January 26, 2010

Mid-Season Look at the Lakers

Midway through the 2009-2010 season, the Los Angeles Lakers' title defense doesn't look all formidable.

The Lakers may be the #1 team in the Western conference and the league for a great portion of the season's first half, but for some reason, questions about the Lakers' toughness and hunger to win a back-to-back championship have been raised as of late.

But let's first look at what went right:
  • The Lakers were almost unbeatable at home - The Lakers own the best home record in the league and it seems they are in their element in L.A.
  • Kobe Bryant stepped up - When Pau Gasol was out early in the season, Kobe adjusted his game to be more dominant and willed the Lakers to wins. When Pau came back, Kobe toned down on the scoring and integrated Gasol into the Triangle. Kobe even saved the Lakers with his buzzer-beaters on multiple occasions. Kobe is my first half MVP.
  • Andrew Bynum was healthy - Andrew Bynum may not be All-Star material yet but he did keep himself on the floor to be a defensive and occasional offensive presence in the game. After Kobe and Gasol, Bynum is the third most important player in the Lakers' roster because he's a match-up nightmare for 95% of teams in the NBA. His averages of nearly 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks indicate his continued development
Now, for the things that went wrong:
  • Injuries took its toll as the season wore on - The Lakers' lineup was not decimated by injuries like Portland, but over-all roster health was a major concern for the first time in years: Kobe Bryant broke a finger in his shooting hand, Luke Walton was out with a bad back, Pau Gasol took time off early in the season because of hamstring injuries, and Ron Artest injured himself falling down the stairs.
  • Level of play was down - Compared to standard set by the team last year, the Lakers' over-all play is down in the first half of the season. Offensive numbers suggest that the Lakers are scoring and execution have declined. Defensive stats like opponents' FG% and scoring, as well as team blocks and steals, are down. Could this be the effect of complacency?
  • Bench play was ugly - Save for Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, the Lakers bench in the first half was virtually non-existent. Teams beat the Lakers by making them a one-dimensional, top-heavy unit that failed to capitalize when the starters took a breather. The total bench only comprised 1/3 of the team's offensive output.
  • Ron-Ron struggled - When Ron Artest was acquired, everyone was expecting a tough defender who will contain the likes of LeBron James. In the Lakers' games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, James averaged almost 32 points.
From my assessment, the Lakers are showing signs of what I'd like to call "The Boston Celtics Effect"-- where a championship team wins the ring one season and dials down in the next. The talent is there but the hunger seems to have declined. This is very dangerous considering the Cavs, Magic, Celtics, and Nuggets are more than happy to take advantage of the Lakers' missteps and steal the crown.

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