This is a weekly article where I give the Lakers grades for the games played in that week. This entry will be for games 24 through 27.
The Lakers played four games this week. They faded in the second half in Atlanta, held on for a win in Memphis, pulled away from Minnesota, and lost a painfully sloppy game at Golden State. The following are my grades for the Lakers’ performance as a team, as well as for a couple of key players.
The offensive struggles continued this week as the Lakers are now averaging 99.8 points per game on the season, down from 100.5 as of last week. They moved down from 14th to 16th in the league.
The Lakers’ lack of a legitimate point guard was all too apparent on Saturday night, when they scored a season low 83 points in a game where they shot just 32.5% from the field, 20% from behind the arc, and turned the ball over 24 times.
The point guard situation was amplified by the absence of Pau Gasol, the only proficient passer left, who sat out Saturday’s game with a respiratory infection. Pau’s absence meant there was no “go-to guy” for the starting unit, and as a result, the ball was often stagnant and the Lakers had trouble finding good shots. Their shooting percentages went WAY down, and as Wesley Johnson pointed out after the game, the shooters just aren’t getting the ball in the same spots they used to when Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar were running the show.
This is especially apparent in the Lakers 3-point shooting, which dropped to 9.4 a game on 37.7% shooting. This week, they averaged 5.75 makes on 29.2% shooting. That 29.2 is worse than the Charlotte Bobcats’ league-worst 30.1% season average. The Lakers were the best 3-point shooting team in the league at one point, but without point guards to create open shots, the Lakers will continue to be near the bottom. Jordan Farmar might make his return next week, and that alone should allow at least the Lakers starters to return to the 3-point shooting proficiency we saw just a few weeks ago.
This week saw two games with Kobe and two games without Kobe. The Black Mamba fractured the top of his tibia bone in his left knee during the game in Memphis, and played through it to hit a monster 28-foot 3 pointer like the Kobe we all know only to find out that what he thought was just a typical hyper-extension would turn out to be a setback of 6 weeks. Kobe had just begun to get his legs under him and it was devastating to find out that after playing only 6 games this season, the Lakers will be without him for around 20 more.
A lot of talk is made about how offense translates into defense – about how teams whose offense is flowing have more energy on defense. This team is the opposite. When the Lakers are playing terrific defense, as they did against Minnesota, their offense reaps the benefits. They had 7 steals and 9 blocks, against the Timberwolves and scored 23 points off of turnovers.
I’m going to do a split grade again, because the game against Golden State was just such a different animal from the previous three. So, I’m giving a grade for the first 3 games, and another for the fourth. You’ll probably think that a B- is too low for a game in which the Lakers scored their season low, but I am grading them on what they did vs. what they could have done. Given the circumstances (No Blake, Farmar, Gasol, Bryant, or Nash), they did decently well, with the biggest drawbacks being shot selection and turnovers. Bad ball movement was unavoidable.
Grade vs. ATL, MEM, MIN: A
Grade vs. GSW: B-
The Lakers are allowing 102.9 points per game, slightly down from 103.5 as of last week. They are now 28th in the league, up from 29th as of last week.
A rank of 28th out of 30 is not encouraging. In fact, if we focus on that rank, only the Kings (103.3) and 76ers (111.7) are worse at defense than the Lakers.
What these numbers leave out is the best possible defense a team can play. The Lakers’ main issue this year has been inconsistency, as they rarely put forth supreme effort in the first three quarters, but have the shown the ability to play excellent defense in the fourth quarters of tight games. For example, they held an explosive Minnesota team to just 15 points in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s game. They’ve done the same in the past, but they usually do so only if it is necessary. This means that if they are down by a manageable amount (say 10 or so), or the opposition seems to be making a comeback, they will buckle down.
The ability to close out games on the defensive end is great, but it just doesn’t matter unless the Lakers can have a consistent offense, and that’s not likely to happen any time soon. So, the Lakers have to extend that great effort to the other 3 quarters. I’ve been saying this all year, and the Lakers have yet to do it. They came close on Saturday night, but their offensive disarray nullified their defensive efforts. Making 3 shots in a third quarter of a close game does not lead to a win, no matter how great a team’s defense is.
I hope that anyone who follows the Lakers seriously enough to read this doesn’t hate Mike D’Antoni. He’s doing one hell of a job.
For the record, I didn’t like that the Lakers hired him last year, and I didn’t like how he handled the team last year. But this year has changed my mind about him. Consider what he’s had to work with. Kobe Bryant has played six games this year. Steve Nash played only the first six games. Pau Gasol has been recovering from off-season knee surgery and is currently suffering from a respiratory infection for the second time this year. Jordan Farmar has missed the last ten games and will miss at least one more. Steve Blake has been injured for the past six games and will likely miss another 4-5 weeks. The rest of the roster is made up of one-year contracts (besides Robert Sacre and Nick Young, who has a player option to stay an extra year).
Even without all the point guard injuries and the Pau health issues, nobody expected the Lakers to be anywhere near .500. But Mike D’Antoni has put the Lakers there 8 times this season, and they were above .500 3 times. He has an uncanny ability to make players better than they were or will be anywhere else. First he did it with the likes of Amar’e Stoudemire in Phoenix. Now he’s doing it with players like Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Nick Young.
What’s impressed me most about D’Antoni’s work this year is his attention to defense. Before this year, D’Antoni was berated for completely ignoring defense. Now he’s gotten players to buy into a defensive mentality. They aren’t close to being elite yet, but they are a great deal better than last year. He’s even gotten Nick Young, a player who was labeled as purely offensive, to begin taking charges and pride himself on defense.
In sum, he’s created a culture where every player tries to maximize their production on the floor, and that, along with the terrific team chemistry, is why the Lakers have been hovering around .500 and are just 1.5 games back from the 8th seed. Even with the injuries, the Lakers are that same 1.5 games above the ESPN projected 13th in the West.
Just this week, with no point guards, two games without Kobe, and one without Pau, Mike D’Antoni coached this rag-tag team to a 2-2 week.