LOS ANGELES -- Pop quiz: How can a statistical line of five points, eight assists and one steal by a player be considered to be better than his previous game of 20, 16 and three?
According to Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, it's pretty easy to find the answer. Just look to see if the stats came in a win or a loss.
The stat lines just mentioned belong to Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall. The first set came in Friday's 101-92 win over the Boston Celtics, a game in which six Lakers scored in double digits and the team had some semblance of a normal rotation, with 10 healthy players suiting up and getting in the game.
The second came in Wednesday's 134-108 loss to the Houston Rockets, a game in which L.A. had only seven players available, and whatever good that came on offense was undone by all-out embarrassing defense that led to a franchise-worst eighth straight home loss.
Even though there was some joy and excitement in Staples Center for the first time in a long time Friday as the Lakers earned their first home win since Jan. 3 and swept the season series with the rival Celtics in the process, the reality is that even with the win, L.A. (19-36) is still 14th in the Western Conference, 13½ games out of a playoff spot with only 27 games left to play.
All the Lakers have left to play for this season is determining which players out of the 12 who have expiring contracts they will want to bring back for next season and beyond.
And while it's true the Lakers' chances of getting better positioning to add one player through the draft will be helped by losing, the best way the team will have a chance to properly determine what it has in those dozen other guys is to remain competitive.
"We also want to judge players around other good players. Especially like a Kendall Marshall," D'Antoni said, noting how important it was for the team to have Pau Gasol return from a groin injury Friday so it had a proper No. 1 option to revolve around. "And Pau will give that. So, you can judge players better instead of just putting stats up on a bad team. Anybody can do that. So, let's see if we can get some wins, see if we can get some traction, see if these guys can become winners, and then you can judge them a lot easier."
It's not hard to be fooled by some of the numbers that are churned out by a team running D'Antoni's system, even in a win. Most of the attention paid to Friday's game will be about Kent Bazemore's season-high 15 points and MarShon Brooks' season-high 14 points in their debuts with the Lakers. But it was actually Bazemore's hurdling over the bench to try to save a loose ball and Brooks' diving on the floor to create a jump ball opportunity that had might have had the bigger impact. It's all about context, and staying competitive provides that.
"You can only really learn about players if you win," D'Antoni said. "You don't learn about them while you're losing. Anybody can put up stats. Stats mean absolutely nothing in this league. You have to play winning basketball, and we'll see if we can do that. And if these guys can do that, then that's really what will boost their career either here or there or wherever. But you can't throw up stats and lose. Nobody looks at that and takes it seriously."
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak concurred when asked about it earlier in the week.
"That's maybe what makes the job a little bit harder than you might think it would be," Kupchak said. "Because, yeah -- good players or statistically good players on bad teams, you have to look a little bit closer."
Even though the Lakers got some bad news Friday when Kobe Bryant's fractured left knee continued to show pain and swelling, pushing his timeline for a potential return back at least another three weeks, they also got the boost of three healthy bodies added to the mix in Gasol, Brooks and Bazemore and the promise of Nick Young (who will play Sunday) and Xavier Henry (who will practice Saturday) also available soon.
Suddenly, Marshall will be evaluated as a point guard with talent around him, and Lakers management will see how he responds and what decisions he makes in a role that is realistic moving forward rather than Marshall simply playing 40 minutes and racking up big numbers almost by default because there are no bodies behind him.
"For me, the first thing comes with energy," D'Antoni said. "Especially on the defensive end. You get back, you do what we [teach players to] do. Can you hone in every day and bring that? And then offensively, can you not be an individual? Can you play with your teammates? If you do those two things, you'll get time and time to develop. If you can't, then you get pushed to the side."
And the injury-riddled Lakers, who had a game where they were down to only four eligible players a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland, seem to finally have enough guys to have a proper evaluation process the rest of the way.
"The good thing about it is, if you play well, you'll play, if you don't you're not going to play," D'Antoni said. "It's going to be fair. We got a lot of guys that want to play and that makes it nice. They'll be competing for time and let the best man win."