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L.A.'s story

How the Lakers turn average Joes into Ray Allen

Posted: Tuesday December 24, 2002 1:52 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 24, 2002 12:02 PM

By John Hollinger,

There's a big reason the Lakers are struggling. You could say three reasons, actually. I'll explain.

For those of you just returning from a vacation in Uzbekistan, the biggest surprise of the young season is the three-time champion Lakers' humbling 11-18 start. While their 3-9 record without Shaquille O'Neal in the lineup isn't shocking, the Lakers are a modest 8-9 even with the Big Daddy playing, culminating in their utter humiliation Thursday by a New Jersey team that they blew off the floor in last year's Finals.

What's the difference?

One way to break it down is by looking at how the Lakers have fared on each side of the ball -- showing whether the Lakers' woes are an offensive problem or a defensive one.

The best way to do this is to look at something I call Offensive Efficiency, which estimates how many points a team scores for each 100 possession -- which is about how many a team has in an NBA game. Similarly, its counterpart, Defensive Efficiency, measure how many points a team allows per each 100 possessions.

[Number crunchers take note: To compute a team's Offensive Efficiency, take its free-throw attempts and multiply by 0.44. Add field-goal attempts and turnovers, and subtract offensive rebounds. Take total points and divide by this number, and multiply the result by 100.]

In the 17 games Shaquille O'Neal has played, the Lakers' Offensive Efficiency of 100.8 ranks ninth in the NBA. While that seems promising, keep in mind that the Lakers were second in this category a year ago. Shaq may be back, but the Lakers have been easier to stop.

With or Without You
Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers
  Off. Eff.  Def. Eff. 
W/ Shaq  100.8  103.6 
W/o Shaq  92.4  98.3 
Overall  97.3  101.4 

However, on the other side, L.A.'s defense with Shaq has been pitiful. The Lakers' Defensive Efficiency of 103.6 ranks 24th. It's actually a good deal worse than the Lakers were faring while Shaq was sporting his plaid pajamas on the sidelines.

So while the Lakers' offense hasn't quite been up to its previous exceptional levels, the near-constant focus on whether Kobe Bryant is shooting too much or if the triangle offense works against zone defenses has obscured the Lakers' real problem: They can't stop anybody.

Why has Shaq's return transformed the Lakers into such a soft defensive club? Breaking it down further reveals the reason the Lakers are struggling so much: 3-pointers.

L.A. is last by a mile in defending the 3-point line. Opponents are shooting 40.1 percent from downtown against the Lakers, easily the worst mark in the league. It's not like they're shooting only a few, either; only Seattle and Cleveland have surrendered more made 3-pointers than the Lakers.

Bombs Away
Lakers' 3-point defense
  3/Gm.  3-pt % 
W/ Shaq  6.2  42.3 
W/o Shaq  4.9  36.6  
Lg. Avg.  4.9  35.0 

Those numbers have been even worse in the games Shaq has played. The Lakers have allowed more than six 3-pointers a game with the Big Trifecta in the lineup, and opponents have made a staggering 42.3 percent of their 3-point shots. To put it into perspective, only nine players in the entire league are shooting that well. Essentially, playing against the Lakers has turned every opponent into Ray Allen (Allen is shooting exactly 42.3 from beyond the arc).

While it may seem odd for a center to impact a team's 3-point defense, the fact is that teams attack the Lakers with pick-and-rolls because they know Shaq struggles defending that play. That leads to openings on the perimeter for either the man with the ball or another player if help comes, and an open trifecta.

The Lakers' problems run deeper than just 3-pointers, of course. Rick Fox and Derek Fisher can't make a shot, Devean George and Robert Horry are dealing with nagging injuries, and their bench is killing them.

But if they get their 3-point defense to the league average of 35 percent, that will save them about three points a game. That would move their overall defense from near the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack. And with one of the better offenses in the league -- that should only get better as Shaq plays his way into shape -- it would be enough for them to right the ship and force their way into the Western Conference playoffs.

John Hollinger covers the NBA for and is the author of Pro Basketball Prospectus.

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