The Lakers enter the All-Star break sporting a 20-14 record, good for fifth in the crowded Western Conference. With half the season complete, the potential of this Lakers squad is still uncertain. On paper they possess three of the best players in the league at their respective positions. In support of the trio of stars, they possess an impressive roster of floor spacing shooters. Unfortunately this paper contender has been underwhelming, with many of the players failing to perform even at their career averages. The big question that faces the Lakers now is whether this team can contend with the pieces they have or whether a change needs to be made. It isn’t an unfamiliar question either. We essentially asked the same thing at the same point in time last year
Multiple strings of bad defeats, a poor record vs. elite competition, and a core that qualifies for the NBA's version of the AARP program are just a few of the signs that indicate the team's stretch of NBA domination might be coming to a close.
We know better than to believe in those signs 100%. Yes, this team is struggling. Yes, they do not have the "look" of a champion. But they pulled a variation of this same trick last season, and it did not stop them from winning four playoff series and capturing another Larry O'Brien trophy.
The Lakers then flipped a switch and went on a post All-Star break tear, winning 17 of 18 games, and showed just what the team was capable of when everything clicked. Could we be on the verge of déjà vu again?
The primary source of the Lakers struggles can be traced back to poor three-point shooting. The Lakers possess the 6th best three-point shooter in history (Jason Kapono), the 2nd best three-point shooter 6’11" or taller (Troy Murphy), a point guard (Steve Blake) whose career three-point percentage is just behind sharpshooters Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, and a rookie who dominated the competition in last year’s college three-point shooting contest (Andrew Goudelock). Despite that impressive list of accomplishments, the Lakers are ranked 28th in three point shooting. The issue however doesn’t lie as much with the aforementioned players. They have connected on just over 37% of their attempts from deep as a group. The rest of the Lakers meanwhile have made less than 27% total.
The outlook for the Lakers looks much better though for the second half of the season. Mike Brown has started to settle in on his rotations after spending the first few months learning his personnel. He has settled on Troy Murphy as the first big man off the bench who spaces the floor much better than Josh McRoberts. Somewhat puzzling is the fact that McRoberts has yet to take a three point attempt, despite making 23 of 60 attempts last year (38%). The Darius Morris experiment appears to be on hold as Brown has consistently gone with Goudelock. Finally, the return of Steve Blake from injury means the Lakers best shooting pure point guard sees more time and the elder Fisher less. Mike Brown has done well to improve the allocation of three point attempts towards the better shooters.
Another reason for potential improvement is that the Lakers won't continue to shoot as poorly as they have, not when their career averages are much better. The biggest example of this is Metta World Peace. He is a career 34% three point shooter who made only 7 of 46 attempts through January. In the month of February he has made 10 of 25, good for 40%. With Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher shooting below 30% so far this season, well below their career averages, we should expect some regression to the mean for these veterans.
The biggest benefit of better outside shooting is the impact it will have on the Lakers interior offense. The Lakers have arguably the three best post players at their respective positions in Bynum, Gasol, and Bryant. The Lakers offense works best when the ball finds its way into the post. Teams know this and have loaded up the defense on the interior and prevented the offense from functioning efficiently. In the few games where the Lakers have been shooting the ball well from behind the arc, it has opened everything up for Bynum and Gasol. The Lakers pick and roll with Bryant and Gasol is virtually unstoppable. When the opposition has to stay glued to the other shooters, this play always results in either an open Gasol jumper from 10 feet or a lob to Bynum for a dunk. Spacing means everything for this offense and credible three point threats are needed to provide it.
Last year the Lakers faced first half struggles, primarily defensive, and then responded with an incredible run after the All-Star break. They may be posed to do to the same thing this year. One only needs to take a look at the upcoming schedule to see why. Over the next 11 games, they play only one team with a top 10 record in the league (Miami at home) and three of the five road games are against Detroit, Washington, and New Orleans. The only back to back games are Detroit-Washington and Memphis-New Orleans. The Lakers may be favored in 10 of the 11 games on a stretch that includes no "schedule losses".
The Lakers should have their legs back under them after the All-Star break. They have few back-to-backs to deal with over the next month and the opposition is relatively weak. It is a great opportunity for the Lakers to go on a nice run and establish the rhythm that has been severely lacking this season. If they do it will certainly feel like a sense of déjà vu from last season. We can only hope the ending is a little different.