Over the last two weeks, the scribes here at SS&R have previewed all aspects of the Lakers. They have dissected the rotation at each position, analyzed the offensive and defensive strategies, and dived into the roles of the bench unit. As we have done in years past, when all this information is complete we then input it into our top secret super-computer to crank out the projected stat lines for this year's squad. So for those of you who have yet to complete your fantasy league drafts, you can toss whatever cheat sheets you have for the Lakers players because here are the best predictions in the industry*.
For the first time since Shaq was a Laker, Kobe Bryant will score fewer than 25 points per game. With Nash at the helm, the shot attempts will be more evenly dispersed. Furthermore, the Lakers shouldn't need Kobe to play 38+ minutes per game. Kobe will however be more efficient and I am expecting a strong bounce back from the awful 30% three-point shooting he exhibited last year.
Continuing the theme of "first time since Shaq", Kobe Bryant will have a teammate who averages 20 points per game. Howard won't need many field goal attempts either as I am projecting him to shoot just over 60% from the field. For some perspective, if Howard hits this projection, it will be the 2nd highest field goal percentage in history for a player who averaged at least 20 points per game (behind Chamberlain's ridiculous 1966-67 season of 68.3%). Furthermore, last year's sub-50% shooting from the line stands out as a complete outlier that I think can be attributable to the issues with his back. A healthy Howard should shoot close to 60% from line.
For Gasol, a staple of consistency, I am expecting a regular season just like last year for the big Spaniard. Gasol didn't play poorly last year, his role simply changed. He shot slightly poorer from the field as he moved further from the basket to create space for Bynum. It also led to a decrease in free throw attempts. The same is expected this year with Howard anchoring the middle. Gasol did post the second highest assist average of his career last year and with the implementation of the Princeton offense along with the beautiful passing between Nash, Gasol, and Howard in the pre-season, I am not expecting any decline here.
Nash is one of the more difficult projections because there will be quite a change in style from previous years. He certainly won't need to carry much of the scoring load on this team, and thus I am projecting his lowest scoring average since the 1998-99 season. The biggest surprise from this projection is his assists which will fall shy of double digits. In Phoenix Nash put up huge assist numbers because almost every pick-and-roll or kick-out pass turned into a shot attempt. One thing that has been evident in the pre-season is that Nash may become the league leader in the hockey assist (the pass that sets up the assist), but these aren't tracked in basketball. What was a pick and pop in Phoenix is suddenly a pick and pass to Bryant or Gasol, which then turns into a lob to Howard. Additionally, the Princeton offense, much like the triangle offense, results in a distribution of assists across many players and not just the point guard.
Thirty pounds lighter (and it really shows), Metta is much more active on both ends of the floor. The biggest attribute that he brings on the offensive end is his three-point shooting. Historically he has been a pretty respectable three-point shooter, but like many of the Lakers last season, he had an extremely poor year shooting the ball. Now he has one of the best point guards in history hitting him in the corners for open threes. I am looking for a strong rebound in his three-point shooting this season.
The newest acquisition to the Lakers bench, Meeks should lead the reserves in scoring. He isn't asked to do anything more than catch and shoot the three, a skill he is quite good at. He hit 11 of his 24 attempts, good for 45.8%, in the pre-season. While he won't keep that up all season, he is capable of hitting 40%. The Lakers finally have a solid back-up shooting guard to spell Kobe.
Jamison was brought in to be the scoring punch at the back-up power forward position the Lakers have lacked since the departure of Lamar Odom. He is no longer one of the top options offensively and thus his scoring should decline dramatically. He will get his attempts up when plays, but given the players in front of him he won't see the court enough to hoist 15 shots per game like he has during his career.
Ebanks has shown much improvement in the pre-season and even showed off a little bit of a shooting touch from deep. Ebanks may be listed as the second option at the small forward position on the depth chart, but much of his playing time will likely be determined by how well Meeks plays at the shooting guard position. If Meeks hits his threes at a 40% clip, then Mike Brown could look to increase his playing time by sliding Kobe over the small forward position for a few minutes a game. This obviously would cut into Ebanks playing time which is why I am only projecting he plays 16 minutes per game.
Hill is in a tough position as he is third on the depth chart at both front line positions. Gasol essentially plays starting power forward and back-up center. Jamison is the back-up power forward off the bench. Hill sits behind them as the third string, which is unfortunate because the young kid is quite the player. I have him only playing 50 games, not because of injury but because there will be games where he never sees the floor. When one of the front line players gets injured (which is bound to happen), Hill will get more burn.
Blake should win the job as first off the bench to give Nash a breather. While neither Blake nor Duhon are great back-ups, Blake is a bigger threat shooting the ball and obviously has more familiarity with the Lakers. Blake was awful shooting the ball last year, but I am expecting him to rebound here. If he doesn't though, look for Duhon to step in and take his minutes.
Duhon will get a few opportunities here or there but likely won't see the floor for extended time unless one of the other point guards gets injured or Blake severely struggles shooting the ball. That is why I am projecting he plays in only 15 games. There just aren't many minutes available as a third string
Sacre had a surprisingly productive pre-season; however he is still the "break in case of injury" big man. Until one of the front line players goes down, he won't see the floor.
Earl Clark is in the same position as Sacre, and barring a few injuries to the Lakers power forwards, he won't see the floor.
The two Darius'
The Lakers are projecting some major improvements offensively with the acquisitions that were made. Nash and Howard represent two of the league's highest field goal percentages at their respective positions. Both players also make the game easier for their teammates. The Lakers should challenge the league leaders in field goal percentage, as they were ranked 8th last season despite the lack of point guard talent and struggles shooting the three. Speaking of the three, the Lakers are projected to hit at least 36% of their attempts from deep which would make them a top-10 team, a marked improvement over last season's rank of 25th.
The addition of Howard, who gets to the line over ten times per game, will help the Lakers become one of the league leaders in free throw attempts. Offsetting some of the benefit is the fact that Howard only makes about 60% of his attempts which will drive the Lakers down in free throw efficiency. The majority of the other Lakers' team stats will be relatively unchanged.
The combination of better shooting, both inside and beyond the arc, along with more free throw attempts are projected to improve the Lakers offense. The 105 points per game is a significant improvement on the previous couple of seasons. Some of this improvement is due to a faster pace of play as Nash pushes the ball more often than Fisher and Howard runs the floor much better than Bynum did. The Lakers should finish in the top five in points per game and in the top two or three in offensive efficiency.
So there you have it. My predictions for the Lakers players this year. My day job when I am not diving into all things Lakers is as an actuary (hence the screen name). One my favorite sayings among actuaries is, "We are always wrong, it's just a matter of how much." So with that being said, feel free discuss how wrong you think these predictions are in the comment section as we enjoy the final weekend before the NBA starts.
* Any claim that these are the best projections in the industry are solely the views of the heavily biased author.