When watching games, one of the most oft-cited stats when it comes to the Lakers is points in the paint allowed. The Lakers are league’s worst team of points allowed in the paint, surrendering 47.9 points a game. In case you were wondering, this ranking is not a product of pace as the Lakers are also worst in the league per 100 possessions at 47.6.
This fact leads most analysis to tilt towards the Lakers needing to do a better job protecting the rim. This is, to a certain extent, true. For example, here is the Lakers’ shot chart for the season to this point:
In case you were wondering that green circle near the basket is bad.
Further, when you get closer to the rim, the Lakers are allowing teams to shoot 66.4% in the restricted area — the worst percentage in the league. There’s no single culprit when your team allows opponents to shoot this well at the rim. That said, the team performs particularly poorly when Timofey Mozgov is in the game:
Of course, these team numbers shouldn’t just reflect poorly on Mozgov. If he’s guarding a stretch 5 and then D’Angelo Russell gets beat on back cut along the baseline for a layup, that’s not on Mozgov but it would fall into the shot chart above.
However, what further supports Mozgov himself is having issues protecting the rim is the fact that on shots he’s defended inside 6 feet, players are shooting 61.1% from the field. Compare that number to 57.9% for Tarik Black and 54.9% for Julius Randle. I know there is noise in a stat for shots “inside of 6 feet” — especially in the context of rim protection — but I think it’s somewhat telling that Black and Randle do better in this area than Mozgov.
Also, in only comparing how opponents shoot at the rim when either Mozgov or Black are in the game we see that teams also shoot worse with Black in the game (64.0%) than with Mozgov anchoring the defense (66.8). It’s not a huge differential, but I found it surprising that teams convert at a lower rate against the undersized Black than against Mozgov.
More telling than these shooting percentage numbers, though, is the sheer volume of shots teams take against the Lakers in the paint and at the rim in general.
Consider that Lakers’ opponents have shot the 2nd most shots in the restricted area in the entire NBA. The only team who has allowed more shots in the RA than the Lakers are the Thunder, but their opponents shoot over 7% points worse on those shots (59.2% vs. 66.4%). So, to summarize, the Lakers are allow the 2nd most shots in the restricted area but allow opponents to shoot the best percentage in the league when they take those shots.
In other words, the Lakers not only have a rim protection problem, they have a rim prevention problem too.
This is why pointing the finger at Mozgov and saying the team should maybe play Black or go small (with Randle or, when he returns, Nance) more somewhat misses the point. The Lakers struggle to defend dribble penetration in isolation. They defend the screen and roll poorly as a team — guards don’t get through picks well, big men don’t contain ball handlers well on hedges, and weakside wings don’t tag the dive man well enough to prevent easy passes/lobs.
You can point at Mozgov for some of these things, but it really is a team wide issue which needs fixing. If you’re Russell or Lou Williams or Brandon Ingram or Jordan Clarkson, you cannot continue to get beat on straight line drives or die on screens. If you’re Randle or Black or Nance you cannot continue to get beat off the dribble on switches. If you’re Black or Thomas Robinson you cannot allow guards to turn the corner when hedging the P&R, getting to the rim to create an easy shot or an offensive rebounding opportunity.
If you’re looking for fixes, these are the areas in which they lie. Only when these things are fixed will the Lakers start to surrender fewer shots at the rim. And only when they do these things better will players on the back line be in better position to challenge and alter those shots. Only time will tell if the players who can accomplish these things are actually on the roster, however.