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Death by Substitution: On the Lakers' Awful Bench

Apr 23, 2010 – 4:40 PM
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Tom Ziller

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It's no secret the Lakers have poor depth. Despite the largest payroll in basketball, the defending champs have real trouble putting together a second unit that can hang tough. That the Thunder have an effective bench has exacerbated the problem in the teams' first-round series, which the Lakers lead 2-1.

I am, however, never content to give you three sentences of fact when I can shove a few overwrought charts in your face.

Data from the first three games of Lakers-Thunder shows just how overmatched L.A.'s second unit has been, and why fans of America's most glamorous franchise ought to be worried as the team chases a title defense.

The Lakers have "won" only one quarter consistently against the Thunder: the first. L.A. has been ahead an average of nine points at the end of the first quarter over the first three games of the series. The teams have drawn even in the third quarters, and the Thunder have won the second and fourth quarters. Oklahoma City has outscored the Lakers an average of 4.7 points in the second quarter and 2.3 points in the fourth.

Of course, the second and fourth quarters traditionally feature bench players. In the chart below, I compared what percentage of L.A.'s minutes in each quarter were used by starters and how the team performed in said quarter. The team's performance, measured by basic points margin (or, points scored minus points given up), is expressed left (bad) to right (good). How large a share of the team's minutes was used by starters is expressed bottom (lower) to top (higher). A trend emerges.

The general trend is that the more minutes consumed by bench players in a quarter, the worse the Lakers perform. This chart simply distills the above data -- that the Lakers get beat in the second and fourth quarters -- further. The Lakers' worst quarter of the playoffs to date was the second quarter of Game 2, during which the Thunder outscored L.A. by 10 points. In that quarter, L.A. starters played only 41 of a possible 60 minutes (12 minutes in a quarter, five players on the court). In the two quarters in which bench players were leaned on more heavily -- the fourth quarters of Games 1 and 2 -- the Lakers broke even (Game 1) and were outscored by two points (Game 2). In the quarter in which the Lakers' starters played the most -- the first quarter of Game 1, during which the bench played only five minutes combined -- L.A. had its best quarter of the series, outscoring OKC by 14 points.

But we can distill this even further, beyond points margin. Let's look at L.A.'s offense. That's where the real problem lies. The following chart looks at the offensive performance of the Lakers in each quarter of the series.

An explanation: L.A.'s starters have played 88% of the team's first quarter minutes. The Lakers have averaged an excellent 1.16 points per possession in those first quarters. In the second quarter, the share of minutes soaked up by starters drops to 71%. And in those second quarters, L.A.'s offense falls off a cliff, averaging 0.85 points per possession, a truly terrible mark. So it goes: in the third quarters, the starters play most of the minutes, and the offense is pretty good. In the fourths, the starters have sat more frequently, and L.A. offense stinks. In every single game, the Lakers offense has performed worse in the second quarter than in the first or third.

This despite a change in strategy by Phil Jackson in Game 3, which saw stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol each play the entirety of the second quarter. The Lakers outscored the Thunder by two points in the period, but L.A.'s offense still stalled out, scoring 23 points in 23 possessions for a mediocre 1.00 points per possession average.

If the bench can't stay afloat on offense, and Kobe and Pau can't help, is there any way in which the Lakers can keep the offense humming in the second quarter the rest of this series and postseason? If not, L.A. will either need to run out to even larger leads early in games, or be prepared to hand off the O'Brien to another team.
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