The early stages of the NBA season are full of surprises and interesting numbers. Whatever happens now might be an indicator of what's coming, but it might not. Some early trends are more sustainable than others, and differentiating between the two becomes a sport onto itself.
I call it "Yeah, but" season. As in "Yeah, Player/Team X might be doing ____, but ..."
For the Lakers, you could start with "Yeah, the Lakers are 5-5, but Dwight Howard is still healing and Steve Nash has barely played. And so on. Not every construction affords that kind of naked optimism, but all are worth investigating.
Here are three more potential "Yeah, but" scenarios facing the team, and thoughts on how things will play out going forward.
1. The way Kobe Bryant is playing, the Lakers can't help but be contenders at the end.
Bryant, whose triple-double paced Sunday's 119-108 win over Houston, is playing next-level ball even relative to his own lofty standards: 26.4 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 52.8 percent from the floor, 40.8 percent from downtown. His metrics are stunning. Bryant is currently obliterating career highs in true and effective field goal percentages, has never posted a higher with assist rate, leads the league in win shares, and his PER (27.4) would be the second best of his 17-year run.
Basically, he's spent the last 10 games giving the death stare to Father Time.
The percentages will fall, because even Kobe eventually goes back to career norms. He's never been better than 47 percent from the floor, so expecting him to remain above 50 while playing 2-guard at 34 years old? Not realistic. Neither is 40 percent from the arc for a guy who hasn't been over 33 percent since '08-'09. Moreover, we've seen this, or something like it, before. Last season, Kobe was incredible over the first few weeks of the season, and hit a wall as it wore on, shooting 40 percent in February and 39 percent in March.
Sure, the numbers will level out, but overall his performance doesn't necessarily have to. As many (myself included) suggested might happen with Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol around, Kobe is adopting a less-to-do-more philosophy this year. His shots per game are down from 23 last season to 17.8, and his usage has dropped from a league leading 35.7 percent to 29.1, his lowest figure since '03-'04 (not coincidentally, with the last Lakers SuperTeam). All of this has happened without Nash, the guy who will unquestionably make life easier for Kobe, removing giant chunks of ball handling duties while setting him up for clean looks around the floor, or the debut of D'Antoni, an offensive genius who will undoubtedly find creative ways to free Bryant up.
Bottom Line: Sure, Bryant won't finish the year with a true shooting percentage of 63.8, but as long as he stays healthy -- always the wild card -- and doesn't change his approach, the basic thesis remains in play: Kobe has an excellent chance of logging his most productive and efficient season in recent memory.
2. The Lakers are now piling up points. Showtime is back!
They're giving them up by the bushel, as well. In their two most recent wins, Phoenix and Houston, two middle-third offensive teams, torched L.A. through three quarters, both shooting well over 50 percent from the floor while reaching 84 and 87 points respectively. They scored at will, the Lakers just scored at will-er. Real teams won't give up points like the Suns and Rockets and will feature plenty of offensive firepower, as well. The Lakers have to tighten up defensively or ultimately they'll be short some steak for all the sizzle.
And don't get me, Yeah But Guy, started on the reputation of D'Antoni's teams defensively. We could be here all day!
Maybe, except ...
The Lakers have shown themselves capable of playing defense this season. Counter intuitive as it seems, the Lakers actually have done pretty well on that side of the ball this year. Through Monday, ESPN's defensive efficiency measurements put the Lakers seventh, and Hoopdata.com ranks them sixth. Basketball-Reference.com says they're 13th. So everyone agrees they're in the top half, and some of the math puts them well into the top third. And this is with Howard still at around 80 percent. When they didn't score against San Antonio, they defended, holding the Spurs to under 40 percent shooting and 84 points. Down the stretch against the Suns and Rockets, the Lakers got the stops they needed and pulled away.
And while D'Antoni's teams weren't great defensively, they were generally better than given credit. More middle of the road than bad, and none of those teams had a three-time DPOY anchoring the paint.
Bottom Line: The Lakers feel a little like a group of guys coming off a stringent diet now chowing Fritos by the bag. They're binging, doing stuff they know isn't all that healthy but having too much fun not to. That'll pass.
Nor do I buy the idea they can't or won't play defense because D'Antoni is the coach, as if he'll fine them for every good rotation or steal forced. Talking to Chris Duhon, who played for D'Antoni in New York, he said the fundamental reason those Knicks didn't play well defensively is because they had few players who took defense seriously. And as Andy recently calculated, in three full seasons with New York D'Antoni coached 49 players. Not exactly a recipe for continuity.
The Lakers have Howard and Metta World Peace, players who define themselves by their defense. Kobe isn't an elite-level defender anymore on a game-to-game, possession-to-possession basis, but can absolutely crank it up when the situation demands. Certainly Bryant knows they can't get through a deep playoff run without getting stops. Still, the Lakers will have vulnerabilities. As it was a year ago, they won't be great in transition, even factoring in the bump in mobility going from Andrew Bynum to Howard. Nash can be exploited, and off the bench Antawn Jamison is a major liability. Jodie Meeks graded out as a decent defender in Philly, but is undersized.
The Lakers may have found an asset in Darius Morris, who has done good work defensively starting in place of Nash and Steve Blake, but he'll still need to earn time once those guys are back.
Honestly, I don't think the coaching change impacts them that much. Whatever structural defensive issues the Lakers had under Brown remain with D'Antoni, and their fortunes on that side remain very much linked to Howard's health. There will be bad games, but on a points-per-play basis, the Lakers can still be plenty good enough to advance through the playoffs.
3. The Lakers, after a slow (to say the least) start, have won five of their last seven games.
They haven't actually beaten anyone good.
You can only play the teams on the schedule and the Lakers unquestionably look better mentally and physically as a team ...
Bottom Line: Who are we kidding? There's a lot of truth to that one. It'll be hard to buy in to the Lakers fully until they beat some quality opponents. Which, especially as D'Antoni gets settled in, they will.
The Lakers have wins over Detroit (2-9), Golden State (5-5), Sacramento (2-8), Phoenix (4-7) and Houston (4-6). Not exactly a group of teams you'd expect to meet come spring through a deep playoff run. They played a good game against San Antonio last week, but the fact remains every decent team the Lakers have faced has beaten them. Then again, measuring how much earlier losses to Utah, the Clippers and Dallas says about how the Lakers match up is difficult a) because the context change in the pre- and post-Mike Brown eras is so profound and b) virtually all of this has happened with Nash in street clothes.
The latter is a problem that won't be solved right away, as Nash will miss at least another week's worth of games, but anyone curious whether the new-look Lakers are legit -- there must be one or two of you out there -- gets a great indication over the next 10 days or so. Five of their next six games come against legitimate squads. Brooklyn is 6-2. Memphis is 8-1, with wins over Miami, Oklahoma City and the Knicks. Dallas is 6-5, but 4-1 at home. Indiana (Nov. 27) and Denver (Nov. 30) are both off to bad starts, but still ought to be high-end teams before it's all said and done.
And then there's Sacramento on Wednesday. They're awful.
So if the Lakers look good between now and the end of the month, scoring against good defenses (the Pacers and Grizzlies are both top 5 in defensive efficiency) and showing a little spine against powerful offenses (Brooklyn, Dallas and Memphis are top 10 on that side), it will be an encouraging sign.