I was going to write a statistical based preview of the Lakers first round playoff series against the Hornets today, but Suarav did a fantastic job previewing the match-ups and frankly the statistics say this series should be over very quickly. Instead, I would like to provide you with what I feel are five important keys for the Lakers in their pursuit of a third straight championship.
1) A healthy Andrew Bynum
This will be the first post-season where the Lakers have a healthy Andrew Bynum. Sure he is a little dinged up, but at this point in the season most players are. Andrew Bynum at even 80% gives the Lakers the luxury of keeping two all-star caliber front-line players on the court at all times. No other team in the league can make that claim and neither could the Lakers each of the last two post seasons. What kind of impact can this have?
To see the impact of having a healthy Bynum we can look at how the Lakers starting line-up has performed in each of the last two regular seasons when Bynum was healthy compared to last season's playoffs when he clearly was not.
The impact has been minimal on the offensive end as Bynum is not a significant piece offensively. However things are much different on the defensive end. With a healthy Bynum this starting line-up gives up around 102 points per 100 possessions but when he was dealing knee issues the Lakers gave up an additional 10 points per 100 possessions. As a quick frame of reference, a rating of 102.5 would be the equivalent of a top 5 defensive team while a 112.5 is Toronto Raptors territory as the worst in the league.
Clearly the impact of having a healthy Andrew Bynum is significant. The Lakers have been a dominant team outscoring their opposition by 10-13 points per 100 possessions when he's healthy, but have played to a virtual draw, outscoring their opposition by less than one point per 100 possessions, when he wasn't healthy. So if the Lakers did not get very good production from this unit in last year's playoffs, how did they win the title? It has to do with item number two on my list.
2) A consistent and aggressive Lamar Odom
In the 2009-10 regular season, Lamar Odom was more-or-less dissappointing. He posted his lowest scoring average and shooting percentage as a Laker. His game also exhibited the same roller-coaster ride of up and down inconsistency that has defined his career. However once Bynum went down with an injury and the playoffs came around, Odom suddenly began to produce like the all-star he
is should have been by now.
Here are the numbers presented in a similar fashion as those for Bynum above:
It is amazing what a focused, aggressive, and consistent Odom brings to the table. Even with an extremely talented line-up that consists of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, plus the defensive prowess of one Ron Artest, the Lakers were still not a great team until Odom took his game to the next level in last season's playoffs. He has continued his strong finish last year to this season and is again helping this particular line-up dominate the opposition on a nightly basis.
The impact of Odom's improved play really shows up in the offensive numbers. He is like a swiss army knife on offense with his ability to do multiple things. He can shoot, pass, and drive. He is also one of the best players in the league at grabbing a defensive rebound and quickly turning it into transition offense the other way. His unique skills, length, and athleticism make him one of the most difficult players in the league to defend when he is locked in and focused, and the numbers show it.
3) Increased minutes for the Lakers perimeter starters
This is something that John Hollinger at ESPN has touched on a couple of times recently. In the playoffs, teams are able to play their starters more minutes because of additinal time to rest. They play no back-to-backs so they can rest between games and due to extended time-outs and half-time shows they often get more rest during games as well. This really helps teams that are top heavy in talent.
A great analogy demonstrating this would be a race between sports cars. Deep teams like the Bulls and Nuggets (post trade) are like a race car that spent the entire regular season driving in 4th gear. It didn't matter if their bench or starters were in, they got virtually the same production and thus stayed in 4th gear. Meanwhile top heavy teams like the Lakers and Heat spent half the season in 5th gear (their starters) and the other half in 3rd (their benches). In the playoffs though the Lakers and Heat will likely spend more time in 5th gear which should be a big advantage over teams stuck in 4th.
So just how top-heavy are the Lakers? Here are this year's regular season stats for various Lakers line-ups:
As was shown in the aforementioned items, when Bynum is healthy and Odom is motivated this team is virtually unstoppable. Any combination of Fisher, Bryant, Artest, plus two of our big three frontline players has produced incredibly dominating results. The Lakers will always have two of their big three frontline players on the floor in the playoffs (unless it's garbage time). Looking at last year's data it would appear that the Lakers can squeeze out around 40 to 42 minutes per game from the combination of Fisher, Bryant, and Artest. This means over 80% of the game will have one of the first three line-ups in the table, all with net efficiency differentials of +10 or better. Contrast this with last season's title team in which only the Gasol-Odom frontline combination could make that claim due to Bynum's injury. I am sure all Lakers fans are looking forward to the Lakers shifting this ferrari into 5th gear and running away from the competition.
4) Bench production
One of the issues for the Lakers is the bench, as it has been for years. While the bench will be minimized to a certain extent based on item #3 above, it would still be beneficial if the Lakers bench could make some sort of positive contribution to the game. Looking at the previous table, any combination other than the three variations of "starters" (I am considering Odom as a starter for this discussion) has resulted in no significant gain. Now those "other" line-ups include a significant amount of time of our bench against some of the really bad benches from teams not in the playoffs. Going against increased competition in the playoffs will likely result in our bench being outscored (the "all others" line-ups saw a 2.4 decrease in net efficiency between the regular season and playoffs last year for comparison).
I do have one suggestion that may help this situation (Phil can you hear me?)... play Pau Gasol more with the bench unit. I have said this numerous times before. Pau Gasol is a fantastic option offensively that is probably under-utilized because we have another equally fantastic option offensively in Kobe Bryant and there is only one ball to share between them. Looking at the stats in the table from item #3 above, the line-up with Odom and Bynum put up offensive numbers similar to the line-ups featuring Gasol. There really is no difference in offensive production among the three combinations of big men.
Now contrast that with the following data in which we look at our typical bench combination of Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, and Matt Barnes and two Lakers big men:
The sample size is too small for the third line-up to generate any conclusions but the first two are not. There is a clear difference between the bench production when Gasol is on or off the floor. With the bench unit, Gasol becomes the number one option and the offense runs through him. We utilize his immense talent to keep the offense humming along close to league leading efficiency. However when he is off the floor the bench struggles to score as they have no number one option. Their is alot of perimeter passing followed by jumpshots late in the shot clock. During these playoffs keep an eye on which combination of bigs the Lakers have on the floor with the bench unit and whether or not they are able to generate offense.
5) Breakout shooting
This is perhaps the most undiscussed items of the Lakers championships the last two seasons. In the last two playoffs the Lakers have gotten a surprise jump in three point shooting from unlikely sources. In 2009 it was the combination of Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, and Lamar Odom. Here are the 2009 playoffs three point shooting stats for these three guys along with their career averages.
What an incredible run of shooting from these three non-shooters. Trevor Ariza parlayed that two month run into a five year max mid level exemption contract and has since reverted back to form. Shannon Brown turned that run into a permanent spot on the Lakers roster and the rights to battle Sasha Vujacic for the back-up shooting guard position (ironically it was another two month run that would lead to the Lakers keeping Brown over the much better shooter in Vujacic only to see Brown revert back to a low shooting efficiency shortly after). Odom did not gain much from his run as the Lakers had become accustomed to his peaks and valleys of performance but were greatful for his timing of this peak.
The 2010 playoff run did not feature increases of the same magnitude but they did feature some increases none-the-less. The biggest was perhaps Kobe Bryant. A career 34% three point shooter, he found an improved stroke in the playoffs and increased his percentage to 37.4%. This may not sound like much but the impact was significant because he took over 130 threes, the most attempts in the playoffs for his career by a significant margin. He took the most attempts on the team and effectively generated the same number of points as a post player shooting 56%. This was arguably the most offensively efficient weapon the Lakers had that post season, even more so than Gasol. Additionally, back-up point guard Jordan Farmar who often brought very little to the table came through with his shooting that year and made 40% of his 50 three point attempts.
So the question is, which players will have a breakout run of three point shooting this year? The Lakers have plenty of players capable of getting hot and hitting 40%+ during the playoffs but will any of them actually step up and do it? Starting tomorrow we will begin to find out.