The following grades are just a skosh late. The halfway point of the Lakers' regular season came and went over the weekend, and the second stretch of 41 games actually kicked off yesterday with a loss to the Clippers. More than a few such befuddling outcomes dotted the first half of the Lakers' three-peat campaign. After sprinting out to 13-2 start that teased with the promise of wire-to-wire dominance, the champs stumbled and spent a full month playing 0.500 ball. Acute humiliation was doled out by the Bucks, Heat and Spurs, who in late December trounced the Lakers in three successive blowouts. Since then, and notwithstanding the pedestrian form on display Sunday, the purple and gold seem to have more or less righted themselves.
At 30-12, they have the fourth-best record in the league. Tonight they begin what might be the most taxing stretch of their schedule: over the next 27 days, they'll play 13 teams with a combined winning percentage of 0.614. The end of this death march falls just before the All-Star break, at which time we'll have a more developed sense of the Lakers' true grit. In the meantime, let us sit in judgment.
Offense: Last year, the Lake Show finished the regular season 11th in offensive efficiency (i.e., points per possession). So far this year, they rank first. It helps that they've played the Phoenix Suns three times already, but even though the first-half schedule hasn't been super-brutal, a ten-spot jump in league scoring tables is surprising and impressive in equal measures.
Pau Gasol was the sharp edge of the blade early on, Andrew Bynum has come on nicely since returning from post-surgery rehab, and throughout Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown have been productive in supporting roles. The shiniest gold star, however, goes to Kobe Bryant, who at age 32 is presiding over the Lakers' attack with dazzling skill and intelligence. Somehow he's made the Laker offense the best in the NBA despite Derek Fisher's signature brand of millstonery. Forget the MVP race; this should qualify Kobe for low-level sainthood in most world religions. Grade: A-. (The minus is for the Milwaukee-Miami-San Antonio swoon.)
Defense: Although the Lakers' ninth-place ranking in defensive efficiency doesn't seem much worse than last season's sixth-place finish, their season-to-date stats are skewed by last week's 55-point extermination of the Cavaliers. If you normalize that outcome even moderately, the D looks more like the league's 10th or 11th best. Not bad, but everyone appears to recognize that it needs to improve.
A few weaknesses have recurred all too frequently. On the perimeter, Kobe and Fish have been too casual about letting shooters get free for open looks. In the paint, Gasol has not defended the rim as stoutly as one would hope. And all year long, the team's defensive rebounding has been an unholy mess. A schematic adjustment suggested by assistant coach Chuck Person has been credited for recent improvement, but judging from yesterday's loss to the Clippers and last week's shootout against Golden State, there's no easy cure-all here. Grade: B-.
Coaching: It's steady rolling on the Lakers' sideline these days. Phil Jackson is just doing what he do, maintaining a calm demeanor that makes any potential crisis seem like small beer. He earns high marks for smoothly integrating newcomers Steve Blake and Matt Barnes into the Laker systems, for getting Bynum into a productive flow faster than we thought possible and for keeping Ron Artest in a good place emotionally. Also, by not wavering from his insistence that this will be his final year coaching, he's prevented his own professional future from emerging as a distraction. It is fair to question why his squad seemed so ill-prepared for crucial games against the Heat and the Spurs. I do, in addition, wish Phil would play rookies Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks more and Fisher a whole lot less, but for obvious reasons involving Phil's 11 championship rings, he's entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Grade: A-.
Front Office: The job of GM Mitch Kupchak is to devise and implement a long-term strategy for the franchise, so grading him on a half-season's results is more than a little incongruous. But worrying about the long term is no fun, so let's grade him anyway.
Early on, the offseason signings of Blake and Barnes looked like under-the-radar strokes of genius, as those two revitalized the Lakers' bench and played a big role in the team's piping hot start. Barnes continued to play well until he got hurt fighting for a rebound on January 7th. Blake, for his part, is in the midst of a shooting slump whose duration is beginning to alarm. Nevertheless, these were pretty clearly sound moves. Even better was the decision to bring back Shannon Brown, who with more minutes would be in line for some Sixth Man of the Year votes. That Kupchak snagged a pair of solid prospects in Caracter and Ebanks in the second round of the draft deserves a further tip o' the cap.
Unless another team develops a depraved crush on Theo Ratliff, I wouldn't expect any moves of significance at the trade deadline. The Sasha Vujacic deal did bring back a $5.5 million trade exception, but owner Jerry Buss doesn't seem likely to ratchet his payroll up still further. Like the rest of us, Kupchak will have to wait and see whether the hand he's assembled is a winner. Grade: A-.
Overall: At the outset of the season, the Lakers were considered co-favorites, alongside the Miami Heat, to win the NBA title. They remain a formidable contender, but I suspect that in the eyes of most observers, they've fallen a stride back of the Heat and the Spurs. The worst development of the first half of the season is that the champs have failed to keep up with the Spurs in the Western Conference standings, making it likely that just to get back to the NBA Finals, they'll have to win a playoff series that begins and perhaps ends in San Antonio. The best development has been the superb play of Kobe Bryant, who looks like he's gearing up for a big second-half kick. Predicting how it all ends is a fool's errand. For now.... Midseason Team Grade: A-.