The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled out of the gate to start the regular season, just not for the reason anyone expected.
Going into the year, the Lakers were pegged as a young, fun team that would be enjoyable to watch on offense while hoping to improve their defense just enough to not be wretched on that end once again, but six games into the year the opposite has been true. The Lakers’ defense has actually been okay, allowing 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the 11th-best defensive efficiency in the NBA.
It’s on the other end where the Lakers have been awful. Their offensive rating (how many points a team scores per 100 possessions) sits at 94.5, worse than every team in the league not named the Chicago Bulls (who are barely a professional basketball team this season).
After the Lakers’ loss to the Utah Jazz Saturday night, head coach Luke Walton told reporters he wants the team to play faster, but that might be hard, because the team is already playing at the fourth-fastest pace in the league, averaging 106.01 possessions per game, according to NBA.com.
Even if it won’t be easy, there’s no doubt why Walton wants to play faster: The Lakers are dynamite at it, averaging 1.14 points per play in transition, the seventh-best mark in the league. When the Lakers have been so moribund offensively otherwise, it’s no wonder he wants the team to get out and run more.
But L.A. also can’t run every single possession. There are going to be times where opposing teams get back on defense in time, especially as the season moves along and opponents get the scouting report on how ineffective the Lakers are when they can’t run down team’s throats.
The more that happens, the more the Lakers are going to be in trouble, mainly due to their lack of shooting ability or willingness from behind the 3-point line.
The Lakers have shot just 27.8 percent from the line over their first six games, the second-worst success rate in the NBA. While it might appear on its face that they somewhat mitigate that by only taking 24 threes per game (the fifth-fewest in the league), their reticence to shoot might actually ultimately add to their futility.
If the team won’t even fire when left open behind the arc, then teams are going to just spend more time clogging the paint to stop drives and post ups, and it’s not totally clear what a good solution is for L.A., even if Lonzo Ball is optimistic they can find one as long as they stick to their guns defensively, via Lakers Nation reporter Serena Winters:
Lonzo: “Defense, that’s the priority, as long as that’s doing good, we’re not worried about the offense, it’ll come.” (on @SpectrumSN)
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) October 29, 2017
Still, it’s not totally clear the Lakers will be able to keep up this level of defensive effectiveness because making that big of a jump in efficiency from one season to the next is basically unheard of. If their defense drops off without the Lakers offense making a jump, the team may actually look back on a 2-6 stretch fondly.
The Lakers don’t have a ton of obvious, easy solutions to make that leap. Sure, the team could just start firing more threes, lack of success be damned, but they may simply just not have the shooters to make that strategy more successful than their current plight.
The Lakers’ trade of D’Angelo Russell has been second-guessed to death, but it at the very least removed one of the Lakers’ most effective shooters from last season. Combine his departure with that of Nick Young and Lou Williams, and the team’s three most effective shooters to attempt more than 100 threes last season are all no longer on the roster.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s offseason saw them add a lot, but shooting wasn’t among those things, no matter how many times they reference Brook Lopez’s 134 made threes from last season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s shot may come around, but the Lakers are still going to suffer from a major dearth of shooting if Ball and Brandon Ingram’s long-range percentages don’t take a major leap soon.
Those probably aren’t things the team can count on just yet, and so unless the Lakers makes a deal for 3-point shooter or one of its players makes gigantic strides forward in that respect and begins spewing flames from the perimeter, the Lakers’ offense might actually be a huge problem moving forward when they aren’t able to get into transition.