As the defending champs, the Lakers were always going to be over-analyzed and picked apart by fans, the media, and all manner of hoops punditry this season. However, in the early weeks of 2011, fatalistic criticism of the Lakers reached a fever pitch. They were "fading" or "lifeless," and "the odds were stacked against them" repeating again. Despite their .667 winning percentage, the Lakers just did not look like the same team that won the last 2 NBA Championships without needing any Kobe heroics (see right) to do it. A team looking for it's 3rd straight championship doesn't usually drop back-to-back games against Eastern Conference sub-.500 teams, like the Lakers did against the Bobcats and Cavaliers just before the All-Star Break. Since then, however, Phil Jackson's squad has looked rejuvenated, going 13-1, with their only loss coming in Miami. Are they back to being the favorites in the Western Conference? Or do they not even have a chance of securing Phil Jackson's 4th career 3-peat? Hit the jump to find out.
A major reason for the Lakers' issues during the first half was the lack of production from players not named Kobe or Pau, and Ron Artest was the biggest offender. In 2009-2010, Artest averaged 11 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 41.4% from the field. During the first half of 2010-2011, however, his numbers dropped to 7.9, 3.0, and 39.7%, respectively. His field goal percentage is especially troubling since Artest has never shot below 40% for an entire season before. Similarly, Andrew Bynum was a non-factor for the Lakers during the first half of the season. Bynum's defense was crucial to the Lakers' success during their successful playoff run last year, with 36 blocks and 59 offensive rebounds in 23 postseason games. Before the All-Star Break, though, Bynum (see left) was a shadow of his former self. Knee surgery forced him to miss the first 24 games in 2010-2011, and he played fewer than 30 minutes in his first six games back. Not only were the Lakers without Bynum's 7'0" frame for most of the first half, but Bynum was not up to his standards when he did return. He averaged only 7.4 rebounds and 1.69 blocks per game before the All-Star Break, with both numbers down from prior seasons. Clearly, the Lakers needed better performances from Bynum and Artest if they were going to move back into title contention in 2011.
Fortunately for Phil Jackson, his two crucial role players have stepped up in the second half of the season. Artest's numbers are back to his 2009-2010 averages, with 10.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game alongside a 41.9% shooting clip. Bynum has bounced back as well, posting monster numbers of 13 rebounds and 2.59 blocks per game in the second half. Artest's increased efficiency and Bynum's improving interior presence have led directly to better results for the Lakers, especially on the defensive end. Prior to the All-Star Break, the Lakers yielded 96.5 points per game; since then, their stingy defense has only given up 91 points per game to opponents. Only one team has given up fewer than 91 points per game for this entire season: the Celtics at 90.9 ppg. With this new defensive intensity, the Lakers have posted wins over the Spurs, Mavericks, Hawks (twice), and Thunder, just to name a few. Clearly, the Lakers have played superb defense during the second half, and Andrew Bynum's strong interior presence--as well as Ron Artest's improved all-around play--is responsible. If these two--especially Bynum--can continue to produce at the levels they have recently, the Lakers will be tough for anybody to beat in the postseason.