The Los Angeles Lakers are 9-12 through the season’s first quarter of the season, and they’ve lost four of their last five. They’re still missing Steve Nash and Pau Gasol - though both may be back in the lineup this week – but the Lakers are going to be heading east for a four-game stretch on the road this week, and they’re 2-6 so far on the road this season. So what’s happening to the darlings of the offseason, a team that was supposed to supplant both the Spurs and the Thunder for Western Conference supremacy? Why are they marred in mediocrity? It’s actually not that simple, while at the same time it’s pretty clear: they need to get healthy, protect the ball better, and start giving a crap about defense again.
Currently on the season, the Lakers are ranked in the top 10 for both defensive rating and offensive rating, according to Hoopdata. They’re only giving up 99.4 points per 100 possessions, good for eighth in the league; although, NBA.com has them ranked right in the middle, at 15th in the league for defensive rating. They’re also scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark that’s fifth in the NBA. So how in the Hell are they stuck below .500 on the season after last night’s 117-110 loss to the visiting Utah Jazz?
Well there are a couple factors at work. One of them is turnovers. Currently, they’re next to last in turning the ball over (per NBA.com), but the Oklahoma City Thunder are giving the ball up more than the Steve Nash-less Lakers. The Lakers aren’t forcing many turnovers either, but again, neither are the Thunder. OKC is in the bottom third of the league, forcing just 13.3 turnovers per game, good for 23rd in the league, and they’re second-to-last in the league for turnover differential. The Lakers aren’t far behind, forcing just 13.13 turnovers per 100 possessions and sitting at 27th in the league in turnover differential. So turnovers can’t be the only reason, since OKC is surviving them, but it’s still not a good sign they’re coughing the ball up so much.
How about free throws? They’re tops in the league in free throw attempts at 40 a game, and they’re fifth in the league in free throw attempts given up, with their opponents only averaging 24.5 a game. That translates into the best free throw differential in the league. So they’re in the top 10 for offense rating, in the top half of the league for defense rating, and they’re tops in the league in free throw differential. Huh? Even though they’re one of the worst teams in the league forcing turnovers and they give the ball up a ton, they still turn the ball over less than Oklahoma City. But the Thunder are at 17-4 and the Lakers are 9-12? How does any of this make sense?
It might go back to Dwight Howard and those awful looking free throw attempts. The Lakers are currently dead last in free throw percentage as a team, per NBA.com. They’re first in the league in attempts and second in makes, but they’re shooting at such a low percentage, 66.5 on the year, it doesn’t even matter. That’s primarily on Dwight, who has regressed at the free throw line for the third straight year and is currently hitting just 47 percent from the charity stripe. Maybe it’s the pressure of playing in a large media center like Los Angeles, or Kobe‘s snarky quips to the press, but Howard was so bad at the line earlier this month the Hack-a-Dwight strategy actually paid off for some teams, like Houston’s come-from-behind victory on December 4. But Dwight’s struggles at the line can’t be the only thing wrong with this Lakers team.