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Is the Lakers current bench play fool's gold?

Early on in this NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers bench was terrible.  One really cannot emphasize enough the level of suck the bench was bringing to the court every single night.  The Lakers played early season games like a recycled sit-com script:  Starters dominate early, build 10-15 point lead.  Reserves come in, give all of lead back by halftime.  Starters return, eek out victory in 2nd half.  The reserves scored 9 points on opening night against the Clippers.  They scored 6 points in a game in Oklahoma City.  And those are just some of the poor performances in Lakers victories.  In games in which the Lakers lose, the Lakers' bench performance is far and away the worst in the league.

But the tide appears to be turning.  Lately, the bench has been providing a decent little spark for the Lakers.  They've been holding, and even extending, the lead instead of giving it up like they are being held at gunpoint.  All of which came to a head in last night's game, where the Lakers bench carried the team to victory, against a very good team that supposedly has a very deep bench.  So, what's changed?  We'll take a look at all the factors contributing to the bench's recent success, and attempt to determine whether the bench's recent run of success is the motherlode, or fool's gold.

Before we begin discussing what is going right in the present, I'd like to elaborate on just how bad things have been in the past.  I said above that, in losses, the Lakers bench was the worst in the league.  Here's what I'm talking about (Please keep in mind this is comparing the Lakers' bench play in Laker losses to other team's bench play in those team's losses).

In losses, the Lakers bench averages just 20.1 points per game, the lowest in the NBA by nearly 1.5 ppg.  The bench also doesn't play a whole lot in losses (only two teams play their starters more minutes in losses than the Lakers do).  But the most telling stat is how much worse the Lakers bench is than the other team's bench.  In losses, the bench's efficiency (combination of a bunch of stats, let's just assume that it is a relevant evaluatory tool for self-comparison) is 18.3, lowest in the league by far.  Even worse, that efficiency is a full 24 points lower than what the other team's bench does in the same game.  So, in losses, the Lakers bench is getting absolutely destroyed by the other team's bench, moreso than any other team in the league.  In wins, that efficiency nearly doubles to 31.9.  At that point, they are still outperformed by the other team's bench, on average, but it is down to a manageable -4.1.  The point is, no matter how you slice it, the Lakers bench has been one of the worst in the NBA this year, but in losses, the Lakers bench finds a level of crapitude that even the Nets can't get to.

Do these so-called "stats" also confirm the bench's improved play in recent weeks?  Yes, yes they do.  In January (as compared to December), the Lakers bench scoring is up 5 points a game, despite only a marginal increase in minutes played.  They are still being outperformed by the other team's bench, but the difference is about what we've been seeing only in wins (and keep in mind, these numbers include the 3 losses in January).

So, we know the Lakers bench has been much better of late, because the stats tell us so.  More importantly, we know this because our eyes tell us so as well.  Here are some factors that have contributed to the improvement, and how likely those factors are to continue.

The health of Pau Gasol (and other big men) 

There may be no more important factor to improved bench play than the health of the Lakers three big men, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom.  Pau is probably the most important, but an injury to any one of them severely screws up the rotations for bench players.  With El Pau, AB, and LO, the Lakers are guaranteed to have two near All-Star caliber players at the 4-5 spots at all relevant times of the game (disregarding foul trouble).  With any one of them out, the drop off to the next Laker bigs (Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga) is probably the biggest in the league.   

However, the fact is that Gasol has missed more games in January than he's played in, and yet the bench presses forward.  So, while having a constant revolving door of elite big man talent is undoubtedly a good thing, one must dig deeper to identify what's going on with the bench right now.

Importance: Very important in theory, but less so in practice, at least for now.

Sustainability:  With LO banged up, Pau having already strained both hamstrings, and AB simply playing in the month of January, you better pray to whatever God you believe in that this sustains.

Team health in general

Right now, the Lakers are a (relatively) healthy team.  They've got some bumps and bruises (at this point, Kobe Bryant is just one big bruise), but every player on their roster is considered active right now.  This is important because the Lakers are not what you would call a deep team.  When Luke Walton was out with a pinched nerve, the Lakers began basically playing only 8 players.  Any further injury to the roster would mean that minutes would be forced onto somebody who is not contributing at a high level.

Importance:  Health is always important, but a litte more so for a thin team like the Lakers.

Sustainability:  Impossible.  Everyone has injuries, you just hope the ones you get are minor.

Shortened Rotations

Early in the season, when the bench was at it's worst, the Lakers were employing some really funky rotations.  Part of it was due to the Pau Gasol injury mentioned above, but another part was simply the classic Phil Jackson lineup tinkering that always goes on.  Jackson was trying to find time for 5 different guards, and it just wasn't working.  Eventually, PJ finally gave up, and Sasha Vujacic was relegated to spot duty.  The effect has been impressive.  As Farmar and Brown continue to see incresed minutes, they no longer look over their shoulders and worry as much about what they are doing on the court.  The difference in confidence is palpable, especially in Jordan Farmar.

Importance:  Do you want to see more Sasha on the court?  How about more AMMO?  Didn't think so.  As long shortened rotations mean more minutes for the 6-8th players on the roster, and not the 1st-3rd players, it can only be considered a good thing. 

Sustainability:  As sustainable as PJ wants it to be.  He's a crazy dude, but my guess is the 8 or 9 man lineup is here to stay.  Ties in with the health mentioned above though.

Jordan Farmar is JORDAN FARMAR again

There is no other player on the team who has made more dramatic improvement from the beginning of the season to now than Jordan Farmar.  In November, Farmar was averaging 17.5 minutes and 6.6 points, with a disgusting FG% of 39.1.  In January, he's up to 20.4 minutess and 9.4 points, on 43.6% shooting.  The percentage still isn't what you would call good, but it's a marked improvement.  And his three point shooting has improved from 36% to 39%, so his eFG% is now over .50.  Once again, the stats only confirm what we've seen with our eyes, and our eyes have seen Farmar get that swagger back this month.  He's attacking the rim, pushing the pace, and getting in passing lanes.  He drained one of his patented beat the buzzer 3 pointers a couple games ago.  Shannon Brown has improved statistically every bit as much as Farmar has, perhaps even more.  But Farmar is definitely more important to the overall bench performance.  He's the one who dictates the pace, and he's really the only 2nd team player that can create shots for himself and others.

Importance:  Based on how the bench has performed so far this year, and Farmar's role in it, this might be the most important factor of all.

Sustainability:  It's a crap shoot.  We're basically talking about the kid's confidence, and that could go just as easily as it came.

Shannon Brown is on fire

With Shannon [Insert nickname here] Brown, the only difference between his play in November and December, and his play now, is that he's hitting shots.  A lot of them.  In December, he averaged 6.8 points on 6.3 shots, with a woeful FG% of 38.9.  In January, he's averaging 10.6 points on 7.4 shots, with a FG% of 58.1.  No further analysis necessary.  Ironically, Brown's 3pt FG% has gone down over that time, from 32% to 31%.  But the man is attacking the basket more, and hitting on a much higher percentage of his mid-range shots.

Importance:  It's nice to have, but I don't see his next cold streak killing the team

Sustainability:  Almost zero.  He will regress to the mean.  We better just hope the mean is in between December and January, instead of just December.

What do you think is the most important factor to improved bench play?

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