The Official Narrative of the Lakers centers around an offensive-minded team only periodically committed to defense. If they want to repeat, so says the story, the purple and gold will have to decide once and for all to buckle down and get some stops. They'll have quit focusing on those fancy scoring plays, defend the pick and roll, and figure out how to handle fast point guards.
In one sense, I don't have a problem with this sort of talk. It's a point guard, P-and-R dominated league. Getting better at neutralizing both can't possibly hurt.
But insofar as those defensive questions can be used to explain the relative struggles (through 65 games) of the Lakers to gain consistency in their title defense, they're totally off-base. Over the course of the season, the Lakers have been one of the best, if not the best, defensive teams in the NBA. All season long they've jockeyed with Boston for the top spot in defensive efficiency, which measures the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. (Through Thursday, L.A. is second at 102.4, just behind the Celtics at 102.1.)
There's always room for improvement, but it's hard to do too much better than best.
Meanwhile, as I noted after Sunday's loss to Orlando, the Lakers have far more serious problems on the other side of the ball. Not only are they performing below last year's output in both raw numbers (102.6 ppg this season vs. 106.9 a year ago) and fancy metrics (108.6 points per 100 trips in '09-'10, over four points less than last year, numbers via Basketball Reference), but the Lakers come up short relative to champions of the last decade as well.
Sifting through numbers yesterday on BR.com, I saw some interesting stuff. And while I'm no egghead (though I've been told my head is egg-like), and clearly am not a mathemagenius, there is a lot to be gleaned from what I saw, and none of it is encouraging.
Take a look at offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage (Field goal percentage adjusted for the higher value of a three-point shot over a two-point shot) rankings among recent NBA champions:
Offensive Efficiency (Off Eff) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (EFG%), with League Rank
2009 Lakers: Off Eff- 112.8 (3), EFG%- .513 (6)
2008 Celtics: Off Eff- 110.2 (10), EFG%- .522 (5)
2007 Spurs: Off Eff- 109.2 (5), EFG%- .521 (2)
2006 Heat: Off Eff- 108.7 (7), EFG%- .517 (2)
2005 Spurs: Off Eff- 107.5 (9), EFG%- .492 (7)
2004 Pistons: Off Eff- 102.0 (18), EFG%- .461 (20)
2003 Spurs: Off Eff- 105.7 (7), EFG%- .497 (4)
2002 Lakers: Off Eff- 109.4 (2), EFG%- .498 (3)
2001 Lakers: Off Eff- 108.4 (2), EFG%- .498 (3)
2000 Lakers: Off Eff- 107.3 (6), EFG%- .484 (14)
Even after Tuesday's win over the Raptors (one of L.A.'s best offensive games of the last few weeks, three-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc notwithstanding) the Lakers were scoring 108.8 points per 100 trips (11th), with an EFG% of .496 (16th). As you can see in the table above, when organized by rank within the league, this year's Lakers team has been outpaced in both categories by all but one eventual NBA title team, the '04 Pistons.
(STATS VIA BASKETBALL REFERENCE)
The true shooting percentage (Field goal percentage accounting for three-pointers and free throws) story isn't any more encouraging:
True Shooting Percentage for NBA Champions, with League Rank
2009 Lakers 55.5 (6)
2008 Celtics 56.9 (5)
2007 Spurs 56.1 (2)
2006 Heat 55.6 (2)
2005 Spurs 53.4 (12)
2004 Pistons 51.1 (19)
2003 Spurs 54.1 (3)
2002 Lakers 53.4 (7)
2001 Lakers 53.5 (7)
2000 Lakers 52.5 (15)
Through Wednesday, the Lakers had a TS% of 53.9, good for 15th in the NBA. Again, they don't stack up well against past champions relative to their competition across the league. Seven of the last ten NBA champions posted a TS percentage in the top seven in the league.
(TS% VIA ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU)
One major problem is outside shooting. At Monday's practice in El Segundo, Phil Jackson said he doesn't believe a team has to have great shooters to open up the interior for good post play. "Other people are into that," he said. "It's about movement, and ball movement, that creates post-up possibilities. If the ball's stagnant and doesn't move it's going to be hard to get the ball in there."
Very true. The Lakers do need to move the ball better, show more patience and make better decisions to create angles for entry passes and kick outs. But it can't hurt to have a Steve Kerr out on the arc, can it? Given the paltry returns on his team's efforts at jump shooting this season, I can't blame Jackson for de-emphasizing the need to knock down threes. But it's hard to argue teams aren't packing down on the paint and forcing the Lakers to shoot over them.
Why wouldn't they? The Lakers are currently 20th in three-point percentage at 34.2%, but rank 10th in attempts and 12th in three-pointers per field goal attempt. This ratio is totally out of whack. Looking at the table below, L.A.'s raw percentage is certainly ugly relative to past champions, but more worrisome is the fact they're not getting to the line, either. Even after hitting the stripe 44 times against Toronto, the Lakers are 15th in free throws attempted, 24th in free throws per field goal attempt.
There are two relatively straightforward ways to get "bonus" points in the NBA, not requiring top-shelf efficiency from two-point range: Make threes, or get to the line. The Lakers don't do either one, and as you can see in the table below, most title teams who weren't good behind the arc compensated by shooting massive amounts of free throws.
The Threepeat teams are the best example. Couldn't shoot a lick, but between Shaq and Kobe, they lived at the line.
Three-Point Percentage, with League Rank
2009 Lakers: .361 (19, Note: 8th in FTA's)
2008 Celtics: .381 (5)
2007 Spurs: .381 (3)
2006 Heat: .345 (20, 8th in FTA's)
2005 Spurs: .363 (9)
2004 Pistons: .344 (15)
2003 Spurs: 363 (9, 6th in FTA's)
2002 Lakers: .354 (15th, 6th in FTA's)
2001 Lakers: .344 (20, 2nd in FTA's)
2000 Lakers: .329 (25, 3rd in FTA's)
(STATS VIA BASKETBALL REFERENCE)
Bottom line, the Lakers are underperforming on one side of the ball, and it isn't defense.
History says if they don't get better at generating points, it'll be tough to win another title. The good news, though, is most everyone believes the team has executed well below its full capacity over the course of the year, whether because of complacency towards the long regular season slog or continuity problems brought on by injuries. There's no reason to believe the Lakers can't get better.
There isn't enough basketball left in the season for them to rise much in league wide rankings, but that's not important. Tuesday was a step in the right direction. If the Lakers can continue moving forward towards the groove they were in last year, it won't matter what the numbers look like at the end of the season- they'll have an outstanding chance to repeat.
If not... yikes.