Are the Los Angeles Lakers a serious playoff threat? They have spent most of the season in a funk. They were below .500, their coach was fired and Kobe Bryant was ripping his teammates. This was far from preseason predictions of which, with the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, many felt that they would challenge for the title.
Since Jan. 25 the team has made a turnaround with a 19-9 run. This week, with losses to the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns, was the first time they have lost consecutive games during that run. This has put them in the middle of the playoff race as six teams are fighting for the last three playoff spots.
Some will point to their schedule as the reason for their improvement. As Marc Stein at ESPN pointed out back in February, they had the fourth-easiest remaining schedule at that time. While this is true they do have a 9-5 record against teams with a winning record during this run.
They have suffered several injuries this season that prevented them from playing as a full team. Nash missed 24 games, Antawn Jamison six and Pau Gasol 33. While Howard missed six games, he played injured for a long time. Now that these players have returned the team is starting to gel.
During the team’s recent run, Nash has averaged 13.9 points and 5.5 assists. Jamison has been good off of the bench adding 11.8 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Bryant’s recent ankle injury has allowed Steve Blake step up. While he has shot 46.8 percent from the 3-point line during the run, he rarely gets a chance to shoot. He has only averaged 6.1 points during this stretch, but with Bryant out, he has averaged 15.6 points. Obviously that will not continue when Bryant returns but it does show that they do have a weapon in Blake.
The interesting thing about their run is that a look at the raw numbers does not give as explanation as to why.
Generally, when looking at a team on a good run the obvious stats such as points scored or points allowed will see a dramatic change. That is not the case with the Lakers. The do have a positive bump in both areas, they are plus-2.2 in points scored and have held opponents to 1.4 fewer points. That is a net gain of 3.6 points, which is very good but not the big swing you would expect to see.
How they got there is what is perplexing. They give up more rebounds and have allowed a higher shooting percentage from their opponents as compared to before their turnaround. Their shooting percentage has gone up 0.8 while they have allowed 0.4 more.
So how do they give up fewer points while allowing more rebounds and better shooting by their opponents? Very simply, their opposition has been weak. As mentioned before they have had the fourth-easiest schedule during this run. While their 9-5 record against teams with winning records is nice, they are only 1-3 against the main contenders for the title (Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat). In those games they have only scored 102 points while giving up 112.5.
This means they have gone 10-4 against the worst teams in the league. While that is good in that they should be beating teams that are worse than them, it also makes them look better than they really are.
Howard and Bryant have both seen their numbers decline during this run. Howard is scoring .8 points less while grabbing the same amount of rebounds. Bryant was scoring 29.2 points earlier in the season but that has dropped to 24.5.
Gasol has missed the majority of this run recovering from a foot injury. His return to the team will be interesting. On paper a healthy Gasol, Bryant and Howard would make this a formidable team but, as seen earlier this year, they are very disjointed when they are together.
They may need to explore an option such as what the New York Knicks have gone to. Despite Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire being very talented players, their style of play does not mesh well together. The Knicks do not play them together very much because of that. Perhaps the Lakers need to adopt a rotation where their big three are not on the court at the same time very often.
Bryant may be one of the most competitive players in the league so it is difficult to completely count his team out but, the Lakers are all smoke and mirrors right now. While they can hold their own against the bottom tier playoff teams, they are nowhere near the upper tier. If they make the playoffs, they will be one of the last teams in. This means a tough first round series against one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
April will be a tough month for them that could even see them miss the playoffs. Only one game, against the New Orleans Hornets, will be against a bad team. The other seven games on the schedule will see them either face teams well ahead of them in the standings or will be against teams that they are battling for a playoff spot with.
Despite the improved play, the Lakers simply are not contenders this year. With their April schedule, they will be lucky to even make the playoffs.