here is the chart:


That is probably the most telling chart when explaining how the Lakers won the title.  Their starting unit (and I am considering Odom a starter as Bynum was stuggling with his injured knee) showed very solid +/- numbers while the bench was autrocious.  Some may be surprised to see Artest lead the way but the reason for that is when Artest wasn't on the floor it mean Kobe slid over the small forward position and Brown came in at the shooting guard spot.  Brown was terrible in the playoffs last season as evident above.  Additionally, Bynum was quite poor as well but was dealing with an injured knee. 

The key to the Lakers success was that they played heavy minutes for the starters and they contributed while significantly cutting back on the minutes for the reserves who simply were not good. 

Now this brings us back to the real and fake issues that C.A. Clark discussed.  I agree that not having home court advantage is a problem and there really isn't anything the Lakers can do about it.  I too am not worried about Gasol and am actually not really worried about Odom either.  I am worried a little about the team's three point shooting and Derek Fisher in general but these were both issues that the Lakers were able to overcome last year. But this leads to the one point in which I and C.A. Clark agree could be the downfall of the Lakers this year: Ron Artest.

As evidence by the plus/minus chart above, Ron Artest was a significant contributor to the Lakers winning the title.  While he did struggle with his shot some, he completely neutralized Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce in what were the two toughest series for the Lakers match-up wise.  He also had big game winning tip-in and had a fantastic game 7 in the finals and really kept the Lakers in that game when Pau and Kobe couldn't hit a shot.  Without Ron Artest the Lakers don't win that championship in my opinion.  That is what has me concerned this year.  Ron has not been as solid on the defensive end and his offense game is basically in the same place it was last year (which wasn't good).  I don't think it is a stretch to say the Lakers will not be winning a title this year if Ron continues to play the way he has.

And this brings up a very interesting dilemna to me...

The Lakers were able to ride the starters to a title last year while getting nothing from the bench unit, including Andrew Bynum.  In fact, the Lakers have now won two straight titles without Bynum (plus another Finals appearance).  Also, the Lakers always finish games with Gasol and Odom on the floor.  So I ask the much debated question, "how important is Andrew Bynum to the Lakers chances of winning a title?"

The biggest reason people give for needing Bynum is that he provides the Lakers length and front court depth that gives teams nightmares.  And while I do agree, I also feel depth is over-rated somewhat in the playoffs as evidenced above.  The Lakers won a title solely based on the starters contributions in spite of the bench.  The advantage of having a solid bench is that it saves the starters from burning out during the long regular season.  The bench is minized in the playoffs though.

The other main support that is typically mentioned is that it keeps Gasol at the PF where he prefers to be.  While he may prefer the PF spot, he can certainly play the center role.  Some will argue that Bynum was needed to match-up with Perkins as Gasol can't, but that is a false statement.  When the Lakers starting unit featuring Bynum and Gasol went head to head last year against Boston's starting unit with Perkins, the Lakers were outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. However, when the Lakers starting unit featuring Gasol and Odom went against that same Boston unit in the playoffs they outscored Boston by 23 points per 100 possessions.  In fact, when the Lakers played Boston in 2008 and the line up of Fisher, Bryant, Odom, Gasol were on the floor with any other Lakers player they outscored Boston's starting unit by 3 points per 100 possessions.  The reason the Lakers lost that series was once one of the Lakers four core players left the game the drop off was too much for the starters to overcome.  So if Gasol can handle Perkins well enough and has proven he can match-up with Howard then he can play center against any opposition the Lakers would face.

The last two season that the Lakers won a title they did so by playing their core four starters (Fisher, Bryant, Odom, and Gasol) significant minutes, reducing the bench's role, and having a small forward that contributes (first Ariza and then Artest).  During the 2009 title run it was Ariza's hot offensive streak that helped the Lakers win as his defense, other than a couple of steals at the end of the Denver games, was actually pretty poor. During the 2010 title run it was Artest defense that really impacted the games as his offense was poor.  So it doesn't matter the if player at the position is good on offense or defense, just so long as he isn't bad at both ends. The 2008 season where they failed to win a title a big reason was that they got nothing from the small forward position as it was manned by either Walton, Radmanovic, or Vujacic.  It appears that the key to the Lakers success is a solid starting 5 playing significant minutes.

This brings us full circle to Ron Artest concerns and the Carmelo Anthony for Andrew Bynum trade possibilities.  If Ron Artest's defense is poor and his offense continues to struggle then the Lakers are essentially back where they were in 2008 with four respectable starters and a gaping hole at the SF position.  That team didn't get it done and with the additional mileage on our core players I don't think they would this time either. The only advantage that this team would have over the 2008 version is Bynum but if he sharing minutes with Odom and isn't going to be on the floor at the end of games then his contributions will be somewhat limited.  Would it not make sense to trade Bynum for Carmelo, increase Odom's minutes to 40 in the playoffs, and have Carmelo play a full 40 minutes at the SF position?  This would give the Lakers a better starting 5 than any of the previous 3 years and it appears that the starting 5 is all that really seems to matter... 

...or the Lakers could bank on the combination of Artest and Barnes being enough the SF position along with Bynum's additional contributions to get them over the hump.  Only time will tell.

Just a little something to think about as we head into the All-Star weekend.

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