Luke Walton’s hiring rightfully gives Lakers fans hope that the team is trying (at least now) to rebuild in the right ways. The move evidences a humility the team has not seen before — instead of hiring some insider that can restore the team to glory by reinforcing what the Lakers did in the good old days, Luke has been brought here largely to pass on wisdom gained from other spheres in the modern era (during which the Lakers have been a failure).
Yes, Luke has substantial experience within the organization, but that is not the only reason he has the job; he is the coach because of what he learned and experienced in Golden State’s first rate organization. To me, this admission that the Lakers have something to learn from the way others do things is a real turning point in their rebuild, as it suggests a willingness to embrace the revolution. And I do believe that Luke is probably the ideal candidate to bring us into the modern times, even if he (and the team) has much learning yet to do.
And there is a long, long ways to go. Trying to diagnose what went wrong with the Lakers this year is kind of like trying to pinpoint what went wrong when the economy crashed nearly a decade ago – there were too many terrifying problems to find just a single tipping point. The team was a spectacle of dysfunction and incompetence, and following it day in and day out was painful.
This piece will attempt to analyze one aspect of these struggles – the team’s offensive problems. Note the emphasis on team, as I will, largely, not look at the performance issues of individual players, and instead focus on team characteristics. For example, this analysis will look at things like what kinds of shots the team took, rather than Kobe’s TS%. This post will also not look at defense, which deserves a separate analysis, given the team’s last place finish in defensive efficiency.
We begin by noting that the Lakers finished 29th (second to last) in offensive efficiency (98.6 points per 100 possessions), down from 23rd and 100.8 a season ago. (To finish last in defensive efficiency and second to last in offensive efficiency is a sad thing, and led to the worst net rating in the league.) Why were the Lakers so bad at offense? What smaller problems and decisions created this end result? What systemic issues should Luke try to correct as he rebuilds the team? I looked at the available numbers, and here’s what I found. As always, I’m sure others will see more interesting things.
(A quick comment on the elephant in the room. The numbers confirm that Kobe had a disastrous impact on the offense. We know that. His usage to efficiency ratio was historically bad. Simply having him on the court, using possessions, was clearly a drag on the offense when his year is looked at in the cumulative. We all know this, but the team was horrific offensively even if you subtract Kobe, and the mission here is to begin to understand why.)
Let’s quickly identify what the Lakers were NOT bad at, as that is a short list and can perhaps rule out a few problems, and allow us to better focus on what went wrong. A few initial stats:
|Turnover Rate||10th lowest|
|Free Throw Attempt Rate||8th|
|Free Throw %||11th|
Why look at these statistics together? To me, these numbers reflect a team which got plenty of shots off (low turnovers) and had plenty of help from the FT line, but was still the worst team in the league at shooting efficiency (even factoring in those free throws).
Conclusion 1: The Lakers were the worst team in the league by a mile at making the field goals actually attempted. Ouch.
2. Shot Distribution
Digging deeper, why were they so inefficient at making shots? Many reasons, but a significant one was that they took inefficient shots.
Conclusion 2: The Lakers took the wrong kinds of shots.
L.A. was 14th in the league in 3 point frequency, which is in the top half of the league and reflects a commitment to shooting from distance. But, a closer examination shows they took the wrong kinds of threes, leading to the worst 3 point % in the league.
For example, the team was last in the league in the % of 3’s that were assisted, and first in the league in the % that were unassisted. Obviously, creating your own 3 point attempt is going to be far less efficient than the offense creating one for you. In terms of shot locations, the Lakers were 28th in the number of corner 3’s attempted, and 12th in the number of above the break 3’s attempted. So, while they took many 3’s, they were typically above the break one-on-one threes, leading to the worst 3 point % in the league. Our eyes told us this…their threes were largely the result of Russell or Kobe or Lou dribbling around for a while and then shooting with someone in their face, rather than an open corner 3 after ball movement.
Moving beyond 3s, the Lakers were 26th in points in the paint, 26th on FG attempts within the restricted area (2nd to last in efficiency on those attempts), 25th in FG attempts within 5 feet of the rim (28th in efficiency), 5th in jump shots taken, and 9th in midrange shots taken (2nd to last in efficiency). This is all quite bad.
We understand now more than we did ten years ago the value of taking the right kinds of shots. Corner threes, getting to the rim, and free throws. The team did ok on the latter, but altogether failed on the first two, leading to simply terrible shooting percentages. I am confident that Luke understands this issue, but was not confident that Byron did.
If I were to pinpoint the single biggest problem with the team on offense, it would be with respect to passing. Their numbers in this area are simply disastrous:
(% possessions ending in assist)
|Catch and shoot frequency||29th|
|Total passes per game||28th|
|Touches per game||28th|
|Potential and adjusted assists (defined by nba.com)||30th|
Down the line, they were a team that simply did not pass the ball often or well. All too often they held the ball…they were last in the league in zero dribble shot frequency (shots taken without dribbling), last in 0-2 second touch time (when the player moves the ball within 2 seconds), and 4th worst in 6+ second touch time, and held the ball for the longest average seconds per touch (2.98) in the league.
There were many consequences from this ball holding. For example, they were 9th worst in taking shots with 4 seconds or less on the shot clock. Additionally, the Lakers took the 12th most FGs with a defender within 2 feet, the 3rd most 3 FG with a defender within 2 feet, and were 3rd worst in taking shots with a defender more than 6 feet away.
Conclusion 3: The Lakers were the worst passing team in the league.
I believe this is one area Luke will have an immediate and powerful impact on the team. He was a well-rounded player, but he obviously made his career on his passing. I can still remember watching him in person dominate games while at the University of Arizona during the tournament through his passing. But more than that, I believe he understands the ball movement theory that has taken over the league the last few years. Golden State was the best in the league at moving the ball, and their passing stats are the inverse of the Lakers – shortest average touch time, first in assist % (by a mile over the second team), first in secondary assists, first in touches, first in 0-2 second touch time, 8th in passes made, etc.
And it does not take talent to build a culture and system centered on ball movement. Brad Stevens has been able to do so in Boston without superstar talent. Boston ranks 2nd in touches per game, 2nd in passes, 2nd in assist %, and 2nd in potential assists, and 1st in passes after a drive. They are at the top of the league in nearly every offensive statistic that is driven by system factors – drive %, isolation %, paint shots, etc, etc.
The Lakers young players have to learn to play this way – make a decision immediately whether to shoot, pass, or attack, and never hold it while the defense sets and the shot clock ticks. I am hopeful that Walton will help ingrain these habits, which will lead to more ball movement, more assists, and better shots. The Lakers possessions last year usually ended, after a failed action or two, with someone dribbling for a while, trying to gain an advantage in isolation, and taking a tough shot. It didn’t go well.
4. Plan of Attack
Another problem area was how the team tried to attack the defense to create shots. And this goes to the fundamental purpose of an offensive system – to create shots that are easier to make. Sometimes, this is as simple as a great player beating his guy to create separation and fire away – see Kobe Bryan in years 1-17, Durant now, etc. But, even if you have this luxury, every team needs to maximize their offensive potential by using a team system that creates the most efficient opportunities each possession. And a system does that by creating advantages – space to take an open shot, mismatches, numbers advantages (think GS’s 4 against 3 after Curry is trapped out high on a pick and roll), etc.
Teams create these advantages through coordinated and repeated uses of screens, quick ball movement (especially side to side and into the paint), penetration, cutting, spacing, and so much more. Think the Spursgasm youtube videos. Ideally, the system is designed so that each possession results in multiple actions, one flowing from another, that put escalating pressures on a defense, so that the defense is constantly scrambling to recover, and you are able to find an open shot by a player who is good at making that shot.
A few representative statistics to highlight the Lakers flawed approach:
|Transition points per possession (PPP)||29th|
|Points in the paint||26th|
|Drives per game||25th|
|Drives pass frequency||30th|
|Pick and roll (P/R), ball handler shooting frequency||1st|
|P/R, ball handler points per possession (PPP)||8th|
|P/R, roll man frequency||27th|
|P/R, roll man PPP||30th|
|Spot up attempt frequency||30th|
|Spot up PPP|
|Post up attempt frequency||9th|
|Post up PPP||29th|
A few miserable take aways: Last year’s team didn’t fastbreak much, but when they did they were terrible at it. They didn’t drive the ball into the paint, but when they did, they rarely passed and didn’t score well. When running a pick and roll, the guards almost always shot, and actually do so quite well, but they rarely passed to the roll man for a finish (the bigs certainly have some blame for this). They tried to post up often, but were terrible at it. They did not create spot up opportunities, but when they did those attempts ended poorly. These are all sure signs of an offense which was not well organized, with teammates working together. And the team was clearly not adept at creating efficient shots.
Conclusion 4: Our offensive system did not create efficient scoring opportunities.
I don’t want to pile on Byron after he was fired, but last year’s Laker team had no coherent system that did these things with any level of consistency. At best, we would see one half-assed action about 15 seconds into the possession, and when that didn’t work some perimeter player would be forced to create a shot in isolation while everyone else stood around. It was beyond frustrating to watch.
Compare that to the Spurs or Warriors, who begin each possession with an action quickly, and then run a series of actions that result in a good shot well before the 24 second clock expires. They have great shooters and playmakers, yes, but they also maximize that talent through their systems. Consider, for example, that LaMarcus Aldridge went from shooting 1.5 threes per game in his last season in Portland (at a solid 35.2%) to making ZERO threes this year, and also dropped his FT attempts per minute from last year to this year, but nevertheless had the highest TS% of his career this year. How do you become more efficient when you shoot less threes and less FTs? Because San Antonio’s system is perfectly designed to get him shots that he is good at making.
5. Summary Thoughts
Luke has miles to go in transforming this Lakers team into even an average offensive unit. Losing Kobe will help, as will hopefully gaining talent this offseason and seeing the young core develop over the summer. Hopefully shear improvement from the players will result in better scoring next year – D’Angelo becoming a more consistent playmaker, Clarkson continuing to improve his 3 point shooting, Randle improving his midrange game, a roll man that can add something in the pick and roll, a small forward that can space the court and make open threes, etc, etc.
But above all of that, the team needs to learn how to play smart offensive basketball in today’s league. What is so needed is a commitment to executing a system that results in the right players taking the right shots – more and better passing, less ball-holding, getting into the paint, finding corner 3s, better screening and cutting, more pace within the half court, better use of spacing.
I believe that Walton understands the principles that drive great offense and am hopeful that he can teach them. How quickly the team is able to incorporate them at a high level will be the great challenge. Stevens needed a few years to get his system in place, but with the team playing the right way, they are still only 13th in offensive efficiency. Ultimately, we need talent plus the right approach to score at elite levels, but if Walton can take care of the latter, hopefully the former will quickly come.