Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past six months or so, you’re probably familiar with the saga of the Los Angeles Lakers. After acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the offseason, they were pretty much crowned the title favorites. People were penciling in Miami Heat-Los Angeles Lakers as the NBA Finals matchup. Metta World Peace — known hereafter as The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest — predicted they’d make a run at the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins. Hell, I myself predicted 60+ wins and a first-place finish in the West. From October:
If you’re questioning this team’s success, I would like to remind you that simply having Dwight Howard wearing your uniform all but guarantees a top defense, and the same goes for Steve Nash and offense. Yes, Mike Brown is still the coach and the bench is…meh at best and Kobe is getting older, but those top four are fearsome. Nash/Howard pick and rolls are probably as close as it gets to guaranteed points, and if and when Nash plays off the ball, you have the best shooter of all time spotting up on the weakside while you still have to deal with Dwight and/or Kobe and/or Pau. That’s not even fair.
— Pacific Division 2012-2013 Preview: I Can’t Stand The Lakers (10/25/2012)
So, as it turns out, it wasn’t quite that simple. Yes, there have been mitigating factors: Nash, Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Steve Blake have all missed significant time with injuries — Hill is out for the season — and Dwight is clearly not 100 percent after a back injury forced him to miss the end of last year and have surgery in the offseason. Said injuries have thrown LA’s bench into chaos, with players’ roles changing from game to game, largely by necessity. And Dwight, who should be able to make the defense solid by himself, just isn’t the same player. His offensive game fluctuates on a game-to-game basis, but his defense has been pretty meh all year. 82games.com tells us that the Lakers allow about 107 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the court. That’s terrible. The historically awful Charlotte Bobcats of last season gave up points at only a slightly higher rate than that.
To be perfectly fair, the rest of the team is hardly without fault in that. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are solidly below average defensively — an understatement in Nash’s case and a product of position in Gasol’s, more on that later — to say nothing of Kobe Bryant, who is more or less awful defensively these days. He’s above-average when defending the ball, I guess, but his off-ball defense is atrocious. If you don’t believe me, go read this excellent breakdown from a couple of weeks ago. The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest is solid, but he’s getting old and can only do so much.
The Lakers’ struggles ultimately come down to a couple of things: terrible injury luck, as detailed above, poor defense — eight of their 10 most-used lineups give up points at a significantly below average rate, per 82games — and the fact that their best five players can only kind of play together.
That last one is hard to explain, but here’s the most important piece: Pau Gasol is not a power forward. He’s a center. It’s kind of unclear if he’s a good center or not — I would say he probably is, but that’s mostly just an opinion — but he’s a center. He struggles to guard power forwards and he’s best off playing from the foul line down. Unfortunately, with Dwight Howard around, that’s both impractical and unproductive. Furthermore, Mike D’Antoni’s system calls for the power forward to help space the floor, and Pau can only sort of do that. He’s not a three-point shooter, as much as D’Antoni would clearly like him to be, and while he’s hit a decent number of his shots from 16-to-23 feet, he’s struggled from everywhere else except at the rim.
So, the solution is simple: trade Gasol, or stagger his minutes such that he and Dwight spend as little time on the court together as possible. That doesn’t really fix everything, given that the plan was always to have Nash/Kobe/The Artist Formerly Known As Ron Artest/Gasol/Dwight close games, but it’s entirely possible that it’s just not a good idea. Then again, it’s hard to think anyone is going to give the Lakers fair market value for Gasol right now. But it is the Lakers…
Anyway, LA is currently 12th (!!!) in the West, only a game and a half ahead of the Sacramento Kings. They’re starting to seem like longshots to even make the playoffs, and a championship is basically a pipe dream at this point. Dwight needs to get healthy, Pau needs to figure things out and they need a lot of luck. But it’s the Lakers, so don’t count them out entirely. These things always seem to work out for them.
The Lakers take on the Chicago Bulls tonight at the United Center. Tipoff will be around 7:30 central time.