There’s eight days left in the regular season and I’m giving in and talking about the Los Angeles Lakers. I’ve resisted using this space’s NBA commentary to talk about the Lakers, because they managed to eclipse Tim Tebow as the most overrated topic in sports. But with five games left, they’re locked in a final battle for the #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and let’s face it—they’d make a formidable challenger to anyone in a playoff series, regardless of how ugly they’ve looked this season. So let’s diagnose why this team underachieved, and what its chances are at playoff redemption.
The problems with this Lakers team could have been foreseen in October. In fact, at least to a certain extent it was foreseen here at TheSportsNotebook. That problem is defense. Three of this team’s core four—Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash—are defensive liabilities. It was asking a lot of the fourth member of the quartet, Dwight Howard, to bail them out all the time. I’m not going to say I thought Los Angeles would be in this much trouble as we come down the stretch, or even that they wouldn’t be in the title discussion. But the preseason commentary makes it clear I was never enamored of the Lakers and the reason was defense.
Los Angeles is tied for 17th in defensive efficiency, a stat that ties them with Brooklyn, a team I just panned last week as not being strong enough on this end to make a serious playoff run. But to shift the conversation a bit, we’ll paraphrase 1988 vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and say simply that the Lakers are no Brooklyn.
The four future Hall of Famers the Lakers put on the court know what they’re doing on the offensive end, and Los Angeles is 8th in offensive efficiency. Kobe Bryant is averaging 27 ppg, and between Bryant and Nash, they combine to hand out 13 assists each night. For all the heat Dwight Howard has taken—most of it self-inflicted—he’s averaging 17 points/13 rebounds and has been on the floor in all but six games. If that’s what he does in a bad, injury-ravaged year, I’d hate to see what happens if he’s good and healthy.
Gasol kicks in a 14/8 nightly average and Nash is a good shooter, who hits 50 percent from the floor and 44 percent behind the arc, meaning you can’t back off to defend his incomparable passing skill, and he can alternate with Kobe as the shooting guard, something the team has done to good effect this season.
One problem has been efficiency in three-point shooting. Los Angeles takes the third-most attempts of any team in the NBA, but they’re only 16th in percentage. A certain gap here is inevitable—high volume in anything means a lower percentage. But being below the league average in percentage suggests you’re not doing something right. That “something” is that the wrong players are shooting from behind the arc. Kobe and Metta World Peace combine for 11 trey attempts per game and neither hit at the minimum 33 percent to make this shot mathematically worthwhile. Meanwhile, role players like Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake come off the bench and shoot well behind the arc, as does Nash.
I don’t want to reduce everything to stats, because I know there’s certain freedom Kobe has to be given to take his shots, particularly at the end of his games when he really is—percentages or no —the guy I would want. But the numbers suggest that during the flow of the game for three quarters, the Black Mamba would be better off working more inside the arc and kicking out to his mates for the long-range game. As for Metta World Peace, just give him a simple message—if you’re aren’t going to make the shot, quit shooting. The Lakers need him more focused on defense anyway.
Laker fans will point to injuries as a big part of the problem, and that’s fair enough. Nash has only played in 50 games, while Gasol’s only gotten on the court for 44. Although when most of your core is aging, that can’t be unexpected. A more legitimate injury excuse would be to wonder how good Howard might have been had he not had the chronic back problems throughout the year.
Now, we look forward to the final five games of the regular season and potentially into the playoffs. The Lakers host New Orleans tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), make a tough trip to Portland tomorrow night, then come home for three straight games against playoff-bound Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. The good news is this—Golden State and Houston are likely to have little to play for, especially the Rockets in the season finale next Wednesday. The Spurs are more likely to value rest than pushing to hold on to the #1 seed, a race they led by a game over Oklahoma City. Combine all that with homecourt advantage and it’s not unreasonable for the Lakers to win all three, something that would certainly get them in the playoffs. At the very least, they can win two of the three, and then if they get the win in Portland, would likely be enough.
As many problems as this team has had, as real as the defensive issues are, if I’m San Antonio, I don’t want to see the Lakers in the first round. The last lingering health issue is Nash’s hamstring—he’s listed as doubtful for tonight—but if he’s healthy, that gives Los Angeles the chance to go into the playoffs with four future Hall of Famers ready to roll and on the floor. If the matchup was Oklahoma City, I frankly don’t think it would matter—the Thunder are too young and dynamic to be stopped by a team that’s old and defensively-challenged. But the Spurs? I think San Antonio would win such a series, because they have played well defensively, but their own age issues hardly make it a slam dunk.
If nothing else, Los Angeles’ season-long soap opera has made this final week of the NBA regular season very interesting. Their failure to make the playoffs would be about as big a disaster there can be in sports, given the talent assembled and the number of teams that qualify for the postseason. But if they survive and get a clean slate, that becomes a whole new story unto itself and would make the Lakers finally worth talking about—something they have not been, despite an ESPN obsession to the contrary.