How Do The Lakers Keep Winning Without Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant has missed five straight games with a shin injury. Given the abysmal performance of the Los Angeles Lakers in their first game without their ailing superstar (a 20-point loss to the barely-playoff-contending Phoenix Suns) it was reasonable to expect that LA’s record might suffer until Kobe resumed play.

Instead, the Lakers have reeled off 4 straight wins, and their 14-point victory at San Antonio is arguably their best performance of the year, from a pure efficiency/difficulty standpoint.

How have the Lakers managed to excel in Bryant’s absence? Statistically, what has changed over the past four games, and is it likely to continue?

LA’s Best 4-Game Stretch Has Come Without Kobe

We can use our predictive power ratings to calculate a Game Score for any team in any game. The Game Score basically starts with the final score margin and adjusts it based on opponent and location in order to come up with a single number that represents how much the team would have beaten a league-average opponent by, on a neutral court.

Over the past 4 games, the Lakers have an average Game Score  of 8.0. That’s the team’s highest mark during any 4+ game win streak this season. To put that number in context, the Bulls have the highest average Game Score in the NBA this season — at 7.0, a full point worse than the Lakers’ performance over this recent stretch.

Is Bynum Carrying The Team?

So how exactly have the Lakers done so well? One storyline seen in multiple places is that Andrew Bynum is thriving in Kobe’s absence. The problem with that line of narrative is that it’s not entirely true. Yes, Bynum’s per-game scoring and rebounding averages are up in Kobe’s absence, but his shooting efficiency has dropped dramatically.

Bynum’s season scoring average is 18.6 points per game. In the last 5 sans-Kobe games he has averaged 22.0 points, an increase of 3.4 points per game. But it has taken him 8.1 more shots and 1.9 more free throw attempts per game to get those points. He has managed to shoot only 41% from the floor, well below his 56% season average.

While his shouldering of the increased load is admirable, his offense is suffering from the increased attention. His rebounding, on the other hand, has improved with Kobe on the bench.

Lakers Are Rebounding Better At Both Ends

Over his first 51 games, Andrew Bynum averaged 11.8 rebounds per game in 35.3 minutes per game. In the last 5 games,  he has collected 16.6 boards per contest in 37.8 minutes of playing time.

That mirrors a team-wide improvement in rebounding, on both the offensive and defensive ends:

 Offensive Reb%Defensive Reb%
First 56 Games28.7%74.2%
Last 5 Games (w/o Kobe)34.8%81.1%
Extra Rebounds2.73.1

The Lakers’ improved rebounding rates have gained them about 3 more rebounds per night at each end of the floor. With NBA possessions each worth around one point, those extra rebounds go a long way toward explaining LA’s improved score margins.

LA And Their Opponents Are Shooting Lights Out

One other area has seen a drastic change since Kobe hit the pine — three point shooting.

 LA 3PFG%Opp 3PFG%
First 56 Games31.8%33.0%
Last 5 Games (w/o Kobe)45.5%50.6%
Extra Threes2.33.4

Both the Lakers and their opponents have been making about half their threes with Kobe out, which means they have each sunk two to three more long range shots per game than you would have expected based on their prior rates.

The temptation here is to try to make Kobe the scapegoat — he has hit a hair under 30% of his threes this year, meaning he technically was dragging the team’s three point shooting percentage down. But the rest of the Lakers have combined to hit only 32.6% on the season, so it’s not as if they are a bunch of sharpshooters who have been unwisely deferring to Kobe.

A closer look at every player who has attempted a three pointer for the Lakers in Kobe’s absence reveals across the board improvement:

 3PFG made3PFG attempted3PFG% (last 5)3PFG% (first 56)Improvement
Metta World Peace102441.7%28.1%13.6%
Matt Barnes102050.0%30.8%19.2%
Steve Blake41040.0%32.1%7.9%
Ramon Sessions5955.6%44.7%10.8%
Pau Gasol2540.0%25.0%15.0%
Devin Ebanks050.0%0.0%0.0%
Josh McRoberts020.0%0.0%0.0%

Perhaps the Laker offense is running more smoothly now that they don’t have a ball-stopper on the floor. Perhaps the players know that they no longer have Kobe to bail them out, so they’re playing with renewed focus.

Or perhaps they’re just happy they get to shoot the ball more.

The Outlook For LA

Regardless, neither the Lakers nor their opponents should expect to convert half their three going forward. Even LA’s shooting really is improved without Kobe, it’s unrealistic to expect the team to suddenly become the best snipers in the league. The defensive rebounding performance is also likely unsustainable, simply because their current level is so much better than any other team in the league.

However, it’s possible that both the rebounding and the shooting improvements are real — just not at such an exaggerated level. If so, the Lakers should be able to avoid a total collapse, and ought to hang on to the Western Conference #3 seed.

A championship without Kobe, though? Forget about it. Our Lakers playoff projection gives them only a 1.6% chance to win the title — and our system doesn’t “know” about Bryant’s injury. Without his production, LA’s odds drop to near zero.

While Peace, Barnes, Blake, and others may be enjoying their increased roles as of late, if they want to earn a ring in 2012, they should probably send Kobe a Get Well Soon card.