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November 24, 2010
Back on Track
The Lakers' Offense

by Kevin Pelton

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More than four weeks removed from opening night, we are now far enough into the 2010-11 season that it is not entirely crazy to begin looking at team and player performance in a historical context. So far, one team jumps out. Entering Tuesday's low-scoring win over the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers were as efficient on offense as any team in post-merger NBA history relatively to their league. After Tuesday's game, the Lakers have slipped behind the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks and into second in the modern era with an Offensive Rating 8.8 percent better than league average.

Team            Yr     ORtg   LgRtg   Adj
-----------------------------------------
Dallas        03-04   114.1   104.2   9.5
L.A. LAKERS   10-11   117.6   108.1   8.8
Phoenix       04-05   116.6   107.4   8.6
Dallas        01-02   114.0   105.8   7.8
Phoenix       06-07   116.1   108.1   7.4
Dallas        02-03   112.7   104.9   7.4
Sacramento    03-04   111.8   104.2   7.2

Now, this might not seem like a big deal. The Lakers are the two-time defending champions and feature several of the league's best offensive players. Why shouldn't they be among the best offenses in league history? Well, for one, because they were nothing special on offense during the 2009-10 regular season. The Lakers finished 11th in the league in Offensive Rating, behind notables like the Toronto Raptors.

As a result, the Lakers also rank high on another list--the most improved offenses from one year to the next (again, relative to league average).

Team            Yr     Y1      Y2     Diff
------------------------------------------
Denver        03-04  -11.7    +0.8   +12.5
Phoenix       04-05   -1.2    +8.6    +9.8
L.A. LAKERS   10-11   +1.0    +8.6    +7.6
Denver        98-99   -6.2    +1.0    +7.1
Cleveland     91-92   -1.4    +5.6    +7.0
Toronto       04-05   -5.5    +1.4    +6.9
Golden State  02-03   -2.2    +4.3    +6.5
Memphis       02-03   -6.0    +0.3    +6.4
Boston        07-08   -3.4    +2.8    +6.2
San Antonio   89-90   -6.7    -0.5    +6.2
Miami         03-04   -6.9    -0.8    +6.1

The Lakers stand out from this list for a couple of reasons. The first should be obvious. They are the only team on here that was above-average on offense before improving. Some teams, like the 1989-90 Spurs and the 2003-04 Heat, were so bad the year before that they still weren't average after taking massive leaps forward on offense. The second reason will make more sense if we rerun this list with an added column.

Team            Yr     Y1      Y2     Diff    Ret%
--------------------------------------------------
Denver        03-04  -11.7    +0.8   +12.5    .366
Phoenix       04-05   -1.2    +8.6    +9.8    .524
L.A. LAKERS   10-11   +1.0    +8.6    +7.6    .775
Denver        98-99   -6.2    +1.0    +7.1    .409
Cleveland     91-92   -1.4    +5.6    +7.0    .788
Toronto       04-05   -5.5    +1.4    +6.9    .616
Golden State  02-03   -2.2    +4.3    +6.5    .861
Memphis       02-03   -6.0    +0.3    +6.4    .624
Boston        07-08   -3.4    +2.8    +6.2    .472
San Antonio   89-90   -6.7    -0.5    +6.2    .223
Miami         03-04   -6.9    -0.8    +6.1    .436

As you'd imagine, dramatic improvement on offense is associated with roster overhauls. Using the measure from last week's column on most changed teams, the previous 10 improved teams saw an average of 46.8 percent of their minutes played by newcomers. The lone exception is the 2002-03 Warriors, a young team that saw improvement from within, especially with the development of second-year guard Gilbert Arenas. (The 1991-92 Cavaliers can be explained away by the return of Mark Price from a torn ACL that finished his previous season after 16 games; Price doesn't technically count as a new player but effectively was one.)

The Lakers have made some key additions, most notably reserves Matt Barnes and Steve Blake, but for the most part this is the same group as a year ago. The same players are simply scoring more efficiently--at least during the regular season. After all, during last year's playoffs, the Lakers found their offensive groove and ended up scoring at a rate 6.3 percent better than their postseason opponents collectively allowed during the regular season.

These kinds of ups and downs at the team level are not totally unprecedented. The Lakers' threepeat from 1999-00 to 2001-02 saw the team randomly collapse on defense during the middle regular season before catching fire in the playoffs and staying strong the following year. But it makes sense why defense, which is so much more strongly tied to effort, would come and go. The offensive roller coaster is more surprising.

The biggest culprit seems to be the Lakers' offensive execution. Their commitment to the triangle offense was strangely lacking during last year's regular season. Even during the playoffs, they relied as much on Kobe Bryant's brilliance as ball and player movement. That appears to have changed this year, as the Lakers feature Pau Gasol more in the post and stretch out defenses with their passing. The most obvious metric to measure this change is the Lakers' ratio of assists per field goal, which slipped last year to 21st in the league from eighth in 2008-09. This season, the Lakers are back up to eighth.

Of course, there are two ends to assists--the pass and the basket. The latter was lacking last season as well. The Lakers shot just 34.1 percent beyond the arc during the regular season and dropped to 33.0 percent during the playoffs. So far this year, the Lakers have been lights-out from long distance, ranking second in the NBA at 43.4 percent. They will not continue at that pace, which includes three different players--Shannon Brown, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom--making more than half of their three attempts. However, adding Blake and Barnes has given the Lakers more shooters, while Brown has returned a totally different player after an offseason spent working on his game.

One factor worth mentioning in the Lakers' offensive improvement is the absence of center Andrew Bynum, who is still recovering from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Historically, when Bynum has been in the lineup, the Lakers have been stronger defensively at the cost of some of their offensive potency. So it was that the Lakers improved on defense during the 2009-10 regular season, when Bynum played a key role as Gasol battled injuries early in the year, and then became more offensive-minded in the playoffs when Bynum's knee limited him.

As effective as he is individually, Bynum clogs the offense up to some extent. The Gasol-Odom frontcourt is much more versatile and allows Gasol more touches in the post. The Spaniard has been excellent during the first four weeks of the season. Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer has argued that Gasol has been the league's best player thus far; I'm partial to Chris Paul for the title of November MVP, but Gasol is a close second in the league in WARP behind Paul. Odom has been terrific in his own right, shooting better than 50 percent beyond the arc and nearly 60 percent on two-point attempts. Their brilliance has made up for a severe lack of frontcourt depth.

Alas, the Lakers are likely bound for an offensive correction, and not just because at some point Bynum figures to return to the court. As noted, the three-point shooting should be expected to cool down. The Lakers have also taken full advantage of a friendly slate of opposing defenses. Tuesday's game against Chicago was just the fourth time in 15 games the Lakers faced a defense that has been average or better over the course of the season. As a whole, the Lakers' opponents are 2.2 points worse per 100 possession than the league's average Defensive Rating. Some small part of that is due to facing the Lakers, but that only offsets the fact that the Lakers have also played nine home games thus far.

Add it up and the Lakers' stay among the league's best all-time offenses figures to be a short one. However, their improvement should be more than enough to blow past their pessimistic SCHOENE projection. Because it relies on regular-season statistics, SCHOENE believed the Lakers to be a middling offensive bunch who might get even worse because of their advancing age. By now, it has become more than clear that last year's regular season was a fluke. The Lakers still might fall into their bad habits at some point, especially if the other contenders for home-court advantage in the Western Conference fall off the pace, but when they are locked in they are as good as any offensive attack in the league.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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