There has never been a question of whether or not this Lakers team has the talent to win a championship. The big questions about this team were could they remain healthy given their age, did they have the right coach and system, and did the pieces fit together? Clearly the injury issues have hit this team hard. One can only hope the injury bug is behind them with the only long term damage being the loss of Jordan Hill. The question of right coach and system was clearly enough of a concern that the Lakers brass felt it had to fire Mike Brown and replace him with Mike D'Antoni. Whether the firing and subsequent hiring were the right choice is debatable and likely will remain that way should the Lakers fall short of a title. This leaves us with the very contentious question of whether or not the pieces fit.
When discussing whether the Lakers pieces fit together, it doesn't take long for the discussion to shift solely to the big Spaniard, Pau Gasol. The highly skilled former all-star has been asked to play the power forward position. While he lacks the shooting range of a stretch four and foot speed to defend today's smaller and more athletic power forwards, his skills, particularly passing, are thought to be enough that he would still be an asset to the team. Unfortunately for Pau, his performance has been quite lacking and the Lakers looked very good in the two dominant wins against Cleveland and Milwaukee in which Gasol was in street clothes. This has brought to the forefront the question of should Gasol come off the bench? When D'Antoni was asked this question recently he responded with:
My job is to try to get the best team on the floor all the time and make it work. It doesn't mean I'm not including him. I just mean that's my job.
That is not a ringing endorsement of Pau. Reading between the lines makes me think that D'Antoni doesn't feel like his best team includes Gasol. Unfortunately, he may very well be right.
The following table shows the Lakers offensive and defensive ratings, and on/off court splits for the five starters since D'Antoni took over:
Gasol sticks out like a sore thumb among the starters. He is the only player who has a negative plus-minus when on the court. He is also the only starter in which the team has performed better when he leaves the floor. The net +/- column is the difference between the on and off court statistics and represents the total impact that player brings to the game. The Lakers are basically 7.6 points per 100 possessions better with Gasol not playing than when he is playing. Given he is the only one to show such an impact, it is a pretty damning case against the big man.
Perhaps what is most striking is the team's offensive rating with Gasol relative to the other starters. The other starters have all posted offensive ratings above 109, the equivalent of a top 5 offense. When Gasol is on the floor the Lakers have only generated an offensive rating of 105.8, the equivalent of a league average offense. Gasol is known to be an offensively skilled big man but he doesn't appear to be having a positive impact on the offense so far.
In defense of Pau Gasol, he is being asked to play the power forward position when in today's smaller and more athletic NBA he is more or less a true center. So let's take a look at the power forward/center combinations featuring Gasol:
The small sample size caveat clearly applies here as the three of the four combinations have played fewer than 100 minutes together. That being said, the results are pretty striking. When Gasol plays with another center (and I am considering Hill a center here), the Lakers are outscored by 7 to 8 points per 100 possessions. However, slide Gasol to center and put a stretch-four with him and the Lakers have done extremely well. This is exhibit A for the case that Gasol can still contribute, he is just being asked to be something he is not.
Further evidence of this position problem comes from 82games.com where at the power forward position Gasol has posted a PER of 13.0 (below league average of 15) while his opponent has had a PER of 15.4. Gasol is being outplayed at the four. The center position couldn't be more opposite. Gasol has a PER of 27.4 at the center position, his opponent meanwhile was held to a PER of 10.1. Gasol has dominated his opposition in the few minutes he has played in the middle with a stretch four at his side and it has translated into the Lakers beating the opposition quite handily with these line-ups.
These statistics are why I feel the Lakers could win a title with D'Antoni. He and Steve Nash have a long history of playing a one-in-four-out offense. Howard's time in Orlando was built around the same basic structure, four shooters plus a center. Unfortunately D'Antoni's hands have been tied and he has been somewhat forced to try and make the twin-tower line-up work, even though his two previous predecessors were unsuccessful at it. The two games against Cleveland and Milwaukee were perhaps the first two games in which we finally got to the see the D'Antoni system in place. After the Milwaukee game Howard said the following:
When we play the way we played these last two games, I don't see anybody beating us.
Howard couldn't be more right, but for the wrong reason. He made the above comment in reference to the Lakers energy and effort. While that certainly helped produce the dominating wins, the reason for the success was because those games featured nothing but one-in-four-out line-ups. The Lakers won those games by a combined 36 points. That included being outscored by 10 when Robert Sacre was trying his best as the back-up center.
Rather than looking at that two game sample, let's take a look at another set of statistics since D'Antoni took over. The following table breaks up the Lakers season into five types of line-ups: One-in-four-out line-ups featuring Gasol or Howard, the twin tower line-ups featuring Gasol and Howard, the combination of Hill and one of the aforementioned big men, and any other combination which consists primarily of the recent Robert Sacre stretch.
As can be seen above, the Lakers have been very good under D'Antoni with the one center and four shooters (small) line-ups. Whether it was Gasol or Howard, it didn't matter. The Thunder are currently the best team in the NBA and their net rating is +10. These small ball line-ups have outperformed even that high standard. With Gasol (again in limited minutes) the Lakers' offense has been incredibly efficient, even more efficient than with Howard. Where Howard impacts the game is defensively. The Lakers with Howard and a small ball line-up have held opponents to only 101.5 points per 100 possessions. That is top 5 defense right there folks, just like his time in Orlando with a similar style of line-ups.
So how are the Lakers mired in a sub-.500 season if these line-ups are so good? Injuries are certainly a part of it as the "Other" line-ups have been crushed. The emergence of Jordan Hill as a very solid player warranted minutes, but his time manning the front line with Gasol or Howard didn't produce a positive net rating either. What really hurt the Lakers though was the twin tower line-up.
Since D'Antoni took the helm, the Lakers have played nearly 25% of the minutes with both Gasol and Howard on the floor. The offensive rating of 102.3 and defensive rating of 110.2 is basically the same as the Charlotte Bobcats. Let that sink in for a minute. The twin tower line-ups have the same production as the Charlotte Bobcats on both ends of the floor. For reference, Charlotte is ranked 26th offensively and 29th defensively.
The final piece of the puzzle that should be looked at is what impact Steve Nash has on these line-ups. Mike D'Antoni had been preaching patience and instructed everyone to hold out on judgment until Nash returned and the Lakers had all their pieces together. Was he right? It turns out he may have been on to something. The Lakers starting line-up featuring Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol, and Howard has played only 80 minutes together but they have posted a +6.7 net rating. So maybe the pieces do in fact reasonably fit. There are two problems with this logic. The first is that it assumes a +6.7 net rating is good enough. The West's top 3 teams all produce +9 or higher ratings. The Lakers starting line-up, while quite good, doesn't measure up to the elite teams which is what really matters.
The second problem can be clearly seen in the following table. This table shows the statistics for the line-ups featuring Nash, Bryant, World Peace, and Howard in combination with one other player.
Again the sample sizes are small, but so far the group of Nash, Bryant, World Peace, and Howard have played significantly better with any player other than Gasol. It really doesn't matter which role player takes that last spot. The improvement between the Gasol and Non-Gasol line-ups can almost solely be attributable to the defensive end. Without Gasol, the Lakers starters hold the opposition to 99.6 points per game, which would rank 3rd in the league. Yes, a line-up featuring Nash at PG could be a top 3 defense. Meanwhile the Lakers starters with Gasol have produced a defensive rating 114.4. That would not only be the league's worst defense, but only one team has posted a worse rating in the last seven years.
The statistics are beginning to accumulate which suggest the Lakers biggest problem may be their biggest player. The presence of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard prevents Mike D'Antoni from running the line-ups that are more conducive to his system. The statistics support the Lakers being an elite team when healthy and not running with two centers on the floor. The Lakers spend half the game as essentially the league's best team and the other half as the league's worst as they flip between one-in-four-out line-ups and the twin towers. There is no simple solution for what appears to be a continuing effort to jam a square peg in a round hole with Gasol trying to play the four spot. Unfortunately Pau Gasol is still a very capable center (as shown above) and if the Lakers were to move him they would likely only gets ten cents on the dollar in a deal. Lakers management may view that as an unreasonable return and not want to pursue such a move. Unless the roster is changed though, Mike D'Antoni will continue to find himself between a rock and hard place.
*All stats provided by www.basketball-reference.com and reflect only the games under Mike D'Antoni.