The Los Angeles Lakers' defense of their NBA championship is coming along nicely nearly two months into the season. At 22-4, they hold the league's best record. In part, that has been padded by a schedule that has been remarkably location-friendly--17 of their 26 games have been played at home, which explains why the Lakers rank only third in Basketball Prospectus' adjusted plus-minus metric. However, even accounting for schedule, the Lakers have been rolling since getting Pau Gasol back in the lineup on Nov. 19. Over the last 15 games, their adjusted point differential is +9.7 points per game as compared to an average team. That's better than any team has done over the course of the season (Atlanta and Boston are tied for first in the NBA at +8.0).
All of that success may have obscured at odd outcome: The Lakers are winning in what is largely a different fashion from a year ago. Where last year's team was balanced but won primarily with crisp execution of its triangle offense, the 2009-10 Lakers are relying on a solid offense combined with an elite defense.
The last two seasons, the Lakers' defense has been more than good enough to win, but not exactly stifling. Each year, the Lakers finished fifth in Defensive Rating during the regular season. Last year's Lakers started very well at the defensive end, confusing opponents with an aggressive trapping system. By December, however, a slump had drawn questions about their commitment to the defensive end that ultimately proved premature.
When the Lakers got off to a good start defensively this year, it looked like more of the same or the effect of Andrew Bynum playing nearly 40 minutes a night at center in Gasol's absence. Instead, the success has proven more durable. The Lakers are still battling the Boston Celtics for the top spot in the league defensively, and nobody in the league is holding opponents to a lower effective field-goal percentage.
Some of the credit should go to swapping Trevor Ariza out for Ron Artest. Though the former has a solid defensive reputation, Basketball Prospectus' statistics show Artest holding opponents 8.8 percent below their usual production. By contrast, they were 7.3 percent better against Ariza.
The bigger factor, however, seems to be the Lakers' improved perimeter defense. All the trapping they did left them vulnerable to allowing open three-point looks on the weak side of the floor. Opponents attempted about a quarter of their shots against the Lakers from beyond the arc last year, the league's fourth-highest percentage. That rate is down to 21.2 percent this season, below the league average. The success rate on threes is down as well, from 34.9 percent to 30.0 percent, which is best in the NBA. By cutting down on their aggressiveness in trapping and doing a better job of rotating, the Lakers have made life very difficult for opposing offenses.
At the other end of the floor, the Lakers have not quite been themselves. Remarkably, their Offensive Rating is just 14th in the NBA. Part of that has to do with Gasol's injury. Without the Spaniard, the Lakers averaged just 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Since his return, that has leaped to 111.8. Still, that mark would put the Lakers eighth in the league over the course of the season, slightly below the Celtics.
My biggest concern about the Lakers' offense was whether Artest would be comfortable in the complementary role played by Ariza. Instead, he's using just 17.3 percent of the Lakers' possessions, a career low and similar to Ariza's role a year ago (he used 16.1 percent). By willingly taking a back seat on offense, Artest has at the very least minimized the harm he's causing the Lakers as their least efficient scorer in the starting lineup
Still, being more selective hasn't done much to help Artest's efficiency; his 51.9 percent True Shooting Percentage is only a slight improvement on his lone season in Houston (51.2 percent) and is worse than either of his two full campaigns in Sacramento. That could go up with Artest's three-point percentage, which is just 35.8 percent after he hit at least 38.0 percent the last two seasons, though it also reflects the fact that efficiency is not as dependent on usage rate for go-to players like Artest.
In addition to the slight loss from replacing Ariza (54.4 percent True Shooting Percentage a year ago) with Artest, the Lakers have been hurt by Derek Fisher's shooting slump. Their starting point guard, who struggled in the postseason before coming up with two key shots in the late stages of a Game 4 win, is hitting just 31.7 percent from beyond the arc after making 39.7 percent and 40.6 percent the previous two seasons. Ordinarily, this would be something of a positive sign in that Fisher could be expected to rebound, but given his age (35) and the extended period Fisher has been misfiring, this might be his true level at this point.
The bench has been another culprit. This is not an enormous problem because Jackson is as good at any coach as making sure one or two of his go-to players are on the court at all times--except when tacos are at stake late in blowout wins. At the same time, with Sasha Vujacic apparently unable to fix a glitch in The Machine, the Lakers are short on scoring punch off the pine even with Odom (struggling himself this season) back as a sixth man. Shannon Brown, who has followed up his strong postseason by giving the Lakers good minutes replacing Vujacic as the backup shooting guard, is the only reserve with a True Shooting Percentage better than league average (and then only barely so, 54.8 percent as compared to 53.9 percent for the NBA as a whole).
The Lakers would benefit on offense from getting more looks for Gasol. In an interview with Magic Johnson for ESPN over the weekend, Kobe Bryant called Gasol "the best post player in the game" in his opinion. That's certainly a reasonable argument. Gasol's combination of footwork, touch and passing ability makes him a dangerous post threat, and he's been on fire since returning to the lineup. Gasol has a 63.1 percent True Shooting Percentage this year and is grabbing a career-high 19.4 percent of available rebounds. On a per-minute basis, he rates fourth in the league by Win%.
So how is it then that Gasol is using less of the Lakers' possessions than an average player? His 19.4 percent usage rate is the lowest of his career, down slightly from last year's 20.5 percent and the 21.2 percent of the team's possessions he used after being traded to the Lakers in 2007-08. This is partially the reality of having a balanced lineup around Bryant, who remains efficient while using 33.8 percent of the team's possessions. No other Laker is above a 21 percent usage rate, but Gasol has earned the right to be more of a clear second option on offense, and the team could do well to find him more shots.
The Lakers still have plenty of time to address these issues, as they did with their slumping defense this time a year ago. Even if they can't work through them, the Lakers are certainly more than capable of repeating. A similar combination of offense and defense carried the Celtics to the title two years ago, after all. The early part of the season has also offered good news in that no other Western Conference foe has stepped forward as an obvious threat. There is plenty of depth in the conference, but the West's second-best team so far (Denver) ranks behind three East teams in adjusted point differential. So far, a rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals appears to be a likely possibility. If that proves the case, it may not be harder this time to tell the teams apart in terms of their offensive and defensive results.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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