After winning their second straight NBA championship last June, the Los Angeles Lakers spent the offseason quietly tinkering around the edges of their roster. When you're the NBA's best, there's no need for reconstructive surgery. A small nip here (hello, Steve Blake) and a little tuck there (fare thee well, D.J. Mbenga), and you're all set to pick up where you left off. Bring back the game's premier coach and most of the same players, and you should expect mostly the same results, right? Right.
So why, in this new season, do the Lakers look so different?
Don't get me wrong: Laker fans aren't complaining. This new edition of the Lake Show is leaving a trail of bloody opponents as it cuts a swath through the league. After Sunday night's 25-point mauling of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers are an NBA-best 7-0 and lead the league in point differential. But the way in which they've sewn destruction has been a surprise. Last year the Laker offense wheezed and sputtered through the regular season. An elite team defense powered the way to 57 wins, keeping the Lakers on top of the West long enough for the offense to find its punch in the playoffs. So far this year, the D has been fine but not dominant. But it hasn't had to be dominant because the Laker offense has seemingly transformed itself into a weapon of mass terror.
The scale of the offensive improvement is striking. In 2009-10, the Lakers had an offensive rating (meaning points scored per 100 possessions) of 108.8, which ranked 11th in the NBA. This season, through seven games, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 118.3, an almost 9% step-up in efficiency that has them atop the league scoring tables by a sizable margin. What's behind this surge in pointage, and how sustainable is it? Let's pop the hood and find out.
Buckets and Boards
There are three things the Laker offense is doing unexpectedly well. First, they're making free throws. They were a decent free-throw shooting team last season, ranking 12th in the NBA with a 76.5% mark from the line, but they've been even better in the new campaign. Their 81.7% accuracy ranks fifth in the NBA. Both this season and last, the Laker offense generated about 25 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions, so that increase in accuracy has been worth around 1.3 points per 100 possessions. In other words, about 14% of the offensive improvement has come from just making more freebies. About two-thirds of the team's attempts have been shot by the trio of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, and each of them is hitting over 80%.
Second, the Lakers are rocking the offensive glass. Again, this was a strength last season that they've managed to improve on. The 2009-10 team collected 27.6% of their own misses, good for eighth in the league. This season the offensive rebounding rate has shot up to 31.5%, which ranks fourth. That's translated into over 15 second-chance points per game. What's startling is that they've achieved this superiority on the offensive boards without injured center Andrew Bynum.
Credit the Laker forwards. Matt Barnes has soaked up some of the minutes that would normally go to Bynum and all of the minutes that last year went to Josh Powell, and he's justified the playing time by attacking the glass maniacally. Barnes's individual offensive rebounding rate of 15.7% is among the five best in the NBA. Ron Artest has also been active on the offensive glass, as has been rookie Derrick Caracter in limited run.
Finally, and by far the most crucially, the Lakers are raining threes like they're Loyola Marymount circa 1990. Last year's edition was stupendously awful behind the arc, literally one of the worst three-point shooting squads ever to win an NBA title. Their 34.1% "accuracy" was seventh-worst in the league. Thus far in the young season, they're draining an obscene 45.0% of their longballs, easily the league's best rate. Lamar Odom (69.2%) and Fisher (66.7%) are one-two in the NBA in long-distance marksmanship, and Shannon Brown (52.4%) and Blake (50.0%) are just outside the top 10.
This Can't Last, Can It?
No, it can't. Not to this extent. At the moment, the Lakers' offensive rating is 12.6 points better than the league average. Since 1974, when the NBA first began tracking turnovers as an official statistic, the most prolific offense any of us has seen was the 2003-04 Dallas Mavericks, and they were "only" 9.2 points better than league average. So unless we're prepared to believe that this year's Lakers have the greatest offense in recorded history by a big margin, we should ready ourselves for some reversion to the mean. There will be nights when the shots aren't falling, or certain guys are injured, or the opponent brings its A-game on defense, and over time those will drag the Lakers' numbers back toward the pack.
And about those opponents: the teams the Lakers have faced so far will never be confused with the '93 Knicks. Houston, Phoenix, Sacramento and Toronto all rank among the NBA's worst defenses. Memphis and Golden State have been about average so far but are good bets to sink. Portland's D is definitively meh. When the schedule gets more taxing, points will undoubtedly become dearer.
The metric that's going to feel gravity's pull most acutely is the team's three-point shooting. I wouldn't bet on Lamar Odom to make 69% of his threes in an empty gym. He's a career 32% shooter from long distance and has never made even 38% of his threes in any one season. Fish, Brown and Blake are all lesser manifestations of the same hot-hand/small-sample-size phenomenon. I'll be delighted to keep watching the threes rain down as long as this lasts, but we shouldn't kid ourselves. This is found money.
Most of it, though - not all of it. Blake is a better three-point shooter than Jordan Farmar, the bro he replaced. Brown's outside stroke looks legitimately improved. He's showing more mechanically sound shooting form, and he's getting better arc on his shots. And even though Fish won't keep making two out of every three longballs, it's very possible his poor season last year was an outlier and that he'll settle at something like his career rate of 38%. In other words, there are good reasons to think the Lakers will, even over the long haul, be a more dangerous perimeter team than they were last year.
And as the Laker offense comes back to earth, it's fair to expect that the defense will start to resemble their old, stingy selves. Bynum's return will be important. He protects the rim, which in turn allows the wing defenders to stay tight on enemy shooters. He'll also give a big boost to the Lakers' defensive rebounding, which has been shaky in the early going.
So are the Lakers playing over their heads right now? Yes, a little. But the potential is absolutely there for this to be an even better version of the team that won a title last season.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. The stats in this piece I either generated myself or Drew from Basketball Reference. All numbers are through the games of Sunday, November 7. If you'd like to see similar analyses of how the Lakers have performed on defense this season, two good pieces on that subject have recently been posted at Silver Screen and Roll. You can find them here and here.