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Are Lakers getting better, worse or just treading water?

April 03, 2012|By Mark Medina
  • Kobe Bryant holds his ear after getting hit by Golden State forward Jeremy Tyler on Sunday.
Kobe Bryant holds his ear after getting hit by Golden State forward Jeremy… (Lori Shepler / Associated…)

The benchings involving Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum last week garnered plenty of headlines. The numerous trade scenarios last month sparked the most anxiety leading to the March 15 deadline. The compacted schedule all season has contributed to the Lakers' never-ending concern regarding fatigue and injuries. But there's one huge area that has kept the Lakers unsettled for most of the season. The only thing the Lakers have shown consistently involves their inconsistent play.

The Lakers epitomized that last week as they not only struggled to keep up with the Western Conference's best team (Oklahoma City), but they struggled with the West's worst team (New Orleans) as well. Their 3-2 record last week featured the Lakers blowing double-digit leads in all of the games and then responding in differing fashion in maintaining them.

"We have to change the perception of teams believing they can come back on us due to our inconsistency," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said recently. "It takes discipline. It takes concentration. It takes valuing every play and doing the right play every time. You're going to make mistakes, but at least we can keep the level of intensity and execution on both ends."

The Lakers' results this season appear remarkably similar. In March, the Lakers' 11-6 record featured a 4-3 mark against teams above .500, a 7-3 record against teams below .500 and only two double-digit wins. In February, the Lakers' 8-5 mark featured a 4-4 record against teams above. 500, a 4-1 record against teams below .500 and two double-digit wins. And in January, the Lakers' 10-7 mark featured a 4-6 record against teams above. 500, 5-2 against teams below .500 and one double-digit win. From a results standpoint, it's not surprising the Lakers (33-20) trail Oklahoma City (40-13) and San Antonio (36-14) and hold a one-game lead over the Clippers (32-21) for third place in the West. The Lakers appear to be a solid team that beats opponents it should and has a mixed record among elite teams, although they've shown some improvement.

Yet what remains more troubling involves the Lakers' actual development, or lack thereof.

It's easy to trace why the Lakers' offense jumped from February to March in points per game (93.2, 100.7), field-goal percentage (43.8% , 46.3%) and assists (19.7, 22.8). That coincided with the Lakers' acquisition of Ramon Sessions, whom instantly bolstered the Lakers' backcourt with more speed, better pick-and-roll execution and more scoring support. During that process, however, the Lakers' defense took a back seat. In the past 10 games, the Lakers have shown drop-offs compared with their regular-season averages in points allowed (96.28, 99.3) and field-goal percentage allowed (42.9%, 45.4%). Coach Mike Brown has blamed that drop-off on the Lakers' effort level decreasing, while many players believe their better offensive execution has given them more margin for error not to remain as disciplined on defense.

Player improvement also appears mixed.

Bynum significantly improved from February to March in both points per game and shooting percentage (15.7 on 54.6% clip in Feb., 22.2 points on 63.9% clip in March). Forward Metta World Peace increased his scoring from February (5.0) to March (8.3), but you could argue that this was due to Coach Brown increasing his playing time from 24.8 minutes to 30.9 minutes per game. Meanwhile, World Peace's shooting percentage remained pretty similar in February (38.3%) and March (37.6%). Lastly, Matt Barnes' numbers from February and March jumped in points per game (6.5, 8.5) and field-goal percentage (42.3%, 48.2%), which points to his on-court chemistry with Sessions. Everyone else on the team, however, has either stayed relatively the same or dipped in performances.

The most glaring drop-offs point to Bryant and Steve Blake. After Bryant averaged 31.2 points on 45.5% in January, his numbers were down in February (26 points on 40.2% clip) and March (26.8 points on 38.7%). It's fair to wonder if the 38.6 minutes he's averaged has contributed to him shooting at his lowest since the 1997-98 season. After Blake averaged 7.3 points on 45.6% shooting in January, his numbers plummeted both in February (6.3% points at 38.3%) and March (2.8 points on 31% shooting). He came off a rib/sternum injury in mid January, and his confidence appeared to drop. Lastly, Gasol's points dipped from February (18.0) to March (16.6), though he improved his shooting from 48.9% to 50.9%. That coincides with Bynum taking a larger share of the offensive production.

Most of the Lakers' reserves unit showed their performances mostly hinged on playing time.

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