Laker fans are understandably anxious to find quick evidence of two things as the season begins:
- Can Luke transform the way the team plays to create meaningful schematic advantages (like other great coaches), after suffering through two years of Byronball?
- Are the young players, individually and as a group, making the kinds of developmental strides that are critical to the team turning the ship around?
While the preseason admittedly is an imperfect medium for assessing fundamental questions of this nature—given the sample size and quality of play—I saw glimpses of progress on both fronts that offer real hope. And those observations were supported by a few trends in the team’s preseason statistics, which are highlighted below. As always, I’m sure others saw more interesting things.
When speaking of Luke’s capacity to change the Lakers, Laker fans perhaps most frequently discuss the hope that we will move beyond Byron’s static, isolation-heavy offense to (eventually) the kinds of free-flowing systems we’ve seen from Golden State, San Antonio, Atlanta, and effective teams. And Luke and his staff have certainly said and done things to encourage this vision – an offense with thoughtful spacing and pace, quick-hitting actions that flow from each other, and all tailored around the strengths of our players.
As we all know, the Lakers were one of the least effective and imaginative offenses last year, finishing second to last in offensive efficiency, last in assist ratio (and every related team passing statistic), last in TS%, first in isolation frequency, etc. (as we highlighted at the end of last season).
The team has an eternity yet to go, but we’ve seen a few signs of progress in approach this preseason, even if the results are still not where we want them to be. For example, here is where the Lakers came out in a few high level offensive team statistics this preseason compared to last year:
|Statistic||2016||2016 rank||2017 preseason||2017 rank|
|Fast Break Pts||12.2||17th||19.0||4th|
If these statistics hold as we see a reasonable sample size during the season, then I will be very encouraged, as they already confirm substantial improvement in key metrics. The team is shooting better, surely as a result of getting better shots through attacking more thoughtfully. The team is playing more quickly, which makes sense given their young/athletic roster, jumping to 5th in pace and 4th in fast break points.
Unsurprisingly, the team is favoring the 3 point shot more than under Byron, making nearly 3 more threes a game, and jumping to 6th in the percent of field goal attempts that are threes. Significantly, we also see a nearly 10% improvement in the number of three point shots that are assisted, which is critical given that we were last in assisted threes last year.
In short, while the team has looked admittedly sloppy for stretches this preseason as they show youth and pick up Luke’s new system, we appear to be seeing immediate payoffs in the kinds of shots and efficiency the offense generates.
The team has also shown marked improvement on the defensive side of the ball. As we all know, the team was a disaster defensively last year, finishing last in defensive efficiency (109.3). While I expect the team to have serious issues defensively again this year, the preseason has shown signs of improvement, with the team finishing with a 101.7 rating, was 20th in the league. While being bottom ten is nothing to brag about, I would be thrilled with that kind of improvement at the end of the year. A few defensive statistics stood out:
- The team was pretty solid at chasing the other team off the 3 point line, as allowed the 8th fewest 3 point attempts per game and were middle of the pack in 3FG% allowed.
- They continue to foul too often, allowing the 6th most FT attempts per game, which should be a relatively easy issue to correct.
- They forced the 10th most turnovers per game, which suggests they are learning how to use the youth and athleticism of the roster.
- They continue to let other teams get to the basket, allowing the 2nd most FG attempts per game within 5 feet of the basket, and finishing with the 6th least blocks.
I believe defense is the area where the team can show the quickest gains this year under the new coaching staff and roster. While most experts predict the team will be a bottom 2-3 defensive team—and this is certainly possible—I would not be surprised if the combination of better coaching and individual effort leads to a far better outcome by the end of the year.
The individual player statistics were about what we all probably expected – Russell showed massive improvement, Ingram was inconsistent but showed flashes, Black looked liberated without the coach trying to ruin his career, and Nick Young was the best player in the league.
Much has been said already about Russell all over the Laker blogosphere as we are all obviously enamored with his talent and excited to see him progress, so I will just highlight a few things that stuck out to me:
- His overall stat line was fantastic (per 36 min): 21.6 pts, 3.3 reb, 6.5 ast, 2.0 stl, 2.9 threes, 45.1%/36.5%/77.8%. And he looked this good.
- His TS% was 56.9, which would be an elite rate for the year. Last year, that would have been good for 7th among PGs, and better than such players as Lillard, Butler, Isaiah, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Dirk, Westbrook, and most shockingly, Roy Hibbert.
- He got to the line 4.1 times per 36, which is okay and an improvement, but we need to see continuing progress there if he’s going to be a lead scorer at an efficient level. He seems to have a real gift for drawing fouls in the post, but I’d like to see more foul drawing from aggressive penetration.
- The turnovers were a real problem (4.6 per 36 min), and he absolutely must clean that up. Obviously, he’s going to be a high turnover player give his role and aggressiveness, but many of the turnovers are the result of him being cavalier with the ball, not an aggressive play that didn’t work out.
- I was encouraged by his off the ball work, and nearly 70% of his 3s were assisted, in contrast with last year’s isolation tendencies.
All of the guards and wing players shot the three with enormous frequency. Per 36 minutes, Russell shot 7.9 threes per game, up from 4.5 per 36 min last year. Clarkson shot 8.7 (up from 4.5), Lou shot 6.8, and Nick Young shot 9.9. These are extremely high rates and very encouraging. Consider that if Russell actually shot at that rate over a full season he would have finished 4th last year in total 3 point attempts; Clarkson would have finished 2nd only to Curry.
Also note that increasing his three point attempt rate was a key driver in Curry becoming a more efficient scorer, and could be a key factor in the Lakers as a team sharply increasing their offensive efficiency. If, for example, Russell shoots 35% from three, that works out to 1.05 points per possession; 38% equals 1.14 points per possession; 40% equals 1.20 points per possession.
Golden State led the league at 1.13 in points per possession last year. Thus, under the reasonable assumption that Russell is somewhere over 35% (what he shot last year), we want him shooting as many threes as possible. Indeed, every time he shoots a makeable three, the Lakers are scoring at a league-leading pace. The same holds true of Clarkson, Lou, and Young if they shoot at expected %’s. It is encouraging that the better shooters on the team are letting it fly from three, and something to keep an eye on as the year progresses.
Ingram looked like a rookie and the numbers bear that out. But there were signs of real promise, even amidst the inconsistency:
- He shot 39% from three, and attempted 3.4 threes per 36 (which will rise).
- He got to the line 5.4 times per 36, which is surprising given that strength is his biggest issue.
- He showed real activity/effectiveness on defense, generating 1.1 stl and 1.5 blk per 36. As we saw in the second GS game, he flashed superstar potential; the key will be steady development to create consistency.
Nance continues to look like a key piece, and his statistics confirmed steady production. As expected, he was a defensive force, generating 3.0 stls and 1.2 blks per 36, which would be one of the highest combined rates in the league. Overall, his per 36 line was 14.7 pts, 8.0 reb, 2.0 ast, 3.0 stl, 1.2 blk, on 48.0 FG%. I’d like to see more than 1.5 threes attempted per 36, however.
Our centers were surprisingly effective. Black’s per 36 line was about 15/10 with 59% shooting and a ton of free throw attempts. If you combine/average Black and Mozgov’s production into 48 minutes, you have an extremely productive big in today’s league: 18.1 pts, 12.3 reb, 1.4 blk, on 55% shooting. Getting production at this rate, without having to soak up any post ups, would be a great boon to the team.
* * *
Taking too much from the preseason statistics would obviously be a mistake. We’ve seen players and teams flash amazing results before only to come down to earth once the season started. And, of course, the Lakers did NOT do anything amazing, finishing 2-6. While that record was disappointing, the games were close, and the team finished with a net rating of -2.2, which would be a massive improvement on last year’s disaster (league worst -10.7). And, more critically, we saw signs and patterns of progress in key areas that suggest Luke and his staff are making real inroads in teaching the young team how to play the right way – better passing, more threes, quicker pace, creating turnovers, etc, etc.
Given where the team stands right now, I found the preseason to be a resounding success and to offer genuine hope for the future.