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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Breaking Down the Lakers' Three Seasons

As of March 26, the L.A. Lakers are in a virtual tie with the New Orleans Hornets for the best record in the Western Conference. While on the surface it would seem like the Lakers have had a good season they in fact have had "three" good seasons: in their “first” season they went 24-11 with Andrew Bynum playing center, in their "second" season they went 15-4 with Bynum out and Pau Gasol playing center and in their "third" season they have gone 10-7 so far despite being without both Bynum and Gasol (the "third" season actually came in two parts, a 6-5 segment prior to acquiring Gasol and the most recent 4-2 segment with Gasol out of the lineup due to injury).

There is a lot of talk about what Chris Paul has accomplished in New Orleans with his supporting cast. He certainly deserves a great deal of credit for the fine season he is having, establishing himself as the league’s best point guard. However, there has been little if any acknowledgment of just how much Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have overcome this season. Consider these numbers:

Paul's top two inside players are All-Star David West and Tyson Chandler. West is averaging 20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .475 from the field and .840 from the free throw line. Chandler is averaging 11.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg and 1.08 bpg while shooting .600 from the field and .597 from the free throw line.

Bryant's top two inside players are Gasol and Bynum. As a Laker, Gasol is averaging 18.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 1.6 bpg while shooting .581 from the field and .792 from the free throw line. Bynum is averaging 13.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 2.06 bpg while shooting .636 from the field and .695 from the free throw line. Gasol's scoring, rebounding and shot blocking averages would be a bit higher if you take out his last game, during which he only played three minutes before spraining his ankle.

Perhaps those two big men tandems seem fairly evenly matched—but here is the kicker: West has played in 63 of a possible 69 games and Chandler has played in 66 games, while Bynum has only played in 35 of 71 games and Gasol has only played in 19 games as a Laker. The Hornets' big men lead the Lakers' big men in games played 129-54! Moreover, for virtually the entire season the Hornets’ big men have been on the court together; Gasol and Bynum have never been on the court together as teammates in a regular season game. That means that the real comparison has to include centers Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown, who started 18 and 14 games respectively for the Lakers and whose numbers are of course much worse than those put up by Gasol and Bynum.

Can anyone say with a straight face that Paul would have won as many games as Bryant has with the Gasol-Bynum-Turiaf-Brown group? On the other hand, how well do you think that a Bryant-West-Chandler trio would do over an entire season? I think that Bryant-West-Chandler (plus some quality reserves, which both the Lakers and Hornets have) would have the best record in the NBA (not just the West), easily winning more than 60 games in an 82 game season; the Bryant-Gasol Lakers without Bynum were winning games at a pace that projects to 65 wins in 82 games and that duo did not even have the benefit of a training camp, let alone playing together for a previous season the way that Paul-West-Chandler have.

It is difficult for a coaching staff to get one rotation of players to perform cohesively, let alone to make major adjustments to that rotation while a season is in progress. It is remarkable that the Lakers have the record that they do considering the frequent changes that they have had to make at the center position. Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson deserve a lot of credit for the Lakers’ success this season. Yes, Lamar Odom (14.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg) has played well for the Lakers most of the season, particularly recently, but Paul’s third option, Peja Stojakovic, has also been productive, averaging 16.0 ppg while ranking sixth in the NBA in three point shooting (.455).

Perhaps the most striking statistic is that the Lakers’ 10-7 record this season without both Gasol and Bynum projects to a 48-34 record over an entire season. That winning percentage is even more impressive when you look at the Lakers’ schedule in those 17 games: they went 7-4 on the road and 3-3 at home. The road losses were to the Spurs, the Mavs, the Pistons and the Rockets (during Houston's 22 game winning streak), while the home losses were to the Suns, the Cavs and the Warriors. There is not a weak team in that group. The Lakers' road wins during that stretch included the Raptors, the Mavs, the Jazz (snapping Utah's franchise-record home winning streak) and the Warriors. Considering how much the Lakers' schedule without Gasol and Bynum was heavily slanted toward road games against good teams, it is not unreasonable to suggest that they were playing like a 50-plus win team during that stretch; a 7-4 road record is very, very strong.

The Hornets travel to L.A. on April 11 for a game that may very well decide not only who gets the top seed in the West but also who wins this year’s MVP award. Even if Gasol and Bynum are both available for that game they will each have just come back from extended absences due to injuries. Regardless of what happens in that game, MVP voters should seriously consider how well the Lakers have performed during each of their "three' seasons. Unless they believe that Paul would have had the Hornets atop the West with Turiaf and Brown logging heavy duty at center then they should vote for Bryant, who has been by far the best player for each version of this year’s Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 PM

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