Lakers Post All-Star Break Run: A Case of Extremes

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 12: Kobe Bryant #24 and Ron Artest #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers react after a 96-91 win against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center on March 12, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Despite yesterday's loss, the Lakers have flipped that proverbial "switch" and suddenly appear to be in full playoff mode.  They have won 17 of their 19 games since the all-star break and look ready to take on all comers in their quest for a third straight Larry O'Brien trophy.  Even more impressive, this has been accomplished in the midst of one of the most difficult stretches of the season, with 12 of the 17 teams being above .500.  The Lakers having the ability to suddenly turn "it" on should not come as surprise to Lakers fans (just look to last season's playoff run).  However, what is surprising are the areas in which they have or have not improved over this recent stretch.

In C.A.'s piece on Ron Artest last week, he alluded to the many "switches" that various players have flipped, very few of which bore any resemblance to what we normally think of with switch flipping.  Certainly the team's improved play has come as a result of multiple players stepping up their games and playing with increased effort and focus.  The defense has been extremely stingy with an efficiency rating (points per 100 possessions) of only 99.2, an improvement of over two points relative to their season average.  The offense continues to perform at an elite level with an efficiency rating of 108.3, in-line with the 108.6 for the season.  While the results on offense haven't changed much, there has been some changes in how it has remained at an elite level..  So what has led to these changes post all-star break?  The results may not be what one would initially expect.

 

Before we can examine what has changed, we should establish a baseline for how it is the Lakers play.  In what areas have they been successful all season, and where could they improve their game?  Below is a table showing various statistics for offense and defense along with where the Lakers rank in the league for each of these categories.

 

Offense

Defense

Category

Statistic

Rank

Statistic

Rank

Efficiency

108.6

4

101.5

7

Rebound Rate

29.8

3

72.2

23

Turnover Rate

12.3

2

12.9

19

Effective FG%

50.4%

10

48.0%

5

Free Throw Rate

0.288

20

0.233

1

True Shooting %

54.8%

11

51.6%

4

 

Offensively the Lakers are an elite team, ranking 4th in the league.  They are a slightly above average shooting team (ranked 10th in eFG% and 11th in TS%) but are quite poor at getting to the foul line (ranked 20th in free throw rate).  What they lack in efficient shooting and getting to the line, they make up in volume of attempts.  The Lakers are the third best team in the league at gaining extra possessions by rebounding their own misses.  They are also 2nd in the league in fewest turnovers.  All these extra attempts are the Lakers biggest offensive strength.

Defensively the Lakers are a solid team, ranking 7th in the league.  The Lakers defense is built around not giving up easy points.  The Lakers have so much size that they can contest shots without fouling.  The result is the 5th best team in field goal defense and the best in the league at not fouling.  It is very difficult to convert possessions into points against the Lakers defense.  However, just like the Lakers offense is strengthened by the volume of attempts, so is the opposition's.  The Lakers, despite their size, are a poor defensive rebounding team (ranking 23rd).  They also force few turnovers, ranking 19th.

Now on to the post all-star break numbers...

Offense:

The Lakers offense has been virtually unchanged since the all-star break relative to their full season .  My initial gut feeling was that the Lakers offense probably improved post all-star break.  Ron Artest has been an asset on offense lately as he is finally making shots.  Steve Blake, arguably the best shooter on the Lakers, has finally decided to start shooting again.  The Lakers, as a team, seem to be more focused on pounding the ball inside.  Kobe Bryant, too, has become more aggressive as the playoffs have drawn closer.  I would have thought that these changes would have helped the Lakers improve on their poor shooting and free throw attempts, thus increasing their efficiency.

Here is a table showing the offensive stats and ranks for the season and then for the games after the all-star break:

Offensive

Season

Post All-Star

Category

Statistic

Rank

Statistic

Rank

Efficiency

108.6

4

108.3

4

Rebound Rate

29.8

3

29.2

6

Turnover Rate

12.3

2

10.7

1

Effective FG%

50.4%

10

49.4%

18

Free Throw Rate

0.288

20

0.274

28

True Shooting %

54.8%

11

53.7%

15

Well doesn't that defy all logic?!  Despite the improved shooting from Artest and Blake, the Lakers have actually been worse shooting the ball by a full percent.  Despite Kobe's increased aggressiveness and the effort to feed the post the Lakers are actually attempting even fewer free-throws.  The Lakers went from close to average in these categories to below average.  On the other hand, there biggest strength, turnover rate, has actually improved. The rebound rate has decreased slightly but remains at an elite level, but the real story is the turnovers (or lack there of).  The Lakers have been extremely protective of the rock.  How protective?  No team over the last five years has had a turnover rate below 11.0 while the Lakers have been at 10.7 during this stretch and this includes yesterday's 20 turnover slop-fest.  Offensively the Lakers have improved in the area where they were already elite and have regressed in the areas they were merely average.

Defense:

Defensively the Lakers have played with an efficiency that would place them 4th in the league.  Ron Artest has picked up the intensity on the perimeter and is forcing turnovers.  Bynum is dominating the glass and helping to keep the opponent to only one shot (usually a contested one).  Certainly the Lakers have improved on their very poor rankings in turnovers and defensive rebounding right?

Defense

Season

Post All-Star

Category

Statistic

Rank

Statistic

Rank

Efficiency

101.5

7

99.2

3

Rebound Rate

72.2

23

70.8

29

Turnover Rate

12.9

19

12.8

22

Effective FG%

48.0%

5

46.3%

2

Free Throw Rate

0.233

1

0.226

1

True Shooting %

51.6%

4

49.8%

1

Surprising results again.  The two biggest changes my eyes have seen in the Lakers defense don't show up in the stats.  They went from pretty bad in forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding to downright awful, ranking 22nd and 29th respectively.  However, the areas that were their strengths (field goal defense and avoiding putting the opposition on the free throw line) have improved significantly to league best levels. 

The Lakers have been steam-rolling the league since the all-star break with the improved defense and still elite offense.  Typically when a team improves, it does so by identifiying its weaknesses and correcting those areas first.  After all, it is easier to make marginal gains from a poor starting position than it is to make the same gains from an already elite level.  However, as is the case often in Laker Land, nothing is typical.  In this case the Lakers appear to have taken their strengths and weaknesses to new extremes.

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