We know from everything Luke has said, taught, and done that one of his core coaching philosophies is the need for an unselfish team approach to offense. He speaks more of ball movement than perhaps anything else, and recently emphasized the importance of achieving 300 passes per game as a team. This philosophy is unsurprising given Luke’s style as a player, and given his training under both Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson, who both tried to implement team offensive systems over one on one play. Just today, Luke commented that he learned from Phil that “One bad pass to start a possession can start a chain.”
The Lakers have made substantial strides so far this year on offense, and currently sit 9th in the league in offensive rating at 109.6, which is a stunning increase from where they finished last year (101.6 and 29th). This has made me think about Luke’s offensive philosophy and how his approach compares to some of the great offenses of the past few years.
There are many ways to build a successful offense in the NBA, which is a testament to the complexity and art of the game. During the last 5 years, 22 teams have reached an offensive rating of 110 or greater, with last year’s Warriors unsurprisingly finishing the highest at 114.5. (The best offense of all time was the 1987 Lakers at 115.6, followed closely by the 1992 Bulls, 1988 Celtics and 2010 Suns.) What is striking when studying the great offenses from the modern history of the league is that they have taken radically different approaches to the same end result. To illustrate this, below is a table showing key offensive stats for the 22 teams that had an offensive rating 110 or higher during the last five years:
The variance in approach is fascinating. For example, the 2016 Warriors made nearly 500 more 3s than several teams. The 2013 Miami team (which had the best Lebron-Wade-Bosh era offense) played at a snail’s pace of 90.7, while the Warriors played ultra fast. The 2014 Blazers had a dominant offense despite having only a 50.4 eFG%, due to being so dominant on the offensive glass (creating extra possessions). The 2012 Spurs did not make many 3s or grab offensive boards, but kept their turnovers to a historically low clip. The 2013 Knicks, which we probably don’t immediately think of as a great offense, leveraged a high 3 point rate with low turnovers and a crawl pace to dominate on offense. And on and on we could go.
The point is, there is no one way to skin this cat, but you have to figure out how to do some things incredibly well. And I’m sure that coaches craft their approaches based on the strengths and weaknesses of the players they have to work with. Luke acknowledged today that he has admired this trait in Popovich, commenting:
Luke Walton really admires how Gregg Popovich has adapted his system to cater personnel. Walton wants his system to be flexible to roster
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) November 17, 2016
It appears that Luke is running a system that is going to favor a fast pace (Lakers are 4th at 102.8), 3 point shots (11th), ball movement (the 300 pass goal), even if at the expense of turnovers. The attack is largely “outside-in” without seeking traditional post-ups. Instead, we seek Russell, Lou, Clarkson, and Randle attacking on the move from the perimeter, leading to breaks in the defense that create open threes for spot up shooters or passes to the rim for Mozgov/Nance/Black. This is an exciting brand of offense.
When run correctly, we see real pace in the half court sets, with one action flowing into another until the ball finds an open player, or a player with an exploitable matchup. Think Russell drawing a trap near midcourt, hitting Randle at the short roll, who then draws the defense and lobs to Mozgov cutting to the rim from the baseline. Or Lou penetrating off a horns set, sucking the defense in so that Ingram gets an open corner three.
Another of Luke’s offensive core principles has caught my eye this year watching this Laker team – specifically, the egalitarian nature of the offense, with no one or two players having to drive the offense through heavy minutes/usage. Instead, Luke has encouraged and successfully cultivated a true team-focused approach, in which the ball seems to find whoever has the best matchup any given possession/night, resulting in a different “star” each night. There are obvious pros and cons to this approach – i.e., not having a star diversifies the offense, so that you are not dependent on one player shooting well; but having a star also means you can rely on someone to bend and break a defense each game, even if the system isn’t working well.
Taking the 2016 Thunder and 2014 Spurs as case studies highlight the fundamental difference in approach, with the Thunder ranking 2nd on the above list based on an extreme version of “star-offense,” and the 2014 Spurs winning the title with perhaps the best example of “team-offense.” The charts below shows how different the teams were in methodology, even if the end result was the same:
|Category||2014 Spurs||2016 Thunder|
|Minutes/g||Parker – 29.4
Duncan – 29.2
Leonard – 29.1
|Durant – 35.8
Westbrook – 34.4
Ibaka – 32.1
|Usage||Parker – 26.5
Duncan – 25.2
Ginobil – 24.7
|Westbrook – 31.6
Durant – 30.6
Kanter – 23.4
|Points/g||Parker – 16.7
Duncan – 15.1
|Durant – 28.2
Westbrook – 23.5
|AST/g||Parker – 5.7
Team – 23.0
|Westbrook – 10.4
Team – 25.2
|Passes/g||334 (2nd in league)||264 (last)|
As you can see, there are marked differences between the teams. No one on the Spurs played 30 minutes, scored over 17 points, had more than 6 assists, or had a usage over 26.5%. The Thunder, on the other hand, were driven by Westbrook and Durant, with the two stars logging heavy minutes, finishing over 30% usage, scoring over 51 points per game between them, and Westbrook averaging over 10 assists. Further, the Spurs were second in the league at 334 passes per game, sharing the ball in a team-focused offense, while the Thunder finished last in the league in passes, with Durant and Westbrook essentially taking turns in an isolation heavy system.
It seems clear to me that Luke wants to build an offense that is more Spurs than Thunder. This year, for example, no player averages 30 minutes, but 9 average over 20. No player averages 17 points, but 5 average between 13 and 17. No player averages 5 assists, but 3 average more than 3.5. Through the team’s first 12 games, no one has led the team in scoring more than 3 times: Lou (3x), Clarkson (3x), Russell (3x), Randle (2x), and Young (1x).
Russell’s 32 point outing last game was the first 30 point game of the season, and 3 times the highest scoring player hasn’t even reached 20 points. Typically, we see around 5 players in double figures, with different players dominating different portions of the game, and the team riding whoever has the hot hand. The last game against Brooklyn exemplified this with Russell getting hot in the first quarter, making 5 threes, Mozgov and Deng carrying them in the 3rd, and Randle carrying the load to finish the game. This kind of offensive diversity can have great benefits, as it minimizes the need for one or two players to dominate every night, and allows for flexibility to work the ball to literally anyone who is in a position to score based on their matchup.
And, of course, this is drastically different than the Kobe era. Even in his final season, Kobe finished with a 32.2 USG%, and the team led the league in isolation frequency. Kobe is my favorite player of all time, but I must admit it is refreshing to see a different kind of offense, with more ball movement, more variance, and less predictability.
Luke’s diversified approach this year makes sense for a young team with developing players and no established all star. I suspect that a hierarchy will naturally develop as the young core grows, with Russell in particular potentially emerging as a consistent high usage star that can really drive the offense. Based on his production to date, it seems likely he will eventually settle in as a 30% usage point guard with high scoring efficiency. He’s already at 28% for this year, although his minutes are low and he has not found game to game consistency. Randle and Ingram also have shown flashes that they will be able to carry a heavier load in time, and Clarkson is certainly showing the ability to score in waves, particularly in his new 6th man role.
I am hopeful that even as the young core grows, and the team correspondingly evolves, Luke will be remain committed to this unselfish, team-focused approach to offense. There is something beautiful in watching a team whip the ball from one side of the court to another, ultimately to find a player positioned to take a high percentage shot; where the art of the game intersects with the science of what works. Luke was a perfect example of this style of play as a player, and has transformed the offensive culture of the team more quickly than any of us could have hoped. I’m excited to watch him adapt to the developing talent on this team and harness them into an offensive machine.
–Reed (follow me @reed_nba)