The Lakers' season is coming to a close with only a pre-playoff scrimmage against the Sacramento Kings left on the schedule. As the schedule winds down, so does this Lakers Trends series. This season was filled with twists and turns, some of which should be expected from a team with a strong connection to Hollywood.
It all started with the Chris Paul trade, subsequent veto by the commissioner, followed by the trade of Chris Paul to the less-heralded Los Angeles team. There was the constant chatter of Dwight Howard to L.A. and whether or not Bynum and Gasol were too much to give up. Would Orlando settle for just Bynum? In the end no major trade was made. Gasol was not moved and no superstar was acquired. The only move of significance was the acquisition of Ramon Sessions that coincided with the departure of long-time punching bags Luke Walton and El Presidente Derek Fisher. For all the talk of potential player movement and the reshaping of the Lakers, the current roster very much resembles the roster of past years. The personnel wasn't the only odd story line though.
The Lakers began the season as a defensive juggernaut that couldn't score only to become an elite offense down the stretch that couldn't defend. They began the season with a miraculous inability to win on the road no matter how bad the competition, only to finish the year with as close to a .500 road record as one can get when an odd number of road games is played (16-17 assuming they win Thursday). They seemed determined to be the worst three-point shooting team in Lakers history to start the year, only to improve each month and actually shoot over 37% from distance in April, a mark that would put them in the top 5 had they done it all year.
It was an interesting regular season to say the least. Now on to the final installment of this year's Lakers Trends.
Effective Field Goal %
Much credit should be given to the Lakers role players for stepping up in Kobe's absence as he rested his tender shin for a few games. The Lakers, without their best offensive scorer and creator, kept the offense right where it has been all year, roughly average. It was the emergence of both Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes that provided the production at the small forward position that many, including myself, assumed would never be found. World Peace especially took a bigger role in the offense as both scorer and creator, reminiscent of his former days when he was known as Ron Artest. Perhaps that explains the despicable Artest-like act he committed on Sunday.
Defensively though is where the Lakers suffered. As can be seen in the chart, the latest Lakers point is headed straight south meaning the defense was worse than their season-long average. Some of this can be explained as they have had to face the San Antonio Spurs three times recently and it is the Spurs who lead the league in shooting efficiency. In the end the Lakers still finished 6th in defensive eFG, but there is a large gap between the four elite teams (Chicago, Boston, Oklahoma City, and Philadelphia) and the rest of the league. The Lakers used to reside with this group. As you can see from the chart, they are now closer to rest of the league.
If the NBA teams were the United States, the Lakers would be Hawaii. One look at the above chart shows that they are all by themselves, surrounded by dark blue, with not another team in site. The problem revolved around the number of turnovers they force per possession. They aren't just bad, they are historically bad. If the Lakers avoid forcing the Kings into too many turnovers on Thursday, they will rightfully set a new NBA record for lowest opponent turnover percentage in history!
The Lakers didn't do themselves any favors on the offensive end either as they were one of the poorer teams when it came to coughing up the ball. This is usually a strong suit for veteran teams and has been a strength of past Lakers teams. This year was a different story though. The combination of being turnover prone and not forcing the other team into many miscues led the Lakers having a 17-game streak in which they had more turnovers than their opposition. That streak is tied for the 3rd longest in NBA history.
The Lakers have come full circle when it comes to rebounding. They began the season as an elite rebounding team as they have the personnel to be dominant on the glass. I actually projected them to be the best rebounding team in the league. After a strong start, the rebounding quickly began to slip and by mid-season the Lakers were out of the top 10. The Lakers refocused and began to crash the glass again and finished the season with the exact same offensive and defensive rebound rates they had after the first week. Rebounding is a crucial part of what makes the Lakers successful. If they don't dominate the glass, they won't win many games.
Free Throws to Field Goal Attempts
The Lakers finished with the top spot in free throw differential. The combination of size and skills in the low post forces the opposition to foul rather than conceding lay-ups and dunks. The Lakers exploited that advantage to the point of having the 6th highest free throw to field goal attempt ratio in the league. This statistic is usually dominated by teams that are young, athletic, and attack the basket relentlessly. This is why teams like Oklahoma City, Indiana, Miami, and Denver top the list. For an older and less athletic team to reach the same marks is impressive; however the truly remarkable statistic is on the defensive end.
I haven't seen any articles discussing just how good the Lakers are at defending without fouling. The current 15.8% FT/FGA rato for the opposition is tied for the 2nd best mark in history with Baltimore Bullets of 1972-73. The best team in history was none other than the Lakers of that same season. Yes, the Lakers are putting their opposition on the line at lower rate than any team in almost 40 years, and no one is talking about it.
Offensive and Defensive Rating
This is perhaps the most telling chart of them all. The Lakers have completely changed their identity from the first week to the final week of the season. They began the season as an elite defensive team with a poor offense similar to Boston. As the season progressed they improved to a slightly below average offense but the defense began to slip. Finally, they closed the season rediscovering their offensive potential only to see the defense abandon them. The culmination was the Lakers always being a slightly above average team in net point differential but a dramatic shift between the results on each end of the floor (this is why their trend is moving diagonally down as the season progressed).
It was expected that the offense may suffer under a new system and a new coach that harps on defense. These expectations became a reality as the offense has not been at the level it was last season in which the Lakers had an offensive rating of 111. Perhaps the more surprising result is that the defense, with a rating of 104.2 is almost identical to last year's rating of 104.3.
The full season results present the age old argument of whether the glass is half empty or half full. Those who view it as half empty will say that the Lakers, all season long, have had net rating of 2 to 3 points which is not indicative of a championship quality team. Those who view is as half full will say that the Lakers exhibited periods of elite offense and defense, even if at separate times. Putting both sides of the ball together would produce a dominant team ripe for a deep run and potential title. Which view is correct? No one knows yet, but we will find out soon.