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Now searching for rhythm: The Lakers

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

The Laker offense ranks 11th, behind teams like the Cavaliers, Spurs, Magic and Grizzlies.

The Lakers are the favorites. They're the champions.

They have the best record in the Western Conference, and are percentage points from having the best record in the NBA -- even though they have played 17 games without Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant has been playing with four good fingers on his shooting hand for weeks.

They have the NBA's third-best defense so far this season (far better than last year, when they were just sixth). On offense they have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and most of the same crew that was last year's third-ranked offense. John Hollinger's very cool playoff predictor calls the Lakers, as of this morning, 63% likely to finish the season with the best record in the tough Western Conference.

So why is ESPN Los Angeles Laker blogger Brian Kamenetzky quoting this line from the Simpsons?

Kent Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?

Professor: Yes I would, Kent.

For whatever reason, the great Laker machine is just not humming along so well at the moment, especially on offense. Consider some stats from the last nine games.

  • The Lakers have lost five of their last nine, to the Raptors, Cavaliers, Spurs, Blazers and Clippers. A game in New York on Friday was fairly close.

  • Against one of the NBA's absolute worst defenses yesterday (the Raptors) the Lakers managed just two points over the final 3:23 of a game they lost by one point.

  • Over those nine games, Kobe Bryant has launched 206 shots, of which he has made 81, for 39%.

  • Pau Gasol has been back in uniform for the last five of those games.

As a result of all this and more, the NBA's third-best offense of a year ago is now ranked 11th, behind not just the Suns and Nuggets but also teams with less dazzling offenses, like the Cavaliers, Spurs, Magic and Grizzlies.

There's also something going on with the personnel. Over this same stretch, the Lakers have been in six close games. With the games on the line, the lineups have been all over the place:

  • The only players guaranteed to play in crunch time are Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

  • Either Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom will join the big two, but never both.

  • Ron Artest does not play in crunch time. He's replacing Trevor Ariza this season, as the starting small forward, and Ariza did play. This is new. The only exception, out of the last nine games, was against Cleveland, when Jackson played the starting lineup in crunch time, which is rare.

  • Point guard, where Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar hold down the fort, is seen as the Lakers' weakest position. Yet in crunch time, Jackson plays two point guards. Brown is almost always one of them. Fisher is second most likely to be out there, followed by Farmar. (Again, the only exception is the Cavaliers game, where just the starter, Fisher, played down the stretch.)

What does all this mean for the playoffs?

It's hard to say. One interpretation is that we need to re-assess the Laker juggernaut. They are not rolling without interruption from one title to the next. The coaching staff has work to do to determine how to tease the best possible basketball out of this roster.

If for whatever reason Phil Jackson does not trust Ron Artest in crunch time, the Lakers don't have an obvious solution. Last year Odom and Ariza (all that length and mobility!) made big shots and got big stops. At key times of recent games, Odom and his replacement Artest have often both been on the bench, leaving Brown and Bynum (the one not as long, the other not as mobile) to make the plays.

Maybe that's something to worry about.

But there's another way to look at this too. Maybe this is simply a case of Phil Jackson putting on the lab coat and trying some things. Even after this recent rough patch, the team still has a cushion in the West standings. With Fisher getting older and less effective, the Lakers need a point guard they can trust in the playoffs, so he's auditioning two every crunch time. Will Brown or Farmar earn his trust? Maybe. If so, the Lakers are that much more prepared for the rigors of the tough playoff series ahead, with an athletic point guard in the mix.

Meanwhile, the offense may be 11th. But they only need to score slightly than one more basket per 100 possessions to be a top five offense. When the games really matter, presumably Bryant's finger will be 100%, while Gasol will fully back in the rhythm of his teammates. By then, Jackson will have probably sorted out how he wants to deploy Artest, Brown, Bynum, Odom and the like ... with all those pieces in place, it's hard to imagine the Lakers won't average the extra make or two they'd need to score with the best.