On The Slumping Lakers.
I’ll save you the jibba-jabba; the Lakers are struggling this year.
While most people have dismissed this start as a case of “it’s too early for the Lakers to care” I don’t buy it. The Lakers care and that is most evident by their reactions after the loss.
Kobe Bryant was quoted saying:
“I think these games mean more to our opponent than they do us,” he said. “I think we need to get that straight. I think we need to play with more focus and put more importance on these games. I don’t like it.”
I’ve also heard a lot of “we got blown out last season on Christmas and look how that turned out” I have to immediately dismiss that notion. This is, in no way, the typical start the Lakers have experienced in the previous two season.
In 2008-09 the Lakers started out 24-5 including a 9-point Christmas day win over arch-rival Boston Celtics. On route to that 24 win start, Lakers had played 13 teams who eventually made the playoffs, beating 11 of them. The rest of the season unfolded the without many kinks and the Lakers won their first post-Shaq era title.
In 2009-10 the Lakers started out almost as hot as the previous year. Cruising to a 23-5 record even after a 15-point loss at home to LeBron and the Cavs on Christmas Day. Like the previous season, and most importantly unlike this season, Los Angeles achieved that 23-5 record by winning 11 of the 14 games against eventual playoff teams.
This season the Lakers have limped to a 21-9 record while playing 10 games versus teams that made the playoffs last season. The Lakers have only won 4 of those games. They have also only played six teams over .500 and have come away with two wins.
The Lakers in general are struggling. As a team they are shooting just 46.1% from the field, good for just 13th in the NBA. That stat is surprising considering they have some of the most lethal offensive weapons in the NBA.
As for the “Four Factors”, L.A. finds itself out of the top ten in 5 of the 8 categories including DREB%, something the tall and lengthy Lakers should be dominating at. Some of that might be corrected over the next month while Bynum, who is returning from injury, works his way back into the starting lineup.
Individually, there have been some bright spots for a few role players and a lot of lows for the “stars” of this team. Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown are having arguably career seasons thus far. Lamar Odom is putting up All-Star stats including 585 shooting from the field and 36% from the three. Shannon Brown is quietly putting up his best season ever while shooting 44% from three and notching a PER of 19.0. Matt Barnes is also having him self a decent year despite some of the mental gaffes he has made on and off the court this season.
Pau Gasol has had a strange year. His minutes are up as are his points and rebounds however his FG% is the lowest it’s been since 2005 and his defense, at times, has been atrocious. A lot of this has to do with fatigue. Whether that fatigue is due to the absence of Bynum or if it derives from the three extended seasons won’t be clear until Bynum is officially a starter and Pau’s minutes deflate a little.
Derek Fisher is having another terrible year. His numbers are all down including a ridiculous 38.7% FG% and a 9.87 PER for the season. I understand that the Lakers coaching staff, as well as the fan base is in love with his “leadership” but there is nothing about Fisher’s game that justifies his 26 minute per game allotment. TO make matters worse, his back-up and championed off-season acquisition, Steve Blake is shooting just 36.9%.
Kobe Bryant, the leader of the Lakers is getting some rest this season. Playing only 33 minutes per game, down from 38.8 last season. Some of that rest is due to the superb play by backup Shannon Brown, some of it is because Kobe is getting old and needs to rest. Kobe has seen 1051 regular season games and another 198 playoff games. 334 of those games have come in the last 3 1/2 seasons, not including all the Team USA minutes Kobe logged. Needless to say, that is a lot of minutes.
As a result Kobe’s per game numbers are all at lows that we haven’t seen since 2005. However, Kobe’s struggling shooting the ball as well, putting up his lowest FG% since 2003 and his lowest 3PT% since 1999.
Kobe’s age has also shown on the defensive end. Mamba has been poisonous to most opponents for a majority of his career. Strangling them on defense and sticking them with venom on offense. This year, neither has really been the case. According to WayneWinston.com’s Adjusted +/- stats, Kobe and the Lakers have been 11 points worse on defense with Kobe in the game. It’s not just on paper, you can see it in the games. Kobe has struggled to move laterally and has played a lot of “arm-defense” instead of playing with his legs and body. This isn’t necessarily Kobe’s fault. One can’t control aging, as much as Kobe tries. The Lakers bought an insurance policy last season just for this reason, his name was Ron Artest.
Artest, in many ways, is to blame for L.A.’s short comings as of late. Ron has been putrid in all aspects of the game. First and foremost, he still has not full grasped the concept of the Triangle offense. Admittedly, the Triangle is not the easiest to understand but when it’s your job to play basketball, there is no excuse. Especially for a savvy veteran like Ron.
Artest’s offensive numbers are at a career low. Putting up just 7.6 points a game and shooting just 39% from the field. Ron has also lost his ability to hit the long ball, shooting just 33% from three, which prevents the Lakers from stretching the floor. Even his mid range game is in the tank, shooting just 19% from 16-23 feet (over the previous four seasons, Ron shot 38% from here). Putting up a career low PER of 11.1, Ron just seems to not get the triangle.
His struggles on offense have killed the Lakers on defense. His limited production has limited Artest to just 26.7 minutes per game. Keeping Ron off the court and keeping a tired Kobe Bryant on the best player for extended minutes night in and night out.
Ron still doesn’t believe his is struggling, dismissing LeBron’s triple-double on saturday as a mediocre game:
"I thought he had an average night," said Artest, unwilling to give James the upper hand. "Nothing spectacular. It was a great night for others."
Phil Jackson didn’t exactly agree, but he believes Ron will come around:
"He’s been a little disconnected but I don’t think it’s anything unusual," "Normal, disconnected Ron. He’ll come into focus."
With the Lakers currently sitting in 4th place and the West as well as the rest of the NBA playing at an extremely competitive level, this is an ill-timed season for L.A. to struggle.
At the end of the day, these are the same Lakers who just won back-to-back titles and are going for their second three-peat in the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant era. While no other team has ever made four straight finals appearances since the Celtics in the 70’s, no one should be quick to write off the Lakers just yet. It’s still early in the season and come playoffs, anything can happen.
Can these Lakers be fixed?
Sure they can.
But for Lakers fans, perhaps the scariest thought is that to find salvation this season and bring home banner number 17, Ron Artest has to some how connect with reality, perhaps for the first time ever.