Sorting through the stats: Assessing the Lakers during the All-Star break
It was perhaps too high of a benchmark to reach, given the historical proportions and the scrutiny that comes along with it.
But the Lakers entered the 2009-10 season wanting not only to defend their championship but to hold the NBA's all-time regular season record, held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10). Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who coached the Bulls to six titles including that season, downplayed such talk, saying it was "not important" because "it just takes so much out of you to push that all the time."
The Lakers also didn't widely discuss the goal publicly so as not to create more pressure on a lofty expectation that could cloud the team's pursuit of another NBA championship. Nonetheless, The Times' Mike Bresnahan reported in the linked story above that players, including guard Kobe Bryant, wanted this to be a benchmark.
The Lakers enter the All-Star break with a Western Conference-leading 41-13 record, far from the initial pursuit of the Bulls' record. They officially fell short of surpassing the 72-win plateau Jan. 21 in a 93-87 loss to Cleveland and of at least tying the Bulls' record on Jan. 24 in a 106-105 loss to the Toronto Raptors. But because this is an 82-game season, it's fair to say it wasn't expected that would happen before those games made it official.
Even though many, including myself, hadn't thought the Lakers would better the Bulls' mark this season or even last season, the Lakers saw the potential in their team to do so. The Lakers lead the Western Conference, no doubt, and are on a solid pace for another championship season. Their initial goal won't ultimately define their season. But the mere fact some members of the Lakers considered the record a realistic goal shows the Lakers haven't fully utilized their potential.
Beyond it being a different era, it's unfair to compare any team to that season's Chicago Bulls, which featured a superstar (Michael Jordan), a sidekick (Scottie Pippen), a crazy but reliable specialized player (Dennis Rodman, in this case, rebounding) and a pretty big supporting cast (Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington). But in this case, the Lakers held that the Bulls' record as a hurdle to jump over for one big reason. Their identity, on paper at least, appears similar. The Lakers have a superstar (Bryant), a sidekick (Pau Gasol), a crazy but reliable specialized player (Ron Artest, in this case, defense) and a pretty big supporting cast (Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar).
The Times' Mark Heisler raised this issue to Jackson a few weeks ago, noting how his Bulls teams were much more dominant because their identity had already been forged and the roles each player had already been clearly set in stone, a point Jackson thought was accurate. Specifically the 95-96 Bulls had the numbers to back it up. They led the league in scoring (105.2 points per game), were third on defense (allowing only 92.9 points per game), had at one point an 18-game winning streak, lost only two home games and won an NBA record 33 road games.
There were several factors that led to the Lakers not having that strong of an identity. Gasol's injured left and right hamstring sidelined him for 17 games. Bryant's nine-week avulsion fracture to his right index finger (and an assortment of other injuries) contributed to a poor shooting stretch in January. Artest brought an added defensive intensity since his arrival from Houston, but his Christmas night concussion exacerbated his already gradual learning curve with the triangle offense. There was Bynum's December dip, Odom's usual unpredictability, spotty point guard defense from Fisher, Farmar and Brown and an inconsistent bench.
That being said, it's much more appropriate for this season's Lakers to be compared to last season's championship team because that is the ultimate goal. Heading into the All-Star break, the Lakers are 40-13, 25-4 at home and 16-9 on the road. That mark isn't on pace, however, to equal or better last season's 65-17 record, which included a 36-5 home record and 29-13 road mark.
Last season’s squad — even with Bynum missing 32 games — led the NBA in rebounding (43.9 boards per game), and ranked second in assists (23.3 per game), second in steals (8.8 per game) and third in total offense (106.9 points per game). This season, the Lakers are second in rebounding (44.7 boards per game), 11th in assists (21.64 per game), seventh in steals (7.53 per game) and fifth in total offense (103.2 points per game). Overall, the Lakers outscored opponents last season by 7.6 points per game and allowed 99.3 points per contest, 13th best in the league. This season, the Lakers are outscoring teams by a second-best 6.77 points per game and are allowing a ninth-best 96.42 points per contest.
Then consider the individual performances between last season and this season, including Bryant (26.8 points on 46.7% shooting, versus 28 points on 46.1%, Gasol (18.9 points on 56.7% shooting and 9.6 rebounds, 17.2 points on 52.4% shooting and 11.2 rebounds), Bynum (14.3 points and 8 rebounds, 15.1 points and 8.2 rebounds), Odom (11.3 points and 8.2 rebounds, 10.1 points and 9.9 rebounds), Fisher (9.9 points on 42.4%, 7.3 points on 38.6%), Brown (3.2 points, 7.8 points) and Farmar (6.4 points, 7.6 points). Finally the plus/minus stats among various lineup combinations show last season's squad to be much higher than what the current Lakers team has displayed at this point.
Obviously these statistics present a mixed bag. There are notable improvements in rebounding, total defense and the bench. But there are decreases in total offense and assists. So though the Lakers aren't on pace to better last season's regular-season mark, they're still on pace for another NBA championship, even if it doesn't come with bettering the Bulls' regular-season record.
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Photo: Kobe Bryant chews on his jersey during a timeout in Boston. Credit: Greg M. Cooper / US Presswire