In what seems like the blink of an eye, the Los Angeles Lakers are already 10 games in to their 82 game season. Ten games isn't enough to provide a fully representative sample, but it is long enough to get an impression of what the team might be capable of. Last season, for example, the Lakers were a very disappointing 5-5, lost both Steve Nash and Steve Blake to serious injury, fired their head coach, and had already announced the controversial and poorly executed hire of Mike D'Antoni to take over the reigns of the team. Normally, when we talk about sample size, we're referring specifically to the actions that take place on the court, but If that sequence of events isn't a perfect representation of what last season became, from the performance to the health to the dysfunction, I don't know what is.
This year's team is one game worse through ten games than last year's version, but that isn't a surprise. Expectations this year are low, especially with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines to start the season. But what do we know about this year's Lakers squad? Ten games in, we don't really know anything at all, because everything that we do know seems to be in direct contradiction to something else that we know. Once all our data points cancel out, we're left right where we were last year; with another bizarre season in which nothing about the Lakers makes sense.
This year's bizarrity is far more positive than last year's was. Last year was bizarre because of just how many things went wrong in a single season. At some point during the season, the Lakers were down to their 3rd string on the depth chart at every position except small forward, for which there really wasn't even a 2nd string. It was bizarre because of the incredibly large gap between what nearly everybody expected of the team, and what they were capable of producing. Expectations were so high last year that any divergence from the expected path could only result in something negative. This year's strangeness, on the other hand, is much more balanced, and thankfully, almost exclusively related to the basketball the team is playing. There have been no injuries (except of course for Steve Nash's decomposition). There has been no drama. It's just a mediocre basketball team with mediocre results.
How could that be bizarre? For one, think about who the Lakers have lost to, and who the Lakers have beaten. With Kobe Bryant on the pine, if I told you the Lakers were 4-6 against the toughest schedule in the league (according to Basketball-Reference.com), you'd probably be satisfied that the Lakers have lost to some good teams while taking advantage of the rare games they've played against poor competition. Instead, two of LA's four wins have come against the very good LA Clippers and the supposedly very good Houston Rockets. Meanwhile, two of their losses have come against the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans, teams that are looking up at the Lakers in the standings (although the Lakers did revenge their loss to NO just a few days later). Their toughest opponent of the year was the San Antonio Spurs, a loss in which they were very competitive and almost pulled out a victory. Meanwhile, they've been absolutely destroyed by teams that aren't expected to be championship contenders (Minnesota and Dallas come to mind).
Speaking of being destroyed, how the Lakers are winning and losing games is every bit as bizarre. Despite being one result short of .500, LA currently has the 3rd worst point differential in the league, ahead of only the Cleveland Cavaliers and the woeful Utah Jazz. There are five teams with just two wins and five (or six) losses, and every single one of them has a better overall point differential than LA does. That's because five of the six Lakers losses have been by more than ten points. Three of them have been by 19 or more points. Only against the Spurs have the Lakers managed to keep the game close without actually pulling off the victory. This is potentially important, because point differential is considered by many to be the most indicative team statistical measure of future performance. Apparently, not being remotely competitive in many of your basketball games is not a good sign for your future prospects.
And yet the Lakers have a pretty decent record considering their schedule. A big reason for this is the feast or famine nature of their offense. The Lakers offense has been the most legitimately disappointing thing about the team, not even managing 100 points per 100 possessions. They are currently ranked 27th in the league in that regard, and considering how awful we expected the defense to be, an offense that poor should result in the Lakers losing just about every game they play (the Lakers are ranked 20th defensively, which is better than expected, but not significantly so). But that terrible offense has produced in great quantities at just the right times to bring in victories. Against the Clippers and the Pelicans, the Lakers posted ORtgs above 115. The offensive performances against Atlanta and Houston weren't nearly so strong, but both were keyed by insane first half shooting displays from the outside (60% 3FG% against Atlanta, 79% against Houston).
For that matter, the Lakers shooting in general deserves its own honorable mention as a bizarre early trait of the season. In true Mike D'Antoni fashion, the Lakers have transformed themselves into a very decent outside shooting team, currently ranked 7th overall with a 40.6% connection rate from downtown. Why is this bizarre? Because the Lakers are one of the worst shooting teams in the league overall (check out the murderer's row of awful who shoot worse than the Lakers from the floor: Utah, Cleveland, and Charlotte). In fact, the Lakers are the worst team in the league at 2 point field goal shooting %, hitting just 42.3% of their non 3 pt shots.
That divergence between three point shooting and two point shooting isn't just bizarre; it might be historic. Since the adoption of the three point line, there has never been a team which shot better from 3 pt range than from two point range. The Lakers aren't quite there, but they are closer than any team ever has been, by a fairly large margin. According to B/R, of the teams shooting less than 42% from the field over an entire season, the best any one of those teams has managed to shoot from 3 pt range is 36.0%, a full 4.5 percentage points less than what the Lakers are currently managing. Increase the search to include teams that shot 43% or worse from the floor, and the best a team managed from distance is 38.7%, still 2% short of the Lakers current performance. It's early yet, but at their current pace, the Lakers would be the strangest combination of good outside shooting and bad everything else that the league has ever seen.
For all of these reasons and more, it's tough to come to any logical conclusions about where the 2013-2014 Lakers will end up. They've played a tough schedule, and done relatively well with it in parsing out four wins out of ten games. That they've done so without Kobe Bryant, without Steve Nash remotely resembling an NBA player, and with Pau Gasol coming nowhere near the resurgence we hoped for him, is even more impressive. But they've also put out absolutely putrid performances in many of their games this year, and their offense, the one aspect of the team's play that was expected to be solid, has been awful overall.
The Lakers came into this season with tempered expectations; most folks expect them to miss the playoffs, and just making the playoffs is considered their best case scenario. Usually, after ten games, you can get a decent impression of where in the range of expectations a team is headed for, but for the Lakers, the entire spectrum of possibilities is still very much in play. Come season's end, the Lakers could make the playoffs, or they could have a top 5 draft pick, and neither one would be particularly surprising at the moment. Such is the nature of yet another bizarre season for the Los Angeles Lakers.