Remember just a few months ago, when Kobe Bryant performed the equivalent of a toddler dropping to the floor, rolling around and crying in a poutfest designed to earn him a ticket out of Los Angeles? Boy, have things changed.
Why did Kobe want out of the only NBA home he's ever known? Apparently, he realized that Mitch Kupchak and company had snuck a little rebuilding project in right under his nose. Bryant didn't want to rebuild. Players of his bilk (oops, did I mean "ilk"?) are in the game to win championships. If the Lakers want to rebuild, they can do it on their own time and on their own dime. He'd rather play in Chicago, where banners are ready to be hung. (Or not.)
This is why superstar players shouldn't be allowed to make personnel decisions.
Before the season started, Bryant didn't realize that his center, Andrew Bynum, was ready to emerge as one NBA's top 15 players. He didn't know that Bynum as an impact player would combine with the combo of Bryant and Lamar Odom, and meld with ideal glue players Derek Fisher and Luke Walton, to fashion a potent starting five.
Bryant didn't know that the Lakers' deep collection of young, athletic complementary players like Jordan Farmar, Kwame Brown, Ronny Turiaf, Trevor Ariza and Sasha Vujacic would give the Lakers one of the top benches in the NBA. Or that the terrific depth would allow Phil Jackson's charges to push the ball up the floor and become one of the best transition teams in basketball.
Would Bryant have wanted out if he had known how good the Lakers would be this season? It's possible. After all, who knows what goes on in the head of a person who has been a multimillionaire since the age of 17? It wouldn't surprise me if he ended up on Neverland Ranch.
Chances are, however, that Bryant is pretty happy that he stayed in L.A. To his credit, he seems to have recognized the burgeoning talent around him. Bryant has stepped off the pedal a little bit, spending more time on the bench and absorbing the resultant decline in scoring average without complaining. Through Monday, he was also down in PER (26.13 to 24.90), Usage Rate (31.1 to 30.2), points per 40 minutes (30.9 to 29.6) and my own wins-added/82 games (7.1 to 6.4). His assists per 40 are up, slightly.
After Sunday's gift-wrapped win over Memphis (the Grizzlies' Kyle Lowry was hammered by Kwame Brown on a last-second drive, but no call was forthcoming and the Lakers won by a point), the Lakers had won 16 of 19. L.A. is one of the five teams currently within a game of the best record in the West. The Lakers also have the best point differential in the conference--they've actually underperformed their Pythagorean record by a couple of games. The Lakers have a 10-6 road mark; just New Orleans and Phoenix have been better away from home in the West. It's not a stretch to say that to this point in the season, the Lakers have been the best team in the Western Conference. A vintage Celtics/Lakers championship series looms as a possibility.
So the questions are: Where has the Lakers' improvement come from? And how likely is it to continue?
NBA average team age, weighted by minutes
1. Trail Blazers 23.8
2. Hawks 24.1
3. 76ers 24.4
4. Bucks 24.6
5. Timberwolves 24.6
6. Warriors 25.2
7. SuperSonics 25.6
8. Lakers 25.7
9. Grizzlies 25.8
10. Cavaliers 25.9
11. Knicks 26.0
12. Bulls 26.0
13. Jazz 26.0
14. Raptors 26.2
15. Bobcats 26.3
16. Kings 26.4
17. Magic 26.5
18. Pacers 26.7
19. Hornets 27.1
20. Wizards 27.1
21. Nets 27.4
22. Heat 27.4
23. Celtics 27.7
24. Clippers 28.0
25. Rockets 28.1
26. Nuggets 28.2
27. Mavericks 28.2
28. Pistons 28.5
29. Suns 29.5
30. Spurs 31.0
Coach Jackson has been quoted as saying that in the NBA, men--not kids--win games. Nevertheless, his team this season is a young one, comprised primarily of players still on the upswing. Bryant (29) and Fisher (33) are the elder statesmen on the roster. The talented second unit (Brown/Farmer/Vujacic/Ariza/Turiaf) does not feature a player older than 25.
The other thing you can take from this chart is that the Trail Blazers and Hawks have a very bright future. Not only are they the league's youngest teams, they are learning to win. For Portland, this data doesn't even include Greg Oden. That's scary.
Let's look at the change in the Lakers' production over last season by looking at the top 12 in minutes played for each campaign:
Lakers, 07-08 Min w3280 Lakers, 06-07 Min w3280
K.Bryant 36.5 7.1 K.Bryant 39.4 8.3
A.Bynum 28.8 7.0 L.Odom 39.2 3.3
D.Fisher 26.8 2.5 A.Bynum 22.9 2.5
R.Turiaf 16.2 1.6 K.Brown 27.5 1.8
S.Vujacic 12.4 1.4 B.Cook 15.7 1.1
T.Ariza 15.3 1.3 R.Turiaf 14.1 -0.7
J.Farmar 20.5 0.9 L.Walton 33.2 -0.8
L.Odom 36.2 0.5 S.Vujacic 11.6 -0.8
K.Brown 19.2 -0.2 V.Radmanovic 18.7 -1.8
V.Radmanovic 19.3 -1.0 S.Parker 30.9 -2.6
L.Walton 25.3 -1.3 M.Evans 22.6 -2.9
C.Mihm 13.3 -1.7 J.Farmar 15.8 -4.5
(Note: WA3280 measures how many wins a player would add to a roster of otherwise league-average players per 3,280 minutes, or 40 minutes per game for 82 games)
Declines by Bryant, Odom and Walton have been more than offset by giant leaps by Bynum and Farmar. Bynum's improvement to elite-level status at the age of 20 is stunning. As we've seen with the Celtics, there seems to be something about combining elite-level players that has an exponential effect on team performance greater than you'd expect by simply adding in the new (or improved) player's statistics in the mix. (Future column topic.) This assumes that the new (or improved) player complements the existing talent, which is certainly the case with Bynum. In addition, Turiaf's improvement has helped to offset an slight step back from fellow interior player Brown.
Not to be overlooked is the contribution of Derek Fisher. I just returned from Salt Lake City, where I heard from several members of the Jazz organization that the loss of Fisher has had a significant impact in Utah. Statistically speaking, Utah's Ronnie Brewer is outperforming what Fisher did for the Jazz last season. So the effect must be intangible, never a comfortable realm for the humble analyst. In L.A., the Fisher effect is easy to measure: he's turned the giant sinkhole of production caused by the presence of Smush Parker into a positive contribution.
So can the Lakers keep it up? Absolutely.
Lakers projected WA3280 vs. actual
Player Age wPRJ w3280 Dif
K.Bryant 29 8.1 7.1 -1.0
A.Bynum 20 1.8 7.0 5.3
D.Fisher 33 -1.8 2.5 4.3
R.Turiaf 24 -0.3 1.6 1.8
S.Vujacic 23 -0.2 1.4 1.6
T.Ariza 22 1.8 1.3 -0.5
J.Farmar 20 -1.8 0.9 2.8
L.Odom 28 2.4 0.5 -1.9
K.Brown 25 0.6 -0.2 -0.8
V.Radmanovic 26 -0.9 -1.0 -0.1
L.Walton 27 -0.5 -1.3 -0.7
C.Mihm 28 -3.5 -1.7 1.8
Almost all of the Lakers who are outperforming their projected WA3280 are the young guys. While Fisher is likely to regress some, that should be offset by an improved Odom as the season moves forward. The young guys should be just fine; they're simply getting better.
On top of that, let's remember that the Lakers' recent surge has not yet brought them in line with their Pythagorean record. Point differential is huge and the Lakers have one of the best. They've played 20 of 36 at home but, according to ESPN.com's strength of schedule figures, the Lakers have still played the sixth-toughest slate in the league to date. Besides, L.A. has played terrific on the road.
So the Lakers seem to be for real. The biggest challenge they face is the loss of Bynum, who injured his left knee during the win over Memphis on Sunday. He's out for at least eight weeks.
Maybe when June comes around, it'll be one of those Celtics/Lakers matchups that evokes images of yore: Chamberlain vs. Russell, Magic vs. Bird. That would be good for the NBA, to be sure.
And Kobe Bryant? Sure, he's glad he stayed. Of course, he'd probably tell you he never wanted to leave in the first place.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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