- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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Now that it appears the Lakers could be finishing the regular season without two-fifths of their starting lineup (or more) -- with Andrew Bynum saying he doesn't see the point of a pre-playoff return, Kobe Bryant considering resting his twice-surgically-repaired right knee until the postseason and Phil Jackson hinting he'll be generously doling out rest to his roster the rest of the way -- we're not going to get much more to gauge them on in games Nos. 80-82.
They clinched the top seeding in the Western Conference on Friday with a 97-88 win in Minnesota, and about the only remaining notch they could possibly punch on their regular-season belt would be to stave off Orlando for the No. 2 overall seeding.
Los Angeles' final three games against Portland, Sacramento and the Clippers may not provide much to help determine whether or not Lakers fans should start planning for a long or short playoff run when the postseason tips off for L.A. on April 18, but the truth about this team is already out there.
Or as Jackson likes to say, "The proof is in the pudding."
After writing as scathing a column as I've written about the team all season after the Denver game, I wanted to know if there were any stats to back up what my senses were telling me.
Just like when I attempted to accurately capture Bryant's ability in the clutch earlier in the season, I reached out to the folks at ESPN Stats & Information for an assist to see if they had numbers to support or refute my notions.
The first thing on my mind was a nugget that came up in a notebook last week when Derek Fisher didn't just use the usual generalities to describe the Lakers' inconsistency but made a pointed critique that the Lakers haven't been able to string together successful quarters at all, really.
Not counting the win over the Timberwolves on Friday, the Lakers hadn't won three out of four quarters in a game since March 9 against Toronto, a string of 14 consecutive games. For a team that's leading its conference, it just seemed suspicious.
And there's good reason for that.
The Lakers have outscored their opponents in three of the four quarters of the game in only 24 of their 56 wins. Now, this isn't a perfect measure, of course, because sometimes you blow out a team so thoroughly in the first half that you're bound to have a letdown with your reserves in the second half. Plus, there are the games when you win three quarters by a couple of points each and then have one clunker in which you're outscored by a dozen and lose the game, but still, it's a stat Fisher is paying attention to, so that makes it relevant.
Ten playoff teams have a better mark in this area than the Lakers do: Cleveland (30), San Antonio (29), Phoenix (29), Atlanta (28), Orlando (27), Oklahoma City (27), Denver (27), Utah (26), Boston (26) and Portland (25). All of those teams except the Cavaliers and Magic have worse records than the Lakers do, which means a lot of the Lakers' competition is sharper in their wins than the Lakers are in their victories.
The next deficiency to explore was something ESPN's John Hollinger mentioned briefly in a column a couple of months ago. Namely, what's up with the Lakers' measly margin of victory since the All-Star break? While teams such as Dallas and Cleveland were steamrollering their competition on a regular basis, the Lakers have only three wins of 10-plus points since Feb. 16.
Here is how many double-digit wins the past 10 NBA champions had after the All-Star break:
2000 Los Angeles Lakers (15)
2001 Los Angeles Lakers (12)
2002 Los Angeles Lakers (12)
2003 San Antonio Spurs (13)
2004 Detroit Pistons (17)
2005 San Antonio Spurs (9)
2006 Miami Heat (7)
2007 San Antonio Spurs (14)
2008 Boston Celtics (19)
2009 Los Angeles Lakers (12)
If you had to select the weakest champion in the past decade, the no-brainer pick is the 2005-06 Heat, and even that team had more than twice the amount of dominating wins down the stretch as the Lakers do this season.
Another thing I wanted to explore was how the absence of Bynum has become an easy scapegoat for the Lakers' mediocre 5-5 record since the 7-footer went out because of a strained left Achilles' tendon 10 games ago. While there's no denying Bynum's averages of 15 points and 8.3 rebounds were missed in the final box score and his 30 minutes a game were missed in the rotation, causing Lamar Odom to be plucked from the already depleted bench, I wasn't convinced the slide was merely because of his being out.
It turns out, not including Friday's game, the Lakers' stats weren't all that different with or without the big man. With Bynum, opponents were scoring 97.5 points per game. Without him, they were actually scoring less, 97.1. The Lakers were slightly better at opponents' field goal percentage with Bynum, 44.4 percent to 46.4 percent, and also slightly better in total rebounds per game, 44.6 to 42.3. But the Lakers opponents' rebounds per game were actually higher with Bynum in there, 42.6 to 39.3, so L.A.'s rebounding differential has actually improved from plus-2.0 per game to plus-3.0 per game with Bynum out.
We'll end with a positive stat (since the Lakers did capture their third straight Western Conference crown Friday) and debunk the myth they are actually better without Bryant in there. At least offensively, that is.
Before Friday, the Lakers averaged 102.4 points with Bryant and only 97.0 without him. They shot 46.0 percent from the field with him and 43.5 percent without him. They average 21.3 assists per game with Bryant, as opposed to 19.0 without.
Defensively, the Lakers have given up only 88.5 points per game without Bryant as opposed to 97.7 points per game with him, and their opponents' field-goal percentage goes down from 44.6 percent to 43.2 percent without him. But that's such a small sample size it's hard to believe even a slight defensive improvement without Bryant in there would be worth going without his shot-making abilities.
The Lakers have enough talent and have played together in enough big games over the past two seasons that, if they're healthy, they could treat the playoffs like the stage actor who nails his performance on opening night after flubbing his lines every other dress rehearsal.
But if that doesn't happen, don't say I didn't warn you.
Break a leg, Lakers.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Matt Willis of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
10hMatt Walks, ESPN.com