The LA Lakers Keep Hanging In The NBA’s Western Conference

At the start of the season the Los Angeles Lakers were being mostly written off as a serious contender for the NBA title. They only had three players worthy of the name, in Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. They were coming off a humiliating postseason, where they were first swept home by Dallas and then embarrassed themselves with dirty play that got Bynum suspended for the start of this season. Finally, after they completed a trade to get Chris Paul, commissioner David Stern steps in, nixes the deal and Paul ends up across town with the Clippers. From about last May forward, not a whole lot went right for this organization. But here they are on the first day of March, 21-14, only a ½ game back of the Clips for the Pacific Division title and lurking in the mix. TheSportsNotebook goes inside the Lakers to see if they’re going to again be a real title threat.

Regular readers of NBA columns here at TheSportsNotebook know I often cite “efficiency” rankings on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. The efficiency numbers are a stathead’s way of adjusting overall points scored for tempo, so we can understand who really executes well, rather than just knowing who plays fast and who plays slow. For the most part, the efficiency rankings do tend to mirror the actual numbers. Not so with the Lakers. If you look at a team that ranks 21st in points scored and 6th in points allowed, you’d call them a defensive oriented team. But if you adjust for tempo, the Lakers rank 14th in both spots. So we have a team that plays a halfcourt game and is above average at both ends.

There’s no disputing that the Lakers hit the boards and hit them hard, something we’ll see when we run through some of their recent games. With the 31-year-old Gasol and the 24-year-old Bynum each going 7’0”, Los Angeles ranks second in rebounding. What they need down low is some help from the role players, as the only frontline players who get notable minutes are Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) and Matt Barnes and neither really hits the boards, scores or can hit the three-ball. The backcourt is equally bereft of quality help, as 37-year-old Derek Fisher has finally hit the end of his productive playing days and Steve Blake is minimal help for Kobe. As one who loathes the Lakers, now that I’ve written this, I’ve virtually guaranteed that Fisher will bury three fourth-quarter treys in a pivotal first-round playoff game that wins a series. Kind of like when the Red Sox fan in me kept saying Andy Pettite was done in the Bronx and he kept winning big games against Boston.

On January 28 this group lost at Milwaukee, marking the fifth loss in the last seven games and leaving them with a record of 11-9. Since then, they’ve won 10 of 15. Let’s take a walk through the 15-game stretch and see if you notice any common themes. Trust me when I say you won’t have to look hard…

The Lakers journeyed from Milwaukee up to Minneapolis for a back-to-back against a good Timberwolves team (one that I’ve really wanted to feature, but have run out of time and with spring training reports and March Madness really kicking in next week, probably will run out of space—my bad Twin Cities fans) and won 106-101. The Lakers shot 51 percent, won rebounding 52-41, with Kobe/Gasol/Bynum—heretofore known as KGB, since I’ll do anything to tie the Lakers to the old Soviet Union—getting 84 points. A home game with lowly Charlotte turned into a 106-73 win, thanks to a rebounding edge and burying twelve treys.

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February started with the team in Denver for a solid 93-89 win, with the Bynum/Gasol duo getting 27 rebounds and Kobe popping in 20 points. The road trip continued with a couple losses at Utah and Philly. KGB got 71 points in Salt Lake, but the team shot only 39 percent from the floor. KGB had 64 points and 36 rebounds against the Sixers, but turnover problems doomed them.

An eastern swing made its way up to Boston and KGB came up big with 68 points, while Gasol and Bynum keyed a solid rebounding advantage. The Lakers preserved a one-point win. In a much-ballyhooed trip to Madison Square Garden the next night they lost to the Knicks, where Jeremy Lin’s great run was just beginning. He and Kobe basically played one-on-one, and I don’t think anybody was inclined to read too much into the Lakers’ loss. The team got a split of the six-game road trip the next night with a 94-92 win over Toronto where Kobe carried the Lakers with 27 points.

On Valentine’s Day, Los Angeles showed the home fans a little love and beat Atlanta 86-78 thanks to some tough defense, holding the Hawks to 34 percent shooting from the floor. The Lakers then shot the lights out against Phoenix, hitting 53 percent, pounding the glass, and getting 36 from Kobe. A return trip to Phoenix didn’t go as well, with 18 turnovers negating 32 from Kobe and a combined 28 rebounds from Gasol and Bynum.

February 20 saw a decent Portland team come to the Staples Center. Kobe scored 28, Bynum and Gasol collectively grabbed 31 rebounds and the Lakers won by 11. Two nights later in Dallas, they got a huge win in Dallas. Fisher was able to give the lineup some balance and the Lakers won by five. On the last game before the All-Star break, LA fell in Oklahoma City 100-85 thanks to some bad shooting and a big night from Kevin Durant. Last night the Lakers came full circle, playing the team they faced when this whole sequence began, and beat Minnesota at home 104-85. Kobe scored 31 and some sound defense held the Wolves to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor.

The careful reader noticed that in the course of 15 games in a highly compressed schedule, there was only one time when a player not part of KGB was mentioned! That was Fisher’s 15-point game against Dallas. Undoubtedly the board dominance of Gasol and Bynum also caught your attention.

Therefore, I think the analysis of the Lakers is pretty straightforward. When KGB is healthy and playing well, Los Angeles can match up with anyone in the West and the presence of Kobe is enough to also make Miami or Chicago sweat in the NBA Finals. But head coach Mike Brown has to figure out a way to keep these three with enough spring in their step for the playoffs and still find a way to win enough games to get a decent seed—ideally, they’d slip past the Clippers and win the division, grab the #3 seed and at least avoid Oklahoma City until the conference finals. But there’s only one game separating the Lakers from the seven-spot.

It’s just going to be very tough for Los Angeles to both get decent playoff position and stay healthy while relying on only three players. At this point in the season it’s tough to think anyone on the current roster is going to magically play better. The team needs to make a trade or just accept what they are. I would imagine GM Mitch Kupchack will pursue every angle to avoid the latter possibility.