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January 19, 2012
The Lakers' Problem
It's Not Kobe

by Kevin Pelton


So far this season, Kobe Bryant is using an even 40.0 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers' plays while he's on the court. That's a convenient, round number because it means Bryant is using plays at exactly the rate of two average players. Bryant's prodigious shot creation has him on pace to break his own record for usage (from 2005-06), and he's got some room to drop and still be near the top of the list; just three players (Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan are the others) have ever posted usage rates higher than 38 percent.

Player       Year     Tm     Usg
Bryant       2006    lal    .390
Jordan       1987    chi    .383
Iverson      2002    phi    .381
Wade         2009    mia    .364
Iverson      2000    phi    .364
Jordan       2002    was    .363
Iverson      2001    phi    .362
Iverson      2006    phi    .361
J. O'Neal    2005    ind    .359
Iverson      2004    phi    .358

The Lakers obviously have problems scoring the basketball. They rank 15th in Offensive Rating, which makes this the worst Laker offense since 1993-94, when Magic Johnson was patrolling the sidelines. Even the Bryant-heavy teams of 2005-06 and 2006-07, with thin supporting casts, were top-10 offenses. It's an easy step to put this fact and Bryant's usage rate together to conclude he is being too overzealous. What's a little more difficult is to argue where those possessions should go. Using simplified Offensive Rating--points divided by plays used, calculated by FGA + (.44*FTA) + TO--Bryant has been one of the team's most efficient scorers. In addition to posting an above-average True Shooting Percentage, Bryant rarely turns the ball over.

Player              Min     Usg   sORtg
Kobe Bryant         565    .400    94.8
Pau Gasol           558    .200    99.0
Andrew Bynum        383    .239    91.9
Derek Fisher        375    .129    69.8
Matt Barnes         314    .165    98.2
Steve Blake         294    .155    88.7
Ron Artest          288    .181    66.7
Troy Murphy         237    .088    82.7
Josh McRoberts      184    .113    96.2
Devin Ebanks        125    .119    80.8
Jason Kapono        124    .131    91.7
Darius Morris        73    .119    80.0
Andrew Goudelock     53    .183    47.9
Luke Walton          51    .127    71.4

The chart shows the issue is less about how plays are distributed and more about how awful the Lakers' supporting cast has been. Just two Lakers have scored more efficiently than Bryant this season: Matt Barnes and Pau Gasol. Jason Kapono and Josh McRoberts are the others outside the big three scoring more efficiently than the league average (a 90.0 simple Offensive Rating).

The typical modern elite offense features two or three players responsible for creating most of the shot attempts. Around them, teams fill in with role players capable of scoring efficiently in their limited opportunities. Those players simply don't exist in L.A., other than Barnes and McRoberts For the most part, these players should be capable outside shooters who spend most of their time spotting up. Three-point specialists are especially valuable for the Lakers because their offense is built around both a perimeter creator and the post, meaning everything they do is predicated on having the floor well spaced. Yet the Lakers rank last in the league in three-point percentage (25.0 percent) and have averaged fewer than four three-pointers per game.

In part, the Lakers have dealt with some bad luck. They surely won't continue to miss three out of four attempts from downtown, and Bryant (24.2 percent) and Derek Fisher (22.7 percent) are bound to regress to the mean. The Lakers have also missed Steve Blake, who was signed for expressly this role and was finally showing signs of successfully filling it before fracturing the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum last week.

Still, there was reason to believe before the season that the Lakers were going to struggle from downtown. SCHOENE projected them 28th in the league in three-point percentage, and signing specialists Kapono and Troy Murphy--neither of whom could got off the bench during last year's playoffs--was an indication of desperation. To the extent the Lakers do have shooters on the roster, they are primarily players who struggle at the defensive end. What's missing are the 3&D specialists that have become all the rage in the modern NBA because they complement star players so well.

All this makes for an interesting comparison with the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers' rival for Western Conference supremacy over the last decade-plus. Few coaches have embraced the three-point line more than Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs' roster is littered with shooters who can also defend, which has helped San Antonio remain an elite offense (sixth in the league this season) despite Manu Ginobili's injury and Tim Duncan's age-related decline.

The Spurs have four role players scoring at a simple Offensive Rating of 100 or better--Richard Jefferson (113.5), Daniel Green (107.2), Matt Bonner (106.6) and DeJuan Blair (100.5). That doesn't even include Gary Neal, who was highly efficient last season but has struggled early in 2011-12 after coming back from an appendectomy. Jefferson is a highly-paid starter, but the other four make less than $6 million combined. Bonner was acquired for backup center Rasho Nesterovic, Blair was drafted in the second round and Green and Neal were both signed as free agents for the minimum. Yet they might all be better than any player outside the Lakers' big three.

Maybe it's not fair to compare the Lakers to San Antonio, which has done better than nearly any other team with these kind of value signings. Still, quality role players are out there. The Miami Heat has built an effective point guard duo out of Mario Chalmers (a second-round pick) and Norris Cole (the last pick of the first round). The Dallas Mavericks signed Ian Mahinmi and Delonte West for the minimum. The Denver Nuggets have at least 12 players who could help the Lakers. For believers in NBA economic determinism, it should be difficult to explain how the team with the league's highest payroll has such a badly limited roster.

The Lakers haven't developed a rotation player through the draft since Bynum. Their forays into free agency have generally been disastrous. Metta World Peace has been one of the league's worst players this season and Blake has been unable to unseat Derek Fisher at point guard. Barnes and McRoberts were solid value signings, but they can't patch all the Lakers' holes, especially since McRoberts can't play at the same time as Bynum and Gasol--the same problem the Lakers faced with Lamar Odom last season.

Given all this, it's remarkable that the Lakers have started 10-5 and are tied for third place in the Western Conference. That's a testament to a couple of things. First, despite the gaping wound that is the Lakers' point guard defense, Mike Brown has used quality wings and the size of Bynum and Gasol in the paint to cobble together a defense that ranks fifth in the league on a per-possession basis. Second, nobody carries a poor offensive team quite like Kobe Bryant.

Certainly, there is no defense for some of the heat checks Bryant has taken this season. He's also relied a disturbing amount on long two-pointers, taking 2.3 more per night than any other player in the league, per Hoopdata.com. Still, and even with offense down across the league, Bryant's efficiency has barely budged with the extra load. That's a consistent theme throughout his career. As important as the typical tradeoff between usage and efficiency is, we also know that not every player responds to changes in their usage the same way. Bryant might be less sensitive than anyone in the league. Given that, using 40 percent of the team's plays might be how Bryant is most valuable to the Lakers. If they are going to pursue that strategy, however, the Lakers need some worthy role players around their star.

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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