At this point in the season, calling the Lakers offense mediocre might be a compliment. In terms of offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) the Lakers are 19th in NBA with a mark of 101.8. Their 51.6 true shooting percentage (which takes into account free throws and 3 pointers) is 18th in the NBA, which is greatly influenced by their worst in the league 3 point field goal percentage of 25.7%. Considering the Lakers were 6th in offensive efficiency last season (111.0) their nearly 10 point drop in efficiency this year – even when accounting for offenses being down across the league – is staggering.
Watching this de-evolution on offense has led me to watching this side of the ball closely for the past several games. I’ve wanted to get a better idea as to what is going on with this team and why they’re struggling to score points. I’ve seen some good and plenty of bad and below are my notes on what can only be called a floundering Laker offense:
*From a collective perspective, the Lakers prove to be a very good passing team. They regularly hit the open man (yes, even Kobe) and generally deal with double teams very well (Bynum is the least effective in this area but over the course of the season he’s improved). The Pacers game was a perfect example of this as nearly every time Kobe or Pau caught the ball below the foul line a second defender was sent their way. Both players handled this pressure masterfully by making the correct reads and either making simple kickouts to the same side wing or making more complex skip passes to a wing spotting up or drop off passes to a diving teammate filling in the vacated paint.
It’s not only Pau and Kobe that pass well, however. McRoberts has shown he has above average feel for a big man and often makes good reads from the top of the key by making excellent high/low passes to his front court partner or to Kobe when they’re posting up. Fisher has also shown good feel for making timely post entry passes and made more than a few eye popping passes out of the pick and roll. MWP makes good reads from out of the post and has been an effective passer and shot creator for teammates when teams send a second defender at him on the block.
All of this bears out in the Lakers assist percentage (the % of baskets assisted) of 61.7%, which ranks 4th in the NBA. This team looks for each other and uses the motions of the offense to help each other get open.
*The Lakers sets, for all the hand wringing that occurs, are actually solid by design and try to take advantage of the strengths of the players on the roster. Kobe is one the hardest off the ball workers in the league and this offense uses countless screen actions – set by and for him – to get him open coming to spots on the floor where he can do damage. The Lakers are also setting more screens for their big men to come across the lane to get the ball in the post with good position.
A set that looks to be one of the Lakers bread and butter actions is Kobe setting up on the wing, then cutting across the paint to set a cross screen on one of his bigs, and then using a down screen from the other big man to pop up to the top of the key. This action allows the Lakers to play to two of their strengths in a single set by getting a big man coming across the lane for a post up while also attempting to free Kobe coming to the top of the key to make a catch where he can easily get to either elbow for his pull up jumper (a pet shot of his). Setting up Kobe – still this team’s most prolific scorer – in spots where he can do damage is a major key to success.
*I mentioned the Lakers generally dealing with double teams well and it must also be acknowledged that being able to force double teams is a key to any productive offense. On countless possessions Kobe and Bynum force a double team simply by making a catch and Gasol also sees double teams when he’s working the deep low block. By forcing double teams the Laker are generating open looks for players all over the floor – shots that aren’t falling enough – but open shots nonetheless. Some of these doubles are based off the fact that guys like Fisher, Barnes, and McRoberts aren’t making defenses pay by hitting shots but committing multiple defenders is also due to the effectiveness of these specific Lakers when they possess the ball. Again, forcing defenses to shift or commit additional resources to slowing specific players speaks to the Lakers offense doing things right; it speaks to their best offensive weapons getting the ball in dangerous areas of the floor and showing the ability of these guys to hurt the defense when single covered.
*The lack of capable shooters is truly hurting this team. As mentioned earlier the Lakers are last in the league in 3 point shooting and this ineptitude in hitting the long ball has a domino effect on how good the offense can be. Kobe, Pau, and Bynum often deal with guards digging down in their lap and the paint is more congested than it’s ever been.
On too many possessions the Lakers see a half court defense with nearly every defender having one foot in the paint. The positioning of these defenders cuts off passing angles and denies driving lanes. We often lament the big men not getting enough touches in the post but what’s clear from watching the Lakers’ sets is that guards are tentative in making post entry passes when they have defenders sagging off and threatening a deflection or outright steal. Even when the ball is effectively entered into the post the 2nd defender is there to disrupt a move by digging down and it’s either making post players rush to get their shot off (Bynum does this most) or get rid of the ball to a less threatening teammate.
*The spacing issues collectively hurt the team in the types of shots they get as well. Statistically speaking, the most efficient shots in the league are at the rim and behind the three point arc. The Lakers though, as a team, take the 2nd fewest shots at the rim and are 20th in 3 point FG attempts. Meanwhile, they take the 5th most shots from 10-15 feet and 9th most from 16-23 feet. And while the Lakers rank 1st in FG% from 16-23 feet, they’re still only shooting 43% from that range and most of that is because of Kobe’s shooting a very good 46% from that distance.
Meanwhile, the Lakers shoot nearly 67% at the rim as a team (5th in the league) but can’t get enough shots from that range to truly impact the game positively. When you combine that with the low volume of 3′s taken and horrid percentage made, the Lakers are living off the most inefficient shots available from night to night. And while I get it’s a bit of a contradiction to complain about both bad shooting AND low shot volume from deep, it’s really more about the Lakers not being able to capitalize on a type of shot that makes a difference in today’s NBA. Against the Pacers the Lakers were -24 points from behind the arc. I don’t care how good you are inside or how much Kobe goes off, winning with that type of discrepancy is nearly impossible.
*The Lakers have an identity crisis on offense as well. Coming into the season Mike Brown spoke of a twin tower offense in the mold of the early 2000′s Spurs that would also try to maximize Kobe’s effectiveness by getting him into his spots. That was a nice sound bite but it’s proven difficult to actually achieve.
Mike Brown is running some of those Spurs sets by having the first big man down the floor set up in the post with the second big man acting as the trail man that is an outlet for ball reversals (every time you see Bynum or Gasol sitting at the top of key waiting for a pass to swing the ball, this is the reason). However, this type of set up means that when the Lakers actually get into their sets they’re actually running a lot of Kobe-centric actions that require that big man to stay high while the other big man floats around the low block setting screens for (what can be up to) the first half of the 24 second clock.
So, the Lakers aren’t really running a lot of twin tower actions, but rather a lot of 4-out-1-in actions that leaves a big man 20 feet from the basket. This creates an unevenness to the Lakers sets that leads to one of their best players in a position where he’s less a threat. And mostly that player is Pau Gasol.
This season Pau is taking over a shot less at the rim and from 3-9 feet while taking over a full shot more from 16-23 feet a contest. Pau has, in other words, become another floor spacer for Kobe and Bynum to do work in the mid and low post but his game is suffering for it. Sure, Pau’s still very effective as a passer from that spot on the floor and his improved jumper means that he can threaten the defense from that distance. But Pau’s still one of the elite post players in this league (per mySynergySports he’s 6th in the NBA posting 1.06 points per play from the post) but simply isn’t getting the same number of chances on the block as his percentage of total plays from the post has gone down from 39% last year to 32% this season. Meanwhile the percentage of plays as a spot up shooter has gone up 5%, showing that he’s effectively trading post up chances for spot up jumpers.
*Pau’s usage reflects a bigger issue, however. The Lakers big three are all most effective working 18 feet and in, and primarily working in the mid and low post. But there simply isn’t enough space down there for all of them to thrive. Last season one of the big themes around the NBA was how the Heat would deal with their two best players (LeBron and Wade) having such overlapping skill sets. What we saw was that often one of them was relegated to being a decoy off the ball or, worse yet, standing in the corner while the other went to work with the ball. Well, this season, the Lakers are facing a similar issue but it involves their entire big three. Sure, Kobe is a perimeter player and can more easily adjust his game to work from the wing and/or other spots on the floor. He can also be used off the ball and brought into different spots easily because of his ability to cut and dash into open space. But the Laker bigs aren’t those types of players and figuring out a way to get them into their preferred spots on the floor while working Kobe into the offense remains an issue.
*One way to diversify the Lakers’ attack is to run more P&R but this too poses some issues. Kobe is the only natural P&R ball handler on the roster but possesses a bad wrist and mangled fingers from past injuries that have impacted his ball handling. He’s still able to create shots for himself as a ball handler in this action but he can be turnover prone when trapped turning the corner. If the Lakers try to run this action with the currently healthy players on their roster (MWP, Fisher, Darius Morris) the play gets gummed up because those guys aren’t respected as shooters. In any event, I’d like to see more of this action simply because the Lakers are only getting 9% of their offense from the P&R (per mySynergySports). But, it still must be run judiciously unless the team wants to see their turnover rate spike.
Some improvement can come from more comfort level with their sets. Some can also come from Mike Brown further tweaking his lineups to better match personnel that fits together. A couple of suggestions are shortening the minutes that Pau and Bynum play together. Brown can then match Murphy with Bynum as the former can provide the floor spacing for the latter and then match McRoberts with Pau to give Gasol a more active and slashing big man to take advantage of his passing skills. This type of move would also free up the post for both the bigs more often and allow them to play to their strengths on more possessions, and thus improve the Lakers’ sets.
This is only one idea but there are surely more to be explored. Ultimately though, the Lakers have the tools to be a good offensive team but their limitations and ability to make a defense pay with the current personnel are real. In the last six quarters we’ve seen better spacing to go along with improved ball movement but until the open shots start to fall this team will only be average on that side of the ball. Which, to say the least, is disconcerting.