The sun is shining just a little bit brighter on Lakerland today. Both team and fanbase are basking in the glow of defeating the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, a victory which is a rarer occurrence around these parts than a championship win. For the first time perhaps all season, the Lakers had the look of a legitimate contender, with enough cohesion and correctly working parts to get the focus where it belongs, on a Big Three that is every bit as intimidating as exists in the league.
We should all be happy that the Lakers are finally putting together a strong run of form. It's what we've wanted and hoped for all season long. However, and apologies in advance for raining on the parade, it's important that the front office not lose focus on the task at hand. Mitch Kupchak and company have exactly 10 days with which to swing whatever assets are at their disposal into additional help for the remaining assets, in the hopes of improving the overall quality of the team, because roster spots 4-15 remain the worst in the league.
That statement regarding the quality of depth in this year's Lakers squad has been thrown around before, but never really had any weight to it. It's just a catchy thing to say, one that communicates how frustrated we might be with all the non All-Stars on the roster, right? Wrong. The Lakers really do have the worst back end roster in the league. and it's not even close.
I just happened to be perusing the Lakers' team page over at basketball-reference.com and something caught my eye. Under the Advanced tab, there's a little column for a catch-all stat called PER. You know what I noticed, what made the eyes pause instead of continuing on to the data I was really looking for? Single Digits. A whole lot of them.
Long-time readers will know of the rocky relationship Lakers fans have with PER. It's designed to reduce a player's value down to a single number, and the number it has reduced Kobe Bryant to over the years doesn't sit so well with those of us who think that Kobe's place in the league, and in the league's history, is much closer to the top. But this is an unnecessary digression from the task at hand, because for our purposes, PER will serve just fine. All you need to know about the number is that a 15 PER is considered average, a 20 PER is a borderline All-Star, and a 10 PER is a player that should on the short end of the stick when it comes to a team's rotation.
Getting back to the Lakers, Kobe Bryant is having yet another fine season, currently posting a 24.2. Andrew Bynum is proving his consistent worth while healthy, with a stellar 22.1. Pau Gasol is struggling a bit this season, but is still awesome with a 20.7. And Matt Barnes has the distinct honor of being the only other guy not to suck, with a 14.8. Keep in mind, that's already technically below average, but it still is enough to qualify Barnes as far and away the 4th most effective player on the roster. And after Barnes? We're single digits the rest of the way. There are names on that list that you know, like Fisher, Walton, Kapono, World Peace. Names you might not expect, like Blake, Murphy, or Goudelock. Every single one of them sporting a PER below 10.
That's right folks. Roster spots 5-14, a grand total of 10 players, all come in with a PER that barely qualifies them to play in the league. How bad is that? Well, I did a quick check of the rest of the teams in the league, and no other team sports more than 8 dudes with single digit PER. Cleveland is the second worst, with 8 players under 10. The Lakers' partner in crime when it comes to really old superstar cores, the Boston Celtics, chime in with 7 single digit PER players. So do the New Jersey Nets. There are a few fine teams out there (OKC, Miami, the Clippers, and Orlando) with six single digit players.
You might be thinking 10 players vs. 8 or 7 isn't that big of a difference, that some of these other teams have bench units almost as weak as our own. You would be wrong, because, if your mind is anything like my own, this next bit of numerology will blow your mind in its epic horror. At first, my thoughts were along those same lines ...10 players ...8 players, what does it matter when these guys probably hardly ever see the court? So the next thing I checked was how many minutes each team is giving to players with single digit PERs. Second place goes to the Celtics, with a total of 2783 minutes having gone to these "bad" players. Oklahoma City surprisingly leads the rest of the pack with 2415 total minutes, thanks to high minutes-low PER contributors Kendrick Perkins and Daequan Cook. Of course the Lakers lead the league in minutes to bad players, but where do they fit into the bell curve? They smash the hell out of it. The Los Angeles Lakers have played single digit PER players a total of 4263 minutes, an increase of more than 50% over the 2nd place Celtics.
To put that in perspective, consider that even though Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant all play closer to 40 minutes per game than they do to 30, the Los Angeles Lakers still give almost half of their available court time to players who can't manage better production than you might expect out of a D-league player. To be exact, 47.7% of all court time goes to these players.
If you were wondering why the Lakers had rumored interest in Rasheed Wallace, this is why. If you don't understand why it might make sense to trade Pau Gasol when there's no way the Lakers might get equal value in terms of a star player, this is why. According to these numbers, if Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum were to take the night off, the Lakers would struggle to win a D-league contest. The Lakers need depth and they need it very, very badly. They have 10 days to acquire some, whether that means taking on additional salary or getting rid of prized players.
So, be glad that the Lakers are playing well as a team right now. Be glad that the defense (which, to be fair, is never properly accounted for in PER) is feisty and effective. Be glad that the Lakers have a home court advantage as dominant as it is confusing (it's not like the Staples Center atmosphere should be intimidating opponents). Be glad that they are piling up the wins. But don't be distracted for a second by all this positive energy emanating out of the team right now. The roster remains, as it has been all season, extremely flawed, and top-heavy enough that it's a miracle the team can keep its head straight.