Coming off a Western Conference best 65-win season and another NBA championship, conventional wisdom would suggest that you have a formula for success and you should try to keep it together if you can. The Lakers didn’t buy into that notion this offseason, however, as they chose to let Trevor Ariza walk away, signing the more prominently regarded Ron Artest to replace him at small forward (it’s worth noting here that Ariza’s agent’s hardball tactics may have had a good deal to do with this decision for the Lakers as well). Finishing last season with the 3rd ranked Offensive Efficiency and 5th ranked Defensive Efficiency, returning all of its core except for Ariza, and having Andrew Bynum healthy again, the Lakers are the favorite to repeat this season in the eyes of most.
Breaking down the Lakers from an offensive perspective using the chart below, it’s clear they have two superstars in Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, along with a solid supporting cast around them.
It may come as surprising to some, but Pau Gasol was actually a much more efficient offensive player than Kobe Bryant last season, and an argument can be made that he was their best player overall. Gasol ranked 4th in the league in OVA per game (Kobe 10th, making them the only pair of players in the Top 10), and he was able to post such an high IOE by scoring with a ridiculously high 61.7% TS%, not turning the ball over much, creating a good deal of his own shots, and being strong on the offensive glass. Gasol is an outstanding finisher at the basket, great from mid-range, and good from long-range, and he fits in perfectly in the triangle offense, where he can cause damage from virtually everywhere on the floor inside the three-point line.
Kobe also had an excellent season, and his ability to defer a lot of the scoring load to Gasol during the regular season makes things much easier in the playoffs, where he’s less exhausted and more capable of playing with full energy on both ends of the court for long minutes. Kobe creates a very high percentage of his own shots, is a very efficient scorer for a guard, rarely turns the ball over, and makes solid contributions in the passing game and on the boards. He’s also one of the premier wing defenders in the league when he wants to be, which he can do more often with Gasol in town. From the floor, Kobe is efficient everywhere, being outstanding at the basket and among the best in the league from the 10-23 foot range, excelling the most in the pinch post, which he uses so frequently in the triangle.
The Lakers’ third most important player is more likely to be Andrew Bynum than Ron Artest, assuming Bynum is healthy, something he hasn’t consistently been the past two seasons. Bynum scores with outstanding efficiency, is very good on the offensive glass, and turns the ball over less than most centers with his level of usage. His post game has come along nicely since he first entered the league, but he doesn’t need to create much of his own shots given the players surrounding him, which should allow him to remain at his excellent efficiency levels.
Lamar Odom had a stellar season coming off the bench, finally finding his perfect niche, getting to play third or fourth fiddle on this stacked squad. Odom contributes in every category, being a great passer and good offensive rebounder for a forward, scoring with solid efficiency, and creating a decent amount of his own shots.
As for Artest, things are a bit murky when comparing Artest to Ariza, as they have different offensive skillsets, and played vastly different roles last season. Ariza was very efficient in the Lakers’ offense, using a low usage, allowing the other players on the floor to handle most of the shot creation. Ariza made his mark by scoring with solid efficiency and providing nice help on the glass. Artest, on the other hand, had a pretty high usage with Houston, created most of his own shots, and was generally poor with his overall efficiency, something that has been the case for most of his career. Artest is a player who has always been more comfortable with the ball in his hands, but he’s now on a team where he’s the 4th or 5th most capable player of creating shots, meaning he’ll need to significantly adjust his role. The Lakers’ offense is also one that relies strongly on positioning, spacing, and off-ball movement, while Ron has historically had struggles buying into a team concept, though those concerns were largely alleviated this past season. Artest is undoubtedly a more skilled player than Ariza, and he’s likely capable of providing more in terms of passing, spot-up shooting, and offensive rebounding compared to Ariza, assuming he buy into a similar role, but Artest’s willingness to stay within that role is no guarantee. For an offense that ran so smoothly last season, this seems like a bit of an unnecessary risk, with a pretty marginal potential reward in terms of how much increased value Artest can provide.
Defensively, it’s tough to compare Ariza and Artest, as Ariza excels more in sticking with quicker foes, while Artest is more suited to locking down stronger foes. This poses well for matchups against the likes of Lebron James, where Artest will get the assignment, freeing up Kobe, but Kobe will have to stick the likes of Manu Ginobili, Vince Carter, and Brandon Roy, where Ariza previously could’ve relieved him. Artest clearly has more experience and probably has more short-term upside on this end of the court than Ariza, but at his age, his defensive prowess is likely to decline soon, while Ariza is just entering his prime.
The Lakers’ biggest problem area going forward is the point guard spot, where Derek Fisher struggles defensively against quicker foes at his age, and is just serviceable on the offensive end. He scores with good efficiency, sticking primary to spot-up three pointers, and he also turns the ball over rarely, making him a good stylistic fit in the offense. Behind him is Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic, none of whom have a history of great efficiency. Farmar has the most upside, especially with his quickness and passing, but he struggled very much last season, scoring the ball with terrible efficiency. He’s the team’s best matchup for quick point guards defensively, and is the most likely heir to the starting spot of the players on the roster, though there’s no guarantee he’ll return to his 2008 form.
Shannon Brown gives the Lakers a good defensive matchup for large point guards, but of the players who are in the running for spots at the point guard spot, he’s the least natural true point guard, having poor court vision and ball-handling. He mostly does his damage through spot-up shooting and playing tough defense, but he isn’t a long-term solution at the 1. Sasha Vujacic is another big combo guard, but he’s been severely inconsistent from season to season with his scoring efficiency. A capable outside shooter who sticks to his strengths, though can get too shot happy at times, Vujacic is also a pesky defender, using his length to make up for his lack of quickness.
As for the rest of the Lakers’ roster, Luke Walton at SF and Josh Powell at PF should see some minutes here and there, with Walton being a solid albeit unspectacular facilitator who knows the triangle inside and out and Powell is mostly a hustle player who excels on the glass and plays tough post defense, though doesn’t contribute much offensively aside from a below average mid-range jumper.
Defensively, the Lakers should be about the status quo in the regular season, still having issues at point guard, being mostly a wash with the change from Ariza to Artest, and benefitting slightly if Bynum is able to stay healthy all season. Come playoff time, however, things could be looking up, as Artest is a fierce competitor and Kobe should be better rested, while hopefully Farmar will have developed into a more capable starting point guard than the aging Fisher.
All things considered, it’s certainly fair to label the Lakers the favorite coming into the season, but with question marks surrounding how Ron Artest will fit and what will happen at the point guard position, along with continuing concerns about Andrew Bynum’s injury proneness, it’s hard to give them a huge edge on the likes of San Antonio or the big three out East. The media will also be waiting to pounce the first time Artest slips up, and any early season struggles will be magnified by the press, which could cause some doubts. Regardless, the Lakers will undoubtedly be in the mix all season, and anything less than a repeat championship would likely be a disappointment to fans.