The past few weeks have been one hell of a roller coaster ride for Los Angeles Lakers fans. The lows have been many; the departure of Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant's sub-par shooting, Andrew Bynum's antics, unnecessary losses to poor teams decimated by injury ... each one troubling, each one different. The peaks, on the other hand, have been stunningly similar. They have (nearly) all been excitement over Ramon Sessions.
Put simply, Ramon Sessions changes the way the Lakers play basketball in fairly profound terms. This has manifested itself in two telling changes Zach Lowe, SI's resident scribe (one of the best around, I might add) highlighted this in his excellent breakdown of talking points from last night's Lakers Clippers tilt.
The Lakers have scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions in 373 minutes with Sessions on the floor, a number that would lead the league by a mile. Their defense has regressed since acquiring Sessions, but it has actually been much worse when he is on the bench; the Lakers have yielded about 109.5 points per 100 possessions since the trade deadline when Sessions sits and about 103.9 when he’s on the floor. The first mark would rank dead last in the league, and the second would rank among the bottom ten defensive teams.
We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but the early evidence suggests the Lakers have made the expected offense-for-defense trade-off in nabbing Sessions from Cleveland. Sessions has obvious trouble navigating screens on defense, and he went so far under some screens against Chris Paul last night, it was almost as if Sessions thought he was guarding Rajon Rondo.
Lowe is absolutely right that since acquiring Sessions, the Lakers offense has exploded. Prior to Ramon's arrival, the Lakers were the definition of an average team offensively. The Lakers ranked 14th in the league with a 104.0 Offensive rating. As of today, the ranking hasn't improved much (now 11th), but the overall rating has jumped up to 105.7, which is a significant overall increase. When you consider Ramon's individual ratings above, it's clear he is having a tremendous effect on that side of the ball. We've seen it with our eyes, we've seen it with our calculators.
Lowe is also right that the defense has suffered since Sessions was acquired. As I see it, there are four likely reasons why the defense might be suffering:
- Ramon Sessions is a bad defensive player
- The increased offensive output has allowed the Lakers to build big leads and therefore caused them to relax defensively
- The Lakers are tired, and defensive intensity is the first thing to go.
- Andrew Bynum is Andrew Bynum
Personally, I don't think option 1 does a good job of explaining things. On the one hand, Sessions isn't a particularly good defensive player. It's a known weakness for him, and can be seen in his inability to make the correct decision on the pick and roll as highlighted above. But it seems unlikely that Sessions is the whole problem. After all, Sessions has taken over minutes from Derek Fisher (and some from Steve Blake, whose minutes have decreased since Ramon's arrival), neither of which are particularly stellar defenders on first sight. That seems to be in accordance (in very small sample size) with what Mr. Lowe saw statistically with the Lakers defense being far better (without being actually good) with Sessions on the court than it was when he's off the court.
That leaves options two and three, and there is plenty of evidence for both. As I highlighted earlier this week, the Lakers have gone many contests in a row building a lead of at least 12 (often in the first half) and losing all or most of that lead by game's end. The Lakers are playing great offense pretty much throughout, as evidenced by their sublime offensive numbers since Sessions was acquired, but those leads are built because they combine the good offense with a bout of good defense to build the lead, and then a period of really bad defense to let the lead slip away.
As for option 3, the high minutes played for the Big three has been well documented, and the effects have been seen in Kobe's many poor shooting performances over the past month, and Kobe's perimeter defense has left a lot to be desired this season, as he routinely fails to stay with shooters. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum might also be feeling the strain of high minutes played. Both players averaged less rebounds in March than they did in February, with Bynum's average (10.9) being well below the number he posted throughout the first two months (over 12).
And then there's option 4. Andrew Bynum is the lynchpin of the Lakers defensive plans. His size, length, and relative agility allow him to be a defensive force. Last season, he spent 20 games looking like the 2nd best defensive player in the league, and even though he's been well below that standard this year, he's still the guy the Lakers turn to to man the fort in the middle. And he has been ... distracted ... defensively in recent weeks. People make a big deal about his Reggie Miller impersonation the other night, but I had a far bigger issue with his lazy defense in the same game than with the shot itself. Even last night, as he was insanely dominant in a variety of ways offensively, his rotations left a lot to be desired. As he continues to show his merits on the offensive end, he's taking (less) merit away from the defensive end.
The truth lies amongst all these variables, but options 2, 3, and 4 provide some small semblance of hope. If the Laker D is struggling just because they are relaxing due to strong offensive performance, it means they still have the ability to turn it on when they need to (just be wary of last year's Mavericks lesson). If the Lakers are defending poorly because they are tired, that may (or may not) get better in the playoffs when the schedule lightens up a bit in terms of games played per capita. And if the issue is Andrew Bynum, one can only hope he'll be up to the challenge in May. Regardless, if the Lakers can re-find their decent defensive intensity and marry it to the league-best offense that Sessions seems to have brought with him, they can truly be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. To believe in that is to make some shady assessments of statistical data (assuming that positive indicators are real and dismissing the negative factors as not likely to be sustained), but just because it's shady doesn't make it wrong.
Since acquiring Ramon Sessions, the Lakers have dramatically improved on offense, and regressed on defense. But correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The Lakers will be hoping for plenty of causation for the former, and not a lot for the latter. If they are right, if the Lakers offense is better because of Sessions and the defense is worse because of factors that won't necessarily be true come May and June, the Lakers might actually be a contender after all.