Trending team: Los Angeles Lakers relying on Bynum
Despite Sunday's home loss to the Denver Nuggets, no contender is heading into the stretch run with more momentum than the Lakers. Los Angeles has won 17 of its 19 games since the All-Star break to get back into the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.
It's no secret that Lakers 7-footer Andrew Bynum has been key to the team's surge. The impact of a productive Bynum is evident throughout the team's numbers. For one, the Lakers have been playing at a slower pace lately. Before the break, they averaged 90.3 possessions per 48 minutes, a pace only slightly below league average. Since then, their possessions per 48 minutes have dropped to 87.4, which would tie them with the New Orleans Hornets as the league's second-slowest team. Only the Portland Trail Blazers (87.2) average fewer possessions per 48 minutes.
In terms of performance, Bynum's impact has come largely at the defensive end of the floor. While he's been highly efficient with his possessions (he's making 62.3 percent of his shot attempts and getting to the line regularly), the Lakers have weaker floor spacing with Bynum and Pau Gasol on the floor together, so their overall offense has been no better since the break--exactly 4.0 points per 100 possessions better than league average before and after, when adjusted for opposition.
On defense, however, the Lakers have taken a huge step forward. They held opponents 1.8 points per 100 possessions below their usual efficiency before the All-Star break, but have improved to 8.0 points better since then. That would make them the NBA's best defense over the course of the season.
Bynum has been at the center of that stingy defense. He's grabbing 28.3 percent of available defensive rebounds, which would put him seventh in the league, and has blocked nearly as many shots as he's committed fouls. (Only one player in the NBA, San Antonio's Tim Duncan, has pulled off that feat this season.)
Basically, Bynum has played at an MVP-type level when on the floor over the last month and a half. His numbers during that span compare favorably with Dwight Howard's in every category save usage (Howard is a much bigger part of the Orlando Magic's offense). This is the type of dominant play from Bynum that has convinced the Lakers to hold on to him despite attractive trade offers. If he stays healthy (having missed the end of Sunday's game after tweaking his right knee) and plays at this level, it makes the Lakers favorites not only to win the West but to repeat as NBA champions.
Trending player: Anthony Randolph takes advantage
As a starter last week in place of the injured Kevin Love, Randolph had games with 31 points and 11 rebounds at Dallas and 24 points and 15 rebounds at Oklahoma City. Those kind of performances are nothing new for Randolph, who has produced whenever he's gotten the opportunity to play. During his three-year NBA career, Randolph has played at least 30 minutes in 16 games. In those extended outings, he's averaged a double-double (16.5 points and 10.7 rebounds), with five total 20-10 performances.
On the surface, this isn't all that unusual. Many bench players have impressive averages in games where they play heavy minutes because their coaches can spot them and give them extra run in favorable matchups. Here's the unique thing about Randolph: On a per-minute basis, his performance in games of 30-plus minutes is virtually identical to how he plays in a smaller role.
Minutes P40 2P% R40 A40 S40 B40 TO40 PF40
30+ 18.5 .467 12.0 2.2 1.8 2.1 1.7 3.7
All 18.8 .457 12.1 2.0 1.5 2.5 2.9 4.9
Randolph tends to foul less when he plays more, which is one reason he's been able to stay on the floor so long. He also commits fewer of the head-scratching turnovers he has a tendency to make. Otherwise, though, Randolph has been just as prolific coming off the bench. This tends to suggest that all he needs is a chance to play starters' minutes in order to put up the impressive averages he has in games where he's played at least 30 minutes.
At the same time, Randolph's production from game to game can be difficult to predict. He followed up his two big starts by scoring three points and missing all five of his shot attempts in 16 minutes against Boston. That kind of effort has kept Randolph from securing a starting job, but if he ever does, expect him to put up numbers.
League trend: Surprising players among month's best
For the most part, the league's top players in terms of Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric in the month of March are who you'd expect, led by the Miami Heat duo that played its best collective basketball in the month.
Player Tm Win% WARP
LeBron James MIA .740 4.1
Dwyane Wade MIA .740 3.8
Kevin Durant OKC .698 3.6
Dwight Howard ORL .736 3.6
Derrick Rose CHI .705 3.5
Kyle Lowry HOU .722 3.3
Russell Westbrook OKC .660 2.7
Marcus Thornton SAC .626 2.7
Chris Paul NOH .694 2.7
Andre Iguodala PHI .638 2.6
A little lower down the leaderboard, things get more interesting, starting with Kyle Lowry. Lowry, who came into the season as the backup to Aaron Brooks, has firmly established himself as the man in Houston and has largely been responsible for the Rockets' late-season playoff push. Lowry's newfound three-point range (he made 41 of them at a 42.7 percent clip in March) may not last, but it has made him one of the league's more efficient scorers. Add in solid playmaking and Lowry's defense, which has always been excellent and Lowry was as good as any point guard in the league in March.
It took a trade for Marcus Thornton for him to establish himself. Buried on the bench in New Orleans because of his occasionally indifferent defense, Thornton has exploded since being dealt to the Sacramento Kings at the deadline. He averaged 22.9 points in the month of March--good for 10th in the league in that time span--and this isn't one of those stories where a player on a bad team guns his way to big scoring totals. Thornton's 58.3 true shooting percentage in the month was just as good as Dwyane Wade's 58.0 percent mark. The Kings have the rest of the season to try to figure out how to utilize Thornton and a healthy Tyreke Evans, both of whom are natural shooting guards.
In case you're wondering where Bynum is, on a per-minute basis his player winning percentage was the best in the league. However, he did not play enough minutes (31.2 per game) to rack up enough total value to crack the top 10 in WARP, ranking 14th overall.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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