The Los Angeles Lakers enter the postseason as heavy underdogs to even make it past the first round. With the formidable San Antonio Spurs waiting for them, and a frustrating and disappointing regular season's worth of evidence that they just aren't that good, you'd be hard-pressed to find any unbiased expert who gives the Lakers a sporting chance of first round survival. But, though it feels like its been an eternity, just six months ago the Lakers were expected to do great things with their Hall of Fame starting lineup. Through injuries and a vast array of other problems (but mostly injuries), it hasn't come to pass. Was everybody wrong about the Lakers? Obviously. Was everybody who was wrong about the Lakers stupid? Hardly.
Buried deep within the Lakers lies a formidable team that could trouble anybody. The elements of that team have rarely been seen, but they do exist. If the Lakers can somehow capture magic and put all these elements together at just the right time, they might just have a chance against the Spurs (and beyond, because if they beat the Spurs, who knows what they can do). Below is a list of the four most important benchmarks the Lakers must achieve to be successful. LA has proven incapable of prolonged success in any of these elements all season, but they do not need prolonged success. All they need is four wins, over a seven game period. Everything listed below has been achieved over just such a stretch.
This is The Blueprint.
Run the offense through Pau Gasol
When Pau Gasol went down in early February with a torn fascia, it was doubly painful because not only was it the second serious injury for the Spaniard on the season, but it came in the midst of Gasol's strongest stretch of play on the year. Pau has been notorious in the past for needing time to get back in the swing of things after an injury, so missing six weeks of a season with only eight weeks remaining did not bode well for his exploits in the remainder of 2013. His first game upon return confirmed our fears, shooting 2-10 from the floor en route to a 4-8-1-2 (PTS, REBS, AST, TO) evening. The next game wasn't much better, 3-8 and 7-8-2-1. Even worse, after the Lakers had won six of seven prior to Gasol's return, they lost both of the games in which he played poorly, and one of those losses (at home to Washington) ranked among the poorest of the season. The question of whether the Lakers could afford to give Pau the time to get back in the swing of things was a seemingly very real one, with very real potential consequences.
And then, just like that, Pau Gasol was new again. Gasol played the final 13 games of the regular season. In the last 11 of those games, he has been the best offensive force on the team. His numbers are staggering ... 16.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 6.3 (!!) assists on 52.7% shooting. Take out the super-dud 3-17 performance against (ironically) the Spurs on Sunday, and the shooting jumps up to 57.1%. For comparison, take Pau's best season in LA, 2011. His average then was 18.8 pts on 52.9%, 10.2 rebs, and 3.3 ast. Considering that assists are worth at least two points for the team, you can easily make the case that Gasol has been better then he's EVER been (over the course of a season) for the Lakers in the last 11 games. And that's not all. The points are nice, the rebounds pretty good, but 6.3 assists for a big man? That's unheard of. Over the course of a season, no center has done that since Wilt Chamberlain got mad about people complaining about his shot attempts and decided to spend two seasons Rondo'ing the center position. If you want to stretch and call Boris Diaw a center, he also had 6+ assists in Phoenix in 2006. And that's the list ... ever.
And its not even a fluke. Because the last 11 games are really just a continuation of exactly what Pau was doing before he went down with an injury. Since January 20th, over a 23 game stretch, Gasol is averaging 15.5, 9 and 4.3 respectively. You want a team effect? In the last 11 games, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 110 with Gasol on the court, 99.1 with him off. Only Kobe comes close to having the same net effect (110 to 100) over that same stretch of games.
What's changed? Where Gasol is getting the ball. More and more, the Lakers are turning to Pau Gasol in the post, whether Dwight Howard is on the court or not. Its a strategy we were quick to identify and applaud when we first saw it. Even more encouraging, when Gasol has not received the ball in the post, he has often taken the ball to the post. Kobe led the charge in forcing the ball down low to Gasol, but with 17 shot attempts in each of the two games since Kobe's injury, it is a formula that everybody has gotten on board with.
To beat the Spurs, the Lakers must become the Spurs
The biggest deficiency the Lakers have shown all season is an obvious one; the defense. On the season, the Lakers have a defensive rating of 103.6, 20th in the league. However, in their last eight wins (out of the last nine games), that number dropped to 100.5, which would rank them third in the league, the spot which just so happens to be occupied by their opponent, the San Antonio Spurs. What has been the blueprint for the Lakers defense over the last eight games? Do exactly what San Antonio does on a regular basis.
Of the "Four Factors", San Antonio dominates in three out of the four categories defensively. On the season, they rank 5th in overall opponent's EFG%, 2nd in FT attempts allowed per game, and 3rd in defensive rebounding %. In the fourth category, turnovers, they are decidedly average, 14th in the league. How does the Lakers defensive performance over the last eight wins stack up? They have out Spurs'd the Spurs in the three categories in which San Antonio is so dominant. In fact, the Lakers' performance in two of the metrics (FT allowed and rebounding %) over their last eight wins would top the league over the course of the season. Of course, LA is terrible at creating turnovers as compared to the Spurs simply being mediocre, but their gains in other categories are enough to offset the difference. Bottom line: If the Lakers are unsure of how they need to play defensively to be successful, all they need to do is watch what their opponent is doing.
*LA stats are from the most recent eight wins. SAN stats are from the entire season.
Antawn Jamison needs to get hot
This is a point we've touched on already this season, but it is one that bears repeating. More than any one thing that any one player on the team does, the best indicator of whether the Lakers will win or lose a game is how Antawn Jamison shoots the ball from distance. His win/loss shooting splits are the most divergent I've ever seen. On the season, Antawn is shooting a respectable 36.1% from three point range on roughly 3.1 attempts per game. But that season average fluctuates rather wildly, and the fluctuation has very, very often correlated with whether the Lakers win or lose.
Any stats guy will tell you that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but man is it tough to argue with all this correlation. In wins, Jamison is shooting 40.6% from distance. In losses, 28.9%. In the 27 games he shot 40% or better from three, the Lakers went 19-8. In the 19 games he made 2 or more three pointers (i.e. removing the games he only made 1-1 or 1-2 from three), the Lakers are 14-5. Nobody can know for sure if Jamison making outside shots is directly responsible for the dramatic increase in the Lakers' success, but it sure as hell seems to help.
And it makes sense, too. Antawn is a legit 6'8", and he's got a nice, quick trigger on catch and shoot situations, which means that Jamison's man needs to stay right in his face to have a chance of preventing Antawn from getting a clean look from the outside. Jamison is also, by far, the best off-ball player the Lakers have. He knows exactly where to go and when to go there, whether that means slipping a screen for an easy layup, falling to the corner while a guard penetrates the lane, or curling to the wing if his man sags to the post. The Lakers have two dominant post players (at least by reputation) that force defenses to, at the very least, pay attention to them in the post. IF Antawn is making his shots, he is one of the most capable players on the team at punishing a defense for paying too much attention down low.
So, we've established that Jamison can swing a game in the Lakers favor by knocking down shots. But can he knock down shots over an extended period of time? Yes. Twice this season, Jamison has shot 40% or better from distance in three straight games or more. He did it four straight times from 2/24 to 3/3, and three straight times from 3/13-3/17. If you are observant, you might have noticed that both of those stretches aren't too far apart. Put it all together, and you've got a 12 game stretch in which Jamison was 43.5% from three point range. And yes, the correlation came along for the ride; LA was 9-3 in those 12 games.
If Jamison can get hot at just the right time, suddenly the Lakers have two very solid deep threats (Steve Blake has quietly put together a top-15 season from distance, shooting 42.1% from 3. And if Steve Nash (5th in the league, 43.9%) comes back in any decent capacity, the Lakers will suddenly be awash in deep threats, forcing San Antonio into a "pick your poison" decision between allowing Gasol and Howard room to operate down low or getting punished with outside shots. IF Antawn can get hot ...
Are you ready to get excited? Jamison's 3 pt% over the last 7 games: 45.4%
Unite the twin towers
The last category is the one that requires the most stretching, but it is also the most important. With Kobe Bryant on crutches, and Steve Nash getting procedures that pregnant women require in order to birth a child, the Lakers can only rely on two of the four pieces of the Hall of Fame puzzle that everybody was so excited about in the beginning of the season. Sadly, those two pieces are the ones that have struggled the most to fit with each other.
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have gotten in each others' way much more often than they have successfully integrated. At this point, with Pau struggling with his outside shot, the two play the same position, and having both on the court at the same time has harmed the Lakers as often as its helped. Their joint performance on the season paints a rather dismal picture. Overall, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 105.6 (9th in the league), and a defensive rating of 103.6 (20th in the league). In the nearly 1,000 minutes Gasol and Howard have been on the court at the same time, the defense has been worse (104.2) and the offense has been much, much worse (103.5). To put that offensive number in perspective, it is the worst offensive performance of any two player combination in the top 18 (by minutes played). You have to go down to Steve Nash and Earl Clark to find two players who have seen a worse offensive performance in their shared time on the court. Put Gasol and Howard's offensive and defensive numbers together and you get a net of -.7, which means the Lakers have actually lost points on the season when their top two big men share the court.
But, they are by far the two best Lakers that remain, and LA simply cannot be successful if they can't figure it out together. Is there any hope? Some. Buoyed by the strategy mentioned above, running the offense through Gasol even with Dwight Howard on the court, Gasol and Howard have seen marked improvement in team performance when they both play. In the month of April (eight games total) Gasol and Howard have combined for a decent team OR of 104.6, and a very good team DR of 102.8. And, in the incredibly small two game sample size since Kobe Bryant went down, the Gasol-Howard shared defense has been superb, with a DR of 94.9. Then again, it would be foolish to get supremely excited about that without noting that the joint OR during those games was 94.3, but we can hope against hope that Pau's terrible shooting against San Antonio (3-17) was more of a fluke than the Lakers defense was.
So that's it, folks. That's the blueprint.
Steal the defensive style of their opponent and let the twin towers unite on defense. Run the ball through Pau Gasol and have Antawn Jamison and the Steves punish San Antonio from distance on offense. Will it happen? Probably not. You have to cherry-pick the hell out of the data to find the times in which the Lakers have been successful enough at any one of these elements to even be worth talking about, and it would be stupid beyond all reason to ignore the fact that the blueprint becomes very, very difficult to implement with a hobbled Steve Nash and a crippled Kobe Bryant. Its unreasonable to expect everything to fall into place at just the right time.
However, the Lakers still have top end talent. And if you are going to cherry pick data, it means a hell of a lot more if you cherry-pick recent data. Every single element presented here has been going on over the last few games of the season. It is possible. The Lakers have a blueprint, one that a a lot of people thought was pretty damn good 82 games ago. In a season filled with turmoil and all kinds of negativity, all they need to do is find it four times in their next seven chances.
After all the Lakers have been through, all that WE'VE been through, it seems like a small favor to ask.