Ever Disappointing, Ever Blessed

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 13: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots against Marcus Thornton #23 of the Sacramento Kings look on against on April 13, 2011 at Power Balence Pavilion in Sacramento, California. 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 Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

As another 82 game grind hits the books, its time to spend the briefest of moments looking back before we spend what seems like an eternity looking forward.  The Los Angeles Lakers treated us to another season filled with the highs and lows which can only be associated with an under-achieving titan.  Eight straight wins to start the season, driven by what would have been the greatest offense in the history of the league if it had kept, whetted our appetite for another strong year.  Large win streaks throughout the season convinced us that somewhere, underneath the wrinkles of father time and the love handles of a lazy team, there was still greatness.

Oh, but the disappointment.  It was just so much more disappoint-y this season, wasn't it?  Were you aware that, prior to this season, the Lakers had lost three straight games only once in the Pau Gasol era?  Of course you are, because it was repeated non-stop for two straight seasons, prior to them finally doing it last year.  Maybe the Lakers simply got tired of hearing that phrase, because once they established themselves as a juggernaut to be feared, they wasted no time losing not just three games, but four games straight.  Then, just for good measure, they "bottomed" themselves by going five straight without a victory near season's end.  Problem is, there's a very good reason why the Lakers hadn't lost more than three straight games in the Pau Gasol era ... it's not something champions generally do. 

The last champion to lose four straight games was the 2006 Miami Heat.  The last champion to lose five straight was the 1995 Houston Rockets.  The last champion to have losing streaks of both 4 and 5 games in the same season?  It probably hasn't happened yet.  Besides, what those teams have in common is that they were probably the two weakest champions of the past 30 years, Miami the benefactor of a weak conference (they were the 2nd seed with 52 wins) and some of the most controversial NBA Finals officiating in memory, while Houston took advantage of the power vacuum which existed in the league's two non-Jordan years.  If the Lakers are to join that "illustrious" group, they will have no such luck.  This year's crop of contenders is as dense as any in recent memory, with plenty of teams from both sides of the country having legitimate dreams of postseason success. 

And yet, after a season filled with disappointment, the Lakers remain in prime position, because the basketball gods have smiled on us again, like they always seem to do.

Without thinking about it, answer the following question: Is this year's version of the Los Angeles Lakers better than last year's version? On paper, the answer certainly seems to be yes.  Overall record wise, it's a dead heat.  Both teams ended up with 57 wins and 25 losses.  Last year's squad was 53-18 before going 4-7 down the stretch.  This year, the Lakers best win-loss mark was probably the 55-20 record sported before they lost five straight.  So, in both seasons, the Lakers finishing kick has been about as strong as you'd find in your grandmother's over 70 water aerobics class.

Statistically, however, despite stretches of extremely poor play spread throughout the season, this year's Lakers are a far better team.  Offensively, it's a no brainer.  Observe the following comparison.

Rk

Team

ORtg

Pace

eFG%

TOV%

ORB%

FT/FGA

2010-2011

Los Angeles Lakers*

111

90.7

0.502

0.123

0.292

0.228

2009-2010

Los Angeles Lakers*

108.8

92.8

0.496

0.124

0.276

0.221

 

As you can see, the Lakers are better by every measure.  They shoot the ball better, they pull in more offensive rebounds, they get to the foul line more, there is not one single offensive category of "the four factors" in which they are not improved.  This shouldn't be a surprise, since the Lakers ended last season with the league's 11th best offense, while they spent much of this year in the top two or three before going through an insanely bad offensive stretch (the reason for those five losses) which caused them to fall off dramatically.  But what about the defense?  Surely, last year's team was a far stronger defensive team, right?

Rk

Team

DRtg

eFG%

TOV%

DRB%

FT/FGA

2010-2011

Los Angeles Lakers*

104.3

0.477

0.128

0.723

0.181

2009-2010

Los Angeles Lakers*

103.7

0.484

0.132

0.744

0.195

I don't know about you, but I found this pretty damn surprising.  It turns out, this year's defense is actually better than last year's in many ways.  They hold opponents to a lower shooting percentage, any difference in turnover creation is marginal, and they do a fantastic job of limiting opposing free throws.  The entirety of their defensive shortcomings can be wrapped up in one single number ... extremely poor defensive rebounding.  I don't know about you, but that's got to make me like our chances in the postseason, because if there were one element of defensive aptitude I would attribute to being affected by effort level, rebounding would be it.  Overall, the Lakers were nearly 7 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents.  Last season, that number was barely higher than 5.  Make no mistake, this year's team was far better in the regular season than last year's team.

But the other element that has the Lakers poised for a strong postseason run is the one that every champion needs just a little bit of ... luck.  The Lakers have lucked into as easy a postseason path as is possible.  Their first round opponent, the New Orleans Hornets, are easily the weakest of the Western Conference playoff flock, due to the injury to David West.  Their prospective 2nd round opponent, the Dallas Mavericks, have struggled with the Lakers for years, and haven't performed well in the playoffs since being on the wrong end of that 2006 Finals controversy I spoke of earlier.  All the (seemingly) toughest Western teams are on the opposite end of the bracket except Portland, and they have to go through Dallas to get to the Lakers. 

New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio, the Lakers three prospective opponents ... you know what those teams have in common?  Terrible offensive rebounding.  They rank 20th, 26th, and 21st respectively in picking up offensive boards.  The Lakers' primary advantage is their tremendous size and skill in the front court.  The Western Conference teams with the weakest front courts are ... New Orleans, Dallas, and San Antonio.  The Lakers couldn't have picked their opponents any better.  Obviously, the latter two teams need to take care of their own business to actually make this all pan out, and that is no sure thing, nor is it any sure thing that these advance numbers actually manifest themselves in the way the Lakers play.  All that said, it sure seems like the Western Conference is doing it's damndest to part like the Red Sea for the defending champs.

But that's not where the Lakers have been luckiest.  If there is one area in which the Lakers have been truly blessed, it is with injuries.  This year's squad is the healthiest the Lakers have been since they became contenders.  Four of the five starters started all 82 games (and 6th starter Lamar Odom played in all 82 as well).  Andrew Bynum, despite his most recent injury scare, still appears to be in a better place health wise than we've ever seen him in the postseason.  Knock on all the wood you can, but the Lakers are far more ready to go for the final charge than anybody could have reasonably expected.

The Los Angeles Lakers spent the regular season disappointing us, as they often do.  At this point, the disappointment is expected, oxymoronic as that might sound.  But, as also often seems to happen, things seem to be breaking just the right way for them to make another deep postseason run.  I don't know that they deserve the luck they always seem to receive, but I sure don't mind enjoying it.  And now, it's time to start the part of the season in which the Lakers rarely disappoint.

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