For months now, we here at Silver Screen and Roll have tried to warn you that the Los Angeles Lakers were going to be a bad defensive team. We said it when Dwight left. We said it when Chris Kaman signed. We said it when Metta World Peace was amnestied. We said it once the roster was filled out, and at the start of training camp. Now, five games into the season, we can say it with real numbers. Good defensive teams do not allow 120 points in 42 minutes of basketball, like the Lakers did last night against the Dallas Mavericks. The Los Angeles Lakers are not a good defensive team.
The problem is, they aren't a good offensive team either. At least, not so far. We did expect the Lakers to be a good offensive team. With the exception of Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and (maybe) Steve Blake, every player on the team is a better offensive player than they are a defensive player. Pau Gasol is one of the most skilled big men in the league, Steve Nash is a living legend, Chris Kaman has great touch for a 7 footer. Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks ... none of these guys is particularly special, but they are all offensive weapons, insomuch as they are weapons at all. And the man running the show, Coach Mike D'Antoni, is considered one of the finest offensive minds the game of basketball has produced in the last 20 years. If the Lakers were to have any hope of success this season, it was always going to be the offense that carried them there. So far, things don't look good.
It is incredibly early yet to make grand proclamations about what the Lakers will and will not be capable of, but through those five games, the Lakers offense has not been anywhere near the level it will take to keep the team remotely competitive. The team's offense is currently ranked 21st out of 30 teams, just marginally better than the defense (which is ranked 26th). Despite being a top ten team from behind the arc, the Lakers are below average shooting the ball, below average getting to the free throw line, and woeful at collecting offensive rebounds (making Jordan Hill's struggle to get playing time all the more confusing).
The sample size for these numbers is small enough to write these numbers off completely; for example, the Los Angeles Clippers are statistically the league's worst defensive team ... and the greatest offensive team in the history of basketball. I doubt either one of those stats stays true for two more weeks, to say nothing of the entire season. And passing any kind of judgment, good or bad, about this team before Kobe Bryant comes back is foolish in the extreme. Kobe could solve a lot of the Lakers' problems, or he could cause his own batch of trouble for the team with his return. There's no way to know, or even properly expect, anything about Kobe until we see him lacing up the sneakers again.
Still, this is a problem. The Lakers are limited defensively because they have limited defensive talent, and a scheme can only take you so far. We knew they would struggle defensively, and so they are. The team struggled defensively last season with Dwight freakin' Howard manning the pivot. Sadly, no matter how bad the Laker D is, it will simply be living up to the exceedingly low expectations we've had for it all along. But we had hope for the offense. We had hope that MDA would be able to succeed with a group of starters that was no longer in open rebellion against his system. We had hope that he could mold the young and athletic bench unit into a cohesive and fast poor man's version of Seven Seconds or Less. We had hope that the offense could carry the team at least part of the way towards a respectable record and an outside chance at the playoffs.
Ironically, the offense has done exactly that. The Lakers have won two games this season, and in both of those games, the offense was the weapon that led the way to victory. The bench blitzed the Clippers to the tune of 116 points on opening night (which might have something to do with the Clippers' awful defensive metrics so far this year), and used an early barrage against the Atlanta Hawks to build up a big lead which ended up being just enough when the team went cold down the stretch. At 2-3, with nary a bottom feeder on the schedule (well, Atlanta may end up as one), the Lakers record feels just about right, just about the best that we could realistically have hoped to expect from the first five games of the season.
The record might gloss over the offensive problem for now, but it is also the reason why the Lakers have not been remotely competitive in two of the three losses so far this year. Point differential is often pointed to by advanced stats folks as the clearest indication of how good a team truly is, and despite their record, the Lakers are amongst the worst teams in the league in that regard. In fact, you almost have to be impressed by the Lakers so far this year, because none of the other teams who surround the Lakers in the point differential standings have even won a game. Twice this season, the Lakers have ended a contest with more points than their opponent, and yet they still have lost by a greater margin than all but three teams.
Again, its a small sample size. Again, making any kind of judgment before Kobe Bryant's return is a fool's errand. However, despite a 2-3 record that can't even be deemed disappointing, the warning signs are there that this season might be far worse than we could have expected. The Los Angeles Lakers are a bad defensive team, and we've known that would be true for months. But if the Los Angeles Lakers also remain a bad offensive team ... well then the Lakers will have much better ping pong ball representation at season's end then we might have expected.