Commentary

Lakers' get an A midseason

Halfway through the season, L.A. is tops but can get better

Updated: January 25, 2010, 6:46 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Kobe BryantGary Dineen/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant dribbles against John Salmons of the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 15, 2009 at the United Center in Chicago.

The Lakers' 105-106 loss against Toronto was game No. 44 on their 82-game schedule, meaning it's about time to hand out some midterm letter grades based on how they've performed thus far.

If we were to grade the Lakers as a team against the rest of the league, they would have to get an A. Their 33-11 mark is the best in the NBA and even with injuries to several of their starters and the incredible statistic that Los Angeles hasn't lost more than two games in a row since trading for Pau Gasol on Feb. 1, 2008, remains intact.

If we were to grade them against last season's championship team, they would receive a B because L.A. had a 35-9 mark through 44 games last season and that was before the Lakers traded Vladimir Radmanovic for Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison to really push them over the edge.

If you asked Kobe Bryant to grade the team, he would probably go for something even lower after the way he called out his teammates' effort and hunger in Cleveland on Thursday after they lost to the Cavaliers for the second time this season.

There's that old saying that blemishes are easier to see on the person the spotlight shines the hardest upon. It might seem like nitpicking to be critical of the defending champions when they have run out to the best record in the league once again, but the standards are high when a team is looking to repeat.

If the Lakers do anything but win the title in June, this season will be considered a failure, despite any positive grades they received in January.

Let's look at how the team fared individually:

(Grades were assigned A-F with no pluses or minuses, with heavy consideration of the players' current seasons against how they have performed in the past.)


Kobe Bryant, Guard

Grade: A

Bryant leads the team in scoring (28.3 points, fourth in the league), assists (4.5) and steals (1.74, ninth in the league) per game despite playing with an avulsion fracture on his right index finger for the past 24 games and also battling through lower back, elbow and knee ailments during that time. Bryant hasn't let the injuries make him consider sitting down. "I thought about it [for about two, three seconds]," Bryant dismissed. His will to win and play through adversity is an example for his team to emulate.

Needs improvement: shot selection. Since suffering the fractured finger on Dec. 11, Bryant's shooting percentage has dipped understandably from 49.3 percent before the injury down to 43.0 with it, but at the same time his field goal attempts per game are up by 2.1 per game, and the increase in shots is coming almost exclusively behind the arc (his 3-point attempts are at 4.9 per game since the fracture, from 2.9 per game before it). If he's not going to take time to rest, the least he can do is be more judicious about how many times he shoots the ball.


Pau Gasol, Forward

Grade: B

Gasol missed the first 11 games of the season with a right hamstring strain and later sat out six more with a less severe strain to his left one. He leads the team in rebounding (11.0), but his scoring is down from 18.9 points per game last season to 16.9 this year and his shooting percentage has dipped from 56.7 to 54.5. Still, the Lakers are 22-5 on the season with him out there and even if he isn't playing at quite the All-Star level he was at last season, he's the second most important player to the team's success after Bryant.

Needs improvement: aggressiveness. Gasol's whole pro career has been somewhat counterintuitive. As a 7-footer, he's been expected to man the middle in Memphis and L.A., but he grew up playing guard and his favorite spot to shoot from is from the foul line extended, not inside the paint. He's made strides in playing with more of an edge since coming to the Lakers, even adopting a comprehensive weight-lifting program after not being a big lifter before, but this is more of a mental challenge for Gasol.


Andrew Bynum, Center

Grade: B

Bynum is having the finest season of his injury-prone five-year career, putting up career bests in scoring (15.4 points) and free throw percentage (74.2) while chipping in 8.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. More importantly, he's playing a career-best 31.9 minutes per game, which means he's healthy (he's missed only two games this season with a strained right elbow) and staying out of foul trouble (even with the increase in playing time, his fouls have dipped from 3.14 per game last season to 3.0 this year).

Needs improvement: playing with Gasol. Bynum has embraced his role when he's been the solo act in the middle when Gasol was nursing his hamstring injuries, but when it came time to playing in tandem, Bynum's lost his flow and let his decrease of touches on offense dictate his dedication on defense. He needs to play with consistent effort on both sides of the ball whether Gasol is playing alongside him or not.


Ron Artest, Forward

Grade: C

When Lakers coach Phil Jackson was asked by a reporter to assess Artest with a grade a couple of weeks ago, he gave the newly acquired free agent an "I" for incomplete. We won't take the same sidestep route. Artest is still finding his way through the triangle offense, scoring just 11.6 points per game (his lowest average since 2001-02 as a third-year player) and also seeing his rebounds (4.9) and steals (1.1) per game drop since his numbers last season in Houston. Missing five games after a concussion didn't help his development, either. He should get credit for quietly developing a niche as an effective 3-point shooter, however. He leads the team with 59 triples and is shooting a respectable 39.6 percent from deep, also tops on the team for every player with 75 or more attempts.

Needs improvement: calling his own number. Artest has tried to fit in a little too much at times this season, sometimes appearing timid or even nonexistent when he's on the court. He has a robust 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame. He should use it for a few more forays to the hoop.


Derek Fisher, Guard

Grade: C

There's a faction of Lakers fans out there who want Fisher to be phased out in favor of Shannon Brown or Jordan Farmar in the starting lineup, but the intangibles he brings warrants him a satisfactory C rather than anything in the failure territory. His 7.1 points per game is the lowest it's been since 2003-04, his 37.2 shooting percentage is the third lowest of his 14-year career and he has trouble staying in front of the crop of young point guards that are popping up around the league. But then he delivered a speech in the fourth quarter during a tight game in New York, stressing the importance of sealing the win so the Lakers don't start their road trip off 0-2, and when L.A. responds to win by 10, you forget about all of his stats and value him as a person.

Needs improvement: driving to the paint. According to Hoopdata.com, Fisher is shooting just 41.0 percent on shots at the rim. Even though he is a sturdy 210 pounds, his 6-foot-1 frame rarely allows him to get the extension he needs to finish at the rim without getting blocked or missing the shot for fear of getting blocked and it's not like he does it to draw contact. He's averaging only 1.4 free throw attempts per game.


Lamar Odom, Forward

Grade: B

It's almost too easy to get down on Odom for his inconsistent offense. With his 6-foot-11 frame, solid ball-handling and nifty knowledge of lefty angles, there really is no excuse why he's averaging only 9.6 points -- the lowest average of his 10-year career -- on a paltry 43.1 percent shooting clip. Odom says it's just part of his makeup. His coaches have implored him to take 30 shots a game ever since he was in elementary school, and he always preferred to defer to teammates. It's just something that we have to accept from Odom. While we're at it, we should praise him for his 10.0 rebounds per game on the season that's picked up to a 13.3 average over his past 10 games.

Needs improvement: selfishness. There have been a few games this season in which Odom had a 10- or 12-point quarter and the Lakers started to roll thanks to the shot in the arm. He has it in him. He just has to break it out more often.


Shannon Brown, Guard

Grade: A

Brown is putting up career numbers across the board and while his shooting percentages have dipped from the insane precedent he set in his 18-game audition after the Radmanovic trade last season (52.4 percent overall and 66.7 on 3s), he still gets his 7.6 points per game efficiently (47.9 and 34.9, respectively). And with a salary of just $2 million, he is an absolute steal, especially when you consider all the buzz his dunking abilities have brought to a team that already seemed as sexy as a team can be.

Needs improvement: steals. Brown averages only 0.7 steals per game. Part of that average is the fact that he plays only 18.4 minutes per game, but with his ridiculously long arms and instinctive athleticism, he could really develop into one of the premier ball-hawking thieves in the league if he made it a priority.


Jordan Farmar, Guard

Grade: C

Farmar's had a couple of excellent games recently, scoring nine straight points to give L.A. the late surge it needed to beat Orlando and scoring 12 points in Dallas to give the Lakers a boost when Bryant was playing with a bum lower back. He's a dynamic player; just as capable of blowing by his man off the dribble as he is at filling it in from downtown (he's third on the team in 3-point makes with 42). But he's now in his fourth season and hasn't seemed to progress all that much from where he was as a rookie; he still gets yanked by Jackson for freelancing instead of running the triangle and his 42.0 shooting percentage is actually worse than it was as a rookie (42.2).

Needs improvement: decision making. Every time Farmar enters the game, you can see by the fervor of his activity and the plays he tries to make that he is trying to prove something and earn more playing time, but often times less is more. He can get too caught up in trying to go at it on his own rather than use his four teammates who are out there with him.


Josh Powell, Forward

Grade: C

Powell is making the league minimum ($959,111) and gets only 9.9 minutes per game of action, so you have to take that into account when you set your expectations for the fifth-year forward, but the fact that Powell's scoring is down from 4.2 points last season to 3.1 this season and his rebounding has dipped from 2.9 to 1.6 isn't encouraging.

Needs improvement: using his size. Powell, at a solid 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, has fallen in love with the jump shot. He's shooting a commendable 42.9 percent from 3 in limited attempts (6-for-14), but he could benefit the team more as added muscle off the bench.


Luke Walton, Forward

Grade: C

Walton went from being a part-time starter last season to a guy in a suit this season thanks to a back injury that caused him to miss 28 games. He is slowly integrating himself back into the fold, but his numbers (3.1 points on 40.8 percent shooting, 1.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists) are tough to justify for a player in his seventh season in the Lakers system who's making $4.8 million this year.

Needs improvement: health. When Walton is pain-free, he has been a very effective player for L.A. thanks to his passing ability and understanding of the offense. He could be a difference maker for the Lakers in the second half of the season if his back doesn't act up again.


Adam Morrison, Forward

Grade: D

Morrison was brought in with the hopes of him rediscovering the confidence he showed as a shooter when he averaged 11.8 points as a rookie after Charlotte drafted him No. 3 out of Gonzaga. While he has seemed to finally physically overcome the torn ACL that cost him his whole 2007-08 season, he still has a mental hump to get over. He's averaging just 2.6 points on 39.0 percent shooting overall and 28.6 percent on 3-pointers. Plus, he's making $5.3 million this year.

Needs improvement: transferring his practices to games. Morrison just may be the second most competitive player on the team after Bryant and is a tough matchup in the spirited 4-on-4 games the Lakers run after practice, but he doesn't bring the same edge when he plays in real games.


Sasha Vujacic, Guard

Grade: F

Vujacic still hasn't gotten out of the funk that held him to zero points in the Finals against the Magic last season. He is being paid $5 million this year, but averaging just 2.3 points on 38.8 percent shooting and not doing much of anything else when he's on the court. He has a good shooting stroke (40.0 percent from 3 and 100 percent, 13-for-13, from the line on the season) but he hasn't played smart enough to get enough playing time to show it off.

Needs improvement: mental toughness. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Vujacic's game is his ability to get under an opposing player's skin and throw him off his game by playing incessant, pestering defense. Through pure hustle, he has unraveled opponents mentally. His problem is when a call goes against him or he doesn't make an open shot, he lets it upset him so much that he mentally unravels, too.


D.J. Mbenga, Center

Grade: B

Not much to this one. Mbenga is insurance in case one of the bigs goes down (as Bynum did back in November, allowing "Congo Cash" to step into the starting lineup for two games). He's making the league minimum, so his 2.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 0.75 blocks per game are actually about where they should be with him only playing 7.7 minutes per game, and he's a fan favorite at the Staples Center.

Needs improvement: easing off the trigger. Mbenga often gets burn in blowouts and the crowd goes nuts when he gets the ball, imploring him to shoot. He usually obliges. This could be a bad habit that needs to be broken should the Lakers actually have to rely on Mbenga for starters minutes in the playoffs due to another injury to Bynum or Gasol.


Phil Jackson, Coach

Grade: A

The Zen Master, or Mr. X, whichever you prefer, should get just as much credit as Bryant for playing through injuries. The 64-year-old Jackson has coached in every game this season after missing two games last season because of pain and swelling in his lower legs. He has his team at the top of the league and primed to compete for a championship again.

Needs improvement: stubbornness. Jackson has hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy on 10 separate occasions, so it's tough to question his coaching tactics, but there have been times this season when he stuck with a certain lineup or defensive scheme for too long and later admitted that he should have changed it up before the opposition was allowed to gain momentum.


Mitch Kupchak, General Manager

Grade: A

Part of the credit for Kupchak's grade has to go to the owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, who agreed to go deep into the luxury tax to re-sign Odom in the offseason and bring in Artest to fill the void left by Trevor Ariza, but Kupchak has done all right for himself in his own regard. As Shannon Brown continues to blossom, Kupchak looks smarter by the day for the Radmanovic deal, and the fact that he got Gasol to ink an extension through 2013-14 last month means he continues to excel at his job.

Needs improvement: get Kobe signed to an extension as soon as possible. Just so it's not an issue that the media picks up on and blows up.