Some numbers without Kobe

With the odds of a Tuesday return looking increasingly strong for Kobe Bryant, it's as good a time as any to look at how the team performed in his absence beyond simply wins and losses. To help, there's a great post at the New York Times' Off the Dribble blog from Joseph Treutlein, co-owner of HoopData.com and assistant director of scouting for DraftExpress.com.

He looks at L.A.'s efficiency ratings on both sides of the ball in the five games without Bryant, making some interesting observations:

For the season to date, the Lakers rank 11th in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 106.6 points per 100 possessions, well over the league average of 104.2. Over the past five games, the Lakers have played the Warriors (28th-ranked defense), the Jazz (11th-ranked defense), the Spurs (9th-ranked defense), the Blazers (17th-ranked defense), and the Celtics (1st-ranked defense), and their four victories came by double digits for an average margin of 10.6 points.

On the surface, it appears the offense must be performing better sans Kobe. But looking deeper into the numbers, the surprising truth is that, despite the Lakers’ dominance over those five games, they’ve actually been performing noticeably worse than normal. Indeed, the Lakers’ offensive efficiency, on average, during the past five games has been 102.8 — 3.8 lower than their season average. While these numbers don’t definitively prove anything, they likewise don’t provide any evidence that the offense performed better without Bryant; the opposite has been the case.

So how do we explain the Lakers’ excellent play these past five games? Surprisingly, it’s on the defensive end where they’ve stepped up their game, playing far above their standard. For the season, the Lakers rank second in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.6 points per 100 possessions, but in the past five games they’ve allowed an average of just 91.5 points per 100 possessions.

Treutlein correctly notes five games isn't a large enough sample size to draw sweeping conclusions, but the numbers seem to confirm what the eye saw. The Lakers were outstanding offensively in Portland, the first with Kobe on the sidelines, posting 113.8 points per 100 possessions. Against San Antonio the Lakers were again strong, at 107.4.

From there, things got increasingly less efficient: 101.3 against Utah, dropping to 98.1 against an absolutely wretched Golden State defense, and 93.5 against Boston, the stingiest team in basketball.

In a pair of those games (at Portland, vs. San Antonio), the Lakers were more efficient than earlier matchups against the same opponent earlier in the year with Kobe available. One was basically a wash (at Utah), and in two they were less efficient (vs. Golden State, vs. Boston). Don't look for any "smoking guns" in relation to Kobe's performance, either. In L.A.'s first visit to Portland, Kobe was a high volume, low percentage shooter (14 for 37), In San Antonio on Jan. 12, he was a tidy seven for 10.

Again, the sample sizes are too small to draw hard-and-fast conclusions on the offensive end. Meanwhile, the team was almost uniformly dominant defensively over that stretch.

A few thoughts:

  • For the Lakers to lose efficiency offensively makes a great deal of sense. Kobe Bryant, among the most dominant offensive players in NBA history, wasn't on the floor. Almost by definition points become harder to come by.

  • None of this is antithetical to the idea the offense- the actual operation of the triangle offense- seemed more efficient and productive. Without Kobe, the Lakers ran more sets out of the triangle, moved the ball more, and generally relied on core offensive principles more than they had with Kobe available. More players participated in its operation, with more balanced shot distributions.

  • The key to returning the Lakers to something closer to last season's offensive juggernaut is combining Kobe's talent with greater balance. We've written about it on the blog and talked about it on the PodKast. For a variety of reasons, the rhythm the Lakers seemed to nail frequently last year hasn't appeared as much this season. In many ways, I think Kobe's injury served to reboot L.A.'s operating system. (We'll see over the next couple weeks if I'm right.)

  • Defensively, two factors contribute to the improvement. First, players and coaches agreed Kobe's absence forced them to take each defensive trip more seriously, because they knew points would be tougher to generate on the other end. We all know how much focus and effort impact defensive performance. Second, without Kobe, fewer players took liberties with the defensive scheme. More than most Lakers, Kobe will take chances, jump passing lanes and play what he calls "free safety" or "center field." The first matters much more than the second, but both have an impact.

Bottom line, the Lakers were able to do some positive and important things without Kobe offensively they'd be wise to emulate when he returns to the lineup. Defensively, while I've never liked 24's tendency to wander because it makes it tougher on his teammates, he's still one of the game's best backcourt defenders. His presence, combined with the newfound intensity and focus on details, ought to elevate L.A.'s already strong D for the stretch drive.

Should the latter happen, it may not matter as much if the Lakers reach last year's offensive benchmarks.

(By the way, if you haven't yet discovered the HoopData.com box scores I used extensively at the top of the post, they're well worth checking out after each game. Very cool, very informative, and they give more perspective to game action than a traditional box.)