With 41 games in the books, the Los Angeles Lakers are halfway finished with their 2015-16 season, which is more than enough time to make some real, concrete judgements about this ragtag bunch. So without further ado, in honor of the Lakers' nine victories, here are nine takeaways from the season so far:
1. The tank is real- The starry-eyed preseason predictions that this team could compete for a playoff spot are dead and buried. The Lakers were a putrid team for most of 2015, and while they have been a bit better to start the new year at 3-5, the schedule only gets harder from this point on.
According to Playoff Status, the Lakers have thus far faced opponents with an average winning percentage of 49%, but over the second half of the year that average rises to 53%, the third hardest schedule in the league for that period of time. The Lakers found a bit of a stride recently against some bottom feeders recently, and while the team has also started to play a bit better over that stretch, things only get harder from here, which is a problem because:
2. Calling the Lakers' defense a tire fire is an insult to tire fires- When the Lakers acquired hulking seven-footer Roy Hibbert for just a second round pick as free agency was winding down, there was some thought that he could help guide what was a laughable Lakers defense last season to just below average, or at least not a bottom-five defensive team.
The good news? Los Angeles' defense improved on it's historically awful lows of the prior two years, which according to Basketball Reference were the third (2013-14) and second (2014-15) worst teams in defensive efficiency in the history of the Lakers organization.
The issue is that the improvement has only been slight while the league improved around them. The Lakers gave up 108 points per 100 possessions in their 2014-15 season (according to NBA.com, which calculates this statistic slightly different than Basketball Reference), which was the second worst defensive efficiency in the league behind the Minnesota Timberwolves. This year the Byron Scott coached squad improved... to giving up 107.5 points per 100 possesions, which ranks last in the league thus far and are on pace to be the fourth worst defense in Lakers history. Compounding this issue is the fact that:
3. The Lakers' offense isn't much better- While it was known going into the season that the Lakers would most likely be a bottom ten defensive team at best, it was thought their offense could prop them up a bit. With the return of Kobe Bryant and Jordan Clarkson, combined with the additions of young, talented, and offensive minded players like Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, and Lou Williams, the Lakers' offense couldn't help but have some kick, right?
That has emphatically proven to not be the case, with the team actually regressing from the 100.8 offensive rating they put up last season to now only scoring 97.2 points per 100 possessions. To put just how awful the team has been in perspective, according to Basketball Reference the Lakers are on pace to finish with their worst offensive efficiency in nearly 40 years. I guess Byron Scott was right about being an old-school coach after all. Frustratingly though, there are signs that a few simple changes could push this team towards mediocrity because:
4. Their best lineups demonstrate they could be better if Kobe lowered his usage- Kobe Bryant's struggles have been breathlessly documented all over the internet this season (Sorry Kevin Durant, here comes one more bucket of cold water). The 37-year old is shooting 34.7% from the field while using up a team high 30.6% of the Lakers' possessions while on the floor. Kobe is a Lakers legend, but it's hard to argue that he has not been actively harmful to the Lakers' chances of winning this season.
Further reinforcing this is the team's lineup data. Of the Lakers five most frequently used five-man combinations, the one with the highest net rating is the team's original starting lineup of Clarkson, Hibbert, Randle, and Russell, with Metta World Peace subbing in for Bryant. That five-man combination has been outscored by just 0.3 points per 100 possessions, no small feat when the Lakers have been outscored by 10.3 points per 100 possessions over the first half of the season.
The Lakers second most effective lineup among the five the team has most frequently used is the Lakers new starting lineup of Williams, Hibbert, Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr., with Anthony Brown subbing in for Bryant. That grouping has been outscored by just 3.6 points per 100 possessions.
If Bryant replaces World Peace in the first lineup, the Lakers have been outscored by 14.9 points per 100 possessions, and 21.5 per 100 when Bryant takes Brown's place in the second one.
So what do World Peace and Brown have in common Other than not being Kobe? Both are better defenders than Bryant at this stage, and more importantly, neither of them hijack the offense to the same degree at such a low efficiency clip.
Brown has the lowest usage rate on the Lakers at just 11, so even though he is shooting just 25.5% from the field, his defense more than makes up for the small number of shots he misses. Additionally, his low usage allows two of the Lakers' more effective scorers in Clarkson and Williams to go to work. World Peace's usage rate (15.4) is a bit higher than Browns, but 47.9% of his shots have come from behind the arc, where he has made 37% of his attempts as he acts almost exclusively as floor spacer for the kids.
The meager success the Lakers have had with both of those two low usage options taking over for Bryant shows that he could still help (or at least not hurt) if he just eased back on the gas a little bit. However:
5. Kobe has shown no inclination to take a step back- Bryant's career success has earned him all of the gifts, tribute videos, and glowing praise he will receive over the next 41 games as the Kobe farewell tour continues. It has also apparently earned him the right to post the highest usage rate of any player ever in their 20th season and playing more minutes than all of them to boot, all while literally laughing at the idea of taking a rest, even if that suggestion comes from the Lakers training staff.
Their is a certain poetry with the way Kobe entered the national consciousness with his playoff airballs against the Utah Jazz and will leave it potentially the same way, should he stay healthy until the final game of the Lakers' season. The more he battles against age and reason on his quest to give every city a chance to say goodbye though, it becomes increasingly unlikely he will make it all the way to the end while still in uniform. After half of a season of Bryant playing this way, it's fair to assume he is going to either go out guns blazing or with the assistance of his teammates and the Lakers medical staff.
In addition to making it harder for the team to succeed as a whole, Bryant's errant gunning has also created a difficult environment for the Lakers' young core to succeed. Nevertheless:
6. The kids are all right- All of the Lakers' young core have had their ups and downs this season, but all of them have also shown distinct signs that they belong in the NBA. D'Angelo Russell has led all Lakers playing more than 10 minutes per game over the last 10 games in offensive rating (105.6), posted the team's second best defensive rating (95.2), and best net rating (10.4) over that period as well. For the season, Russell is averaging 15.7 points, 4.5 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per-36 minutes (he is averaging 27.1 minutes per game), all great numbers for a 19-year old rookie.
Jordan Clarkson's shooting has cooled off after a torrid start, but the young guard is averaging 15.2 points per game on 44.5% shooting while learning to move back and forth between point and shoot guard throughout games.
Julius Randle is having a nice bounce back after missing essentially his entire rookie season with a near double-double of 10.7 points and 9.5 rebounds. Randle is also grabbing 30.6% of available defensive rebounds while on the floor. The unique forward has then used these boards to get out and run in transition, keeping some surprising and impressive company as one of the NBA's leaders in "coast-to-coast possessions," (Either attempting a shot, drawing a shooting foul, or turning the ball over within seven seconds of having grabbed a defensive rebound, per Stats LLC.) as captured by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal:
The less heralded rookies from the team's 2015 draft class have stood out as well. Larry Nance, Jr., who replaced Randle in the starting lineup, has earned himself admirers while averaging 8.9 points on 59.7% shooting and 8 rebounds over the team's last 10 games. Anthony Brown ranks first on the Lakers in offensive, defensive, and net rating for the season among players averaging more than 15 minutes per game, prompting talk that he can one day be more than a three-and-D player. All of these five members of the Lakers young core have helped the team be a bit more competitive in the New Year, but aiding them have been:
7.The veteran offseason signings bouncing back- Lou Williams and Brandon Bass were the Lakers' two major veteran signings this offseason, and both struggled out of the gate. Bass was awful as he adapted to playing center for the first time in his career, with the Lakers giving up 109.8 points per 100 possessions in November when Bass was on the floor.
While he is nursing a foot injury right now, Bass has been much better of late, with the Lakers posting a downright good defensive rating of 97.7 while Bass was on the floor over the last 15 games. Bass has also shot 60% from the field over that period while looking like the helpful and capable veteran the Lakers expected when they signed him.
Lou Williams was similarly miscast when beginning the year as the Lakers' backup point guard, shooting 33.9% from the field and 24.4% from three-point range as he struggled with a new role in November.
Williams was moved into the Lakers starting lineup to play off of Jordan Clarkson, and 10 games ago the change began to really click, with Williams leading the team in scoring at 21.6 points per game and shooting 43% from the field. Williams is also making 7.3 of his 8 free-throws per game over those 10 games, and even notched a new career high of 44 points in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. As good as those two have looked recently, the struggles have been just as bad for the man who was both figuratively and literally the Lakers' biggest (non-draft) off-season acquisition:
8. Roy Hibbert has struggled- As mentioned when talking about the Lakers' defense above, Hibbert was brought in primarily to defend the rim and try and keep the Lakers' defense respectable. That was always going to be a tall task even for the team's tallest player, but not only has Hibbert not been able to improve the Lakers defense like the team hoped, it is actually worse with him on the floor.
The Lakers give up 110.6 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert on the floor, and that number drops to 104 and when he is on the bench. Some of that is noise cause by Hibbert sharing a starting lineup with so many other bad defenders, but if his primary utility is defense and he is not improving the team on that end, it isn't like he is helping them much offensively as well while shooting the lowest field goal percentage of his career at 42.7%. The Lakers' net rating with Hibbert on the bench (-5.7) is also much better than it is when he is on the floor (-14.3).
Hibbert's struggles have led to a situation where the team is better off without it's lumbering center on the floor, while both of it's power forward prospects have shown enough that it's worth seeing if they can play together, which led to:
9. The Lakers deciding to get weird- The Randle/Nance, Jr. frontcourt made it's debut just three games ago and has played only 36 minutes together, but the results have been promising. Randle appears to have more space to operate with Nance, Jr. helping spread the floor, and the tandem has posted an offensive rating of 109.5 and a defensive rating of 102.8, meaning that they are projected to have outscored their opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions. While the common assumption was that this front-court would struggle defensively while being a bit better than the average Lakers' lineup offensively, so groups led by the duo have been able to outpace the Lakers' season averages in both areas.
The small sample size makes drawing any definitive conclusions on the duo foolhardy, but if there is one thing we have learned from the Lakers' first 41 games, it is that this team is not very good the way it is currently contstructed. Moving forward, all of the focus should be on developing the Lakers' young talent, and learning if their two versatile power forwards can fit together in small-ball lineups should be near the top of the list, especially when the early returns are so encouraging. If more experimentation like this continues in the back half of the season, the next 41 games will be infinitely more fun to watch than the first set.
All stats not specifically cited are per NBA.com You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen