This is not the defense of a finesse squad.
On last week's Kamenetzky Brothers Lakers PodKast, Andy and I spent a great deal of time talking both about LA's issues shooting from the outside and the way in which they've cranked things up on the defensive end over the first quarter-plus of the season. (The topic comes up around the 19:45 mark, right after a very compelling discussion of whether Kobe, who has called the fracture of his right index finger the toughest injury he's ever had to work through, could play with a peg leg or flippers. Could happen, you know.)
For those looking for a little more information on the subjects, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus has written a great feature on what's happening with the Lakers on both sides of the ball.
First, the defense. Last season, the Lakers evolved into a top shelf squad on that end of the floor (something many in the media, still reasonably focused on treating the them as a relatively soft, finesse-based team tended to miss), but this season have been even better. Pelton notes a bunch of stats that reflect some basic dominance. Into Monday's games, the Lakers have the best numbers in opponents' true shooting percentage (49.6%), three point percentage (29.7%), and points allowed per 100 trips (98.7). Only the Hornets foul less than the Lakers on a per-FGA basis (.195). One big reason for the improvement is thanks to this summer's small forward swap with the Rockets:
"...Some of the credit should go to swapping Trevor Ariza out for Ron Artest. Though the former has a solid defensive reputation, Basketball Prospectus' statistics show Artest holding opponents 8.8 percent below their usual production. By contrast, they were 7.3 percent better against Ariza..."
Performances like the one Artest delivered against the Pistons Sunday night crystallize the impact he has on the team around him. Ron Ron was handsy handsy, knocking balls away from Pistons players or chasing the rock on the sidelines. The energy was impressive, particularly given the context- second night of a back-to-back, at the end of a long roadie. Between all that, he's still a massive physical presence on the wing and inside.
The issues, inasmuch as a 22-4 team can have them, are on the other side of the ball. Shooting woes are making it tough for the Lakers to replicate last year's success in scoring with efficiency to spare. Every team has a weakness, and right now this is shaping up to be LA's:
"...the Lakers have been hurt by Derek Fisher's shooting slump. Their starting point guard, who struggled in the postseason before coming up with two key shots in the late stages of a Game 4 win, is hitting just 31.7 percent from beyond the arc after making 39.7 percent and 40.6 percent the previous two seasons. Ordinarily, this would be something of a positive sign in that Fisher could be expected to rebound, but given his age (35) and the extended period Fisher has been misfiring, this might be his true level at this point.
The bench has been another culprit... with Sasha Vujacic apparently unable to fix a glitch in The Machine, the Lakers are short on scoring punch off the pine even with (Lamar) Odom (struggling himself this season) back as a sixth man. Shannon Brown, who has followed up his strong postseason by giving the Lakers good minutes replacing Vujacic as the backup shooting guard, is the only reserve with a True Shooting Percentage better than league average (and then only barely so, 54.8 percent as compared to 53.9 percent for the NBA as a whole)..."
I haven't yet reached the point where I think the shooting problems are a full on problem (I'm talking the type likely to cost the Lakers a title), but they need to get better. I think Fish can rebound, and at 28.7% Kobe is clearly hitting below his career norms from behind the arc, but Brown and Jordan Farmar have no track record as strong shooters from distance. It would be killer if one of the two (or two of the two, but why be greedy) could find the range.
In the meantime, Pelton recommends giving the ball to the really tall Spanish actor in the post:
"... (Pau) Gasol has a 63.1 percent True Shooting Percentage this year and is grabbing a career-high 19.4 percent of available rebounds. On a per-minute basis, he rates fourth in the league by Win%.
So how is it then that Gasol is using less of the Lakers' possessions than an average player? His 19.4 percent usage rate is the lowest of his career, down slightly from last year's 20.5 percent and the 21.2 percent of the team's possessions he used after being traded to the Lakers in 2007-08. This is partially the reality of having a balanced lineup around Bryant, who remains efficient while using 33.8 percent of the team's possessions. No other Laker is above a 21 percent usage rate, but Gasol has earned the right to be more of a clear second option on offense, and the team could do well to find him more shots..."
Lord knows we advocate the same thing here. Good to know the eggheads (I use that term for everyone I know smarter than I am) like Pelton are on our side.