Lakers-Hornets Preview: What's That Buzzing Sound?

LOS ANGELES CA - JANUARY 7: Jarrett Jack #2 of the New Orleans Hornets gets a hand on the ball as he defends against Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 7 2011 in Los Angeles California. The Lakers won 101-97. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

And away they go, the Lakers on their yearly exile from Staples Center to make room for the Grammy Awards. Legend has it that this is when the team comes together for the stretch run. Long flights and the isolating effects of hotel living force everyone to bond over Boo-Ray games, Madden tournaments, pay-per-view movies and other mobile 21st century time-wasters. That's the theory, at least, and certainly the Lakers could do with a bit of improved morale right now, as they've dropped five of their last nine amid a swell of trade chatter.

The Spurs are so far ahead in the race for home-court advantage in the West that we can't even see them over the horizon. Even so, the Lakers' playoff seeding is far from settled. Last night the Mavericks passed them for second place in the conference, and the Thunder aren't too distantly behind, to say nothing of the various teams in the East it would be nice to overtake in case the champs make their way back to the Finals. Much though the purple and gold might prefer to fast-forward to the postseason, their final 32 regular-season games are actually important, as they'll determine exactly how steep the Lakers' uphill playoff climb is going to be.

Tonight's hosts, the New Orleans Hornets, are one of the teams nipping at the Lakers' heels. They're fifth in the West at the moment, 2½ games back of the Lakes. In January they tore off a 10-game winning streak that included victories over the Nuggets, Magic, Hawks, Spurs and Thunder, but since then they've lost three of four to cool off a little. A week ago they even dropped one to the miserable Sacramento Kings. My stars, how mortifying for them! I mean, seriously, who the hell loses to the Sacram-.... oh, right. Never mind.

Twice already this season the Lakers have faced, and beaten, the Hornets. First was a 103 to 88 stomping in Louisiana back on December 29th. Then at Staples on January 7th the Hornets kept it close but fell by four. These outcomes fit a pattern of Laker dominance in this matchup during the Pau Gasol era. Since the large Spaniard joined the squad, the Lakers have taken 8 of 11 from New Orleans, including 3 of 5 in the Hornets' gym. Four of the Lakers' victories in the series have been by double digits.

What accounts for the one-sidedness? I've a couple theories. One involves Chris Paul. The Hornets' megastar point guard, brilliant though he clearly is, doesn't have the attack-the-rim style that other point guards use to thrash the Lakers' defense. We all know the Lakers suck at defending point guards generally, but when you think of the guys who've really tormented L.A. the last couple years, who comes to mind? For me, the names at the top of the list are Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose - powerful, superathletic marauders who can go full-tilt to the basket over and over. These bros can use their muscley frames to go right into the chest of the Laker big men and sometimes over them. But the point guards who take a more deliberate, finessed approach, such as Steve Nash or Paul, are more readily deterred by the Lakers' inside length. Indeed, you have to look back almost two full years, to February of 2009, to find a Lakers-Hornets game in which Paul came up with a dominating performance.


My second (and not terribly radical) theory is all about height. The Hornets are one of the shortest teams in the NBA: if you calculate average player height weighted by minutes played, they rank 27th in the league. The big men they rely on most, Emeka Okafor and David West, are both especially stumpy for their positions, which is a mucho bad thing when you're trying to slow down a front line of Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Typically the Laker bigs can simply play over the top of their Hornet counterparts. Offensive rebounding is where this has shown up most starkly. Back in December the Lakers' rebounded 37% of their own misses en route to scoring 1.16 points per possession. In January they rebounded 34% of their misses and scored 1.17 points per trip. To put these figures in context: for the season, New Orleans opponents have recovered just 23% of their own shots and averaged 1.02 points per possession.

So even at full strength, the Hornets don't match up fabulously well with the purp and yellow. Unfortunately, they're far from full strength at the moment. Trevor Ariza sprained an ankle in Oklahoma City on Wednesday and is out for a couple weeks. Also on the shelf is Okafor, with an oblique strain. Nondescript big man Jason Smith has moved into the starting position at the center spot. It's not totally clear who the starting three will be, but it sounds like it'll be rookie Quincy Pondexter. Throw those bros together with Marco Belinelli, and this is the least imposing starting lineup the Lakers will encounter until they reach Cleveland in two-and-a-half weeks.

If you think that guarantees a Laker win, you haven't been watching this team. It's just as likely that New Orleans' decimated roster will be interpreted by the champs as permission to take the night off, leading to another disenchanting loss. You really, really never know with these guys.


On paper, though, this looks pretty well set up for a Laker W. It's just not apparent how the Hornets are going to come up with enough points. After Paul and West there's... who? Marcus Thornton? Jarrett Jack? Decent bench guys, but if either is your third option on offense, it would seem you're a little outgunned. I'm feeling pretty confident about this matchup, not that you should take any great comfort (or distress, if you're a Hornets' fan) from how I'm feeling.

 

                   Lakers                 

                 Hornets                 

 


League Rank


League Rank

Record...................................

34-16

6

32-19

9

Net Points Per Game..............

+6.7

4

+3.0

9

Pace.......................................

91.8

17

89.2

28

Offensive Rating.....................

112.4

2

105.4

21

Turnover Rate (Off.).............

12.7%

2

13.3%

14

FTA/FGA (Off.)....................

0.31

12

0.30

17

Free-Throw %......................

78.6%

7

76.6%

15

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)............

0.23

14

0.19

23

3PT% (Off.).........................

36.1%

15

35.6%

17

Effective FG% (Off.)............

51.1%

10

49.1%

16

True Shooting% (Off.)...........

55.5%

9

53.6%

16

Off Rebounding Rate............

29.9%

4

25.2%

21

Defensive Rating.....................

105.1

11

102.1

3

Turnover Rate (Def.).............

12.9%

24

14.2%

8

FTA/FGA (Def.)...................

0.24

1

0.28

5

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)............

0.25

25

0.24

24

3PT% (Def.)........................

34.1%

6

33.5%

4

Effective FG% (Def.)............

48.3%

7

48.4%

9

True Shooting% (Def.)..........

51.9%

3

52.6%

8

Def Rebounding Rate............

72.6%

21

77.2%

2

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. All numbers except for weighted-average height are courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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