The Lakers have gotten off to a very slow start to this season and many are wondering if the “Big Four” will be able to put it all together and contend for a championship this season. After their most recent loss to the 76ers Kobe Bryant blamed the Laker’s age as the reason the team isn’t playing well. ”You just saw an old damn team,” Bryant continued. “I don’t know how else to put it to you. We’re just slow. You saw a team over there that was just younger and just had fresher legs and just played with more energy, and we were just stuck in the mud. I think individually we all have to figure out how to get ourselves ready each and every game to have a high level of energy. That’s all that is.” Kobe thinks that the Lakers lack of defensive energy is due to their age but they just got off two days of rest so that shouldn’t have been an issue. Much has been made of Kobe Brant’s comments about the age of the Lakers team. It is hard not to look at a team comprised of Nash (38), World Peace (32), Bryant (34) and Gasol (32) and wonder about a team’s age. But is it actually true?
The average age of the Lakers is 30.1 years which tied for second in the league. Only the Knicks (30.6) and Heat (30.1) are higher. Does an average age of over 30 preclude the Lakers from being legitimate contenders in the West. In the previous 10 seasons there have been a total of 10 teams that have had an average age of over 30. All of these teams except the 2003 Knicks have made the playoffs. Of these teams the 2011 Mavericks and the 2007 Spurs won the championship. Being old doesn’t preclude you from being a legitimate contender or even winning a championship.
Kobe’s comment’s about age don’t address the real issue, defense. The problem isn’t that the team is old the problem is that they are a below average defensive team. Right now the Lakers are giving up 106 points per 100 possession and the league average is 105.2. Of the previous 10 teams with average ages over 30 all of them except the 03 Knicks had an above average defensive efficiency. It isn’t a coincidence that the one team with a below average defensive efficiency didn’t make the playoffs. In the NBA if you don’t play defense very well you aren’t a very good team. This more than anything is the Lakers problem right now. The Lakers aren’t a below average team this year because they are old. It is because they have poor defenders on the perimeter and a coach that doesn’t focus on defense. The Lakers are atrocious in transition and perimeter defense. Only Dwight Howard is a good defender on this team and many including former coach Stan Van Gundy think that he is being limited this season by his back. Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant are no longer the elite defender’s that they once were and Steve Nash and Jodie Meeks are not and have never been good on defense. It is hard to see this team as a true contender with a below average defense. Nash returning might help negate some of the turnovers and transition baskets as well as limit Chris Duhon’s minutes but Steve Nash isn’t a difference maker on defense.
Poor defenders on the perimeter isn’t a nail in the coffin for this team. While these Lakers will probably never be an elite defensive team they can turn it around two main areas. The first starts with Mike D’Antoni focusing on defense. I’m tired of hearing that the Lakers lost because Kobe shot 30 times or because Howard missed 8 free throws. The Lakers are 6th in the league in offensive efficiency and average 108.7 points per 100 possessions (league average is 105.2). Quite simply the Lakers are losing right now because they play awful help defense and D’antoni doesn’t focus on it enough. You can be old and still effective on defense. Jason Kidd is a perfect example. Despite being slow and old Kidd rotates properly on defense and uses quick hands to disrupt passing lanes. Proper defensive rotations as well as better positioning would go a long way into helping this team improve on the defensive end of the floor. This is something that D’Antoni needs to focus on in order to turn this team around. The second biggest way that the Lakers can improve on defense is if Dwight Howard returns to DPOY form. Right now Howard is simply a good defender. As he further recovers from back surgery and regains his shot altering ability from his Orlando days the Lakers will become a good defensive team. For years Howard turned a team of slow footed poor perimeter defenders in Orlando into a good defensive team. If he returns to this defensive form the Lakers will be just fine.
If the Lakers go on a run and start winning a bunch of games and they end their season by living up to their lofty expectations, check their defensive efficiency ratings and you will see it isn’t a Steve Nash’s influence on the offense but their return to being a good defensive team. If not Kobe Bryant and the Lakers can blame their struggles on age but it is because they are a below average defensive team that will preclude them from becoming a NBA championship contender.
(all statistics are via Basketball-Reference)
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