As we are now two full weeks and seven games into the season, most of us have seen enough to begin overreacting to team and player performance, which is the fundamental role of any fan. Twitter is already afire with debate over who should and should not play, how Luke should fix the offensive issues, and who should be traded. I also have thoughts percolating, and will work through a few early observations here.
One probably unnecessary caveat is that it is still very, very early to conclude anything… Around this time last year the Lakers were beating Golden State and many were convinced the team could make a playoff push. Rather than drawing any conclusions about the team, I will try here to dig into why certain things are happening and highlight areas that I think are worth watching going forward.
Ingram vs. Expectations
I will begin by following up on the last piece I wrote where I assessed Ingram’s early play in light of expectations and his strong play to finish last season.
While Magic was busy telling everyone that Ingram was ready to assume the mantle as primary perimeter scorer, projecting 20 points per game, I concluded my Ingram preview piece by hoping for 15-17 points, 53-55 TS%, 35 3P%, 5+ FTAs, and 6+ drives.
I thought this production would show substantial progress, and hoped to see signs of underlying efficiency gains (getting to the basket off drives, getting to the free throw line, and converting spot up threes at a higher rate). So far, I’ve been happy with Ingram’s production, even if he’s not loudly breaking out. The following chart compares his pre- and post-all star production last year with his performance so far this year:
|Category||Pre-All Star||Post-All Star||This Year|
Ingram is pretty much right where I hoped so far with his scoring, drives, and free throw attempts, showing meaningful progress in his ability to score with volume, draw contact, and get to the rim. And while we aren’t seeing the kind of break out that many hoped for, averaging 15 points per game/17 points per 36 is no small feat for a 20 year old who is being asked to serve as his team’s lead perimeter scorer.
Several eventual stars put up similar scoring numbers in their age 20 seasons – e.g. Westbrook (16.9 points/36, 49.8 TS%), Cousins (17.8, 48.4%), McGrady (17.7, 50.9%), Beal (17.8, 50.7%). The question is whether Ingram is going to eventually pop, as those players did in subsequent years, or whether he’s going to more gradually improve like others with similar age 20 stats (e.g. Eric Gordon).
Ingram’s efficiency, while better than the abysmal numbers to begin last year, is still subpar. I would be just fine with 44% from the field if he were shooting better and more frequently from three, but his eFG% needs to approach 50% and his TS% 53-55% to really help the team. But we are seeing steady progress, and that is really the key at this point.
I suspect the efficiency would substantially increase if the Lakers properly used him. Pete, Darius, Tim and pretty much everyone but Magic and Luke have stressed that Ingram is not ready to fill the role of half-court isolation scorer, but that is exactly how they use him. Acting as the handler in pick & rolls is Ingram’s most frequent play type at 26% and isolations are second at 23%. This means that Ingram is forced to self-create in 55% of his half court possessions, and he is not ready for this demanding role. His dependent play types—where he is finishing a play initiated by another—are far too infrequent: 11% spot ups, 8% hand offs, 3% cuts, and no possessions as the roll man or off screens.
Compare Ingram’s demanding scoring responsibilities to Kuzma, who is older and more physically developed. Only 5% of Kuzm’a possessions come from isolation or as the pick & roll ball handler (combined), and he is thus scoring in higher efficiency situations without having to create his own shot: 31% spot up, 12% p/r roll man, 10% cuts, 9% off screens. As a result, Kuzma, while comparable to Ingram is current skill set, is scoring far more efficiently (53 FG%, 60 eFG%, 61 TS%, 1.077 PPP, 81st percentile). Note that only 14 of Ingram’s 39 field goals have been assisted, compared to 30 of 40 for Kuzma.
I believe that one critical key to Ingram’s development is giving him responsibility as he is ready for it, thus putting him in a position to succeed and gain confidence. I would love to see the team use Ingram like they are using Kuzma – more time on the weak side, better spot up and cut opportunities, giving him DHOs as a secondary action after an initial Lonzo-based action, post ups with small players, etc, etc. I think Ingram could score at an equivalent volume (as Kuzma is) but be far more efficient, thus helping the team. Ingram and Kuzma are different players, of course, and Kuzma will eventually need to grow as a self-creator like Ingram is trying to now, but Ingram would benefit from sliding his game more towards Kuzma’s end of the spectrum while he gets his bearings. The problem with this solution is that someone in the starting lineup needs to play Ingram’s present role – late clock creator, strong side shooter, secondary pick and rolls. Having Randle or Kuzma start and shifting more offensive load to the PF and KCP would greatly help.
Another way that Ingram can be far more effective is during his drive game. As I noted in my aforementioned Ingram piece, driving may ultimately be the foundation of Ingram’s scoring game, as his long strides and reach length give him nearly Greek Freak-ish ability to get into the paint and finish once there. While Ingram’s driving frequency has skyrocketed (his 8.8 drives/g are fourth among SFs, closely behind Lebron), he only has a 3.2 AST% while driving. This reflects what I see – often predetermined, forced drives, and tunnel vision when attacking. Having a forward who can get into the paint at will is a tremendous way to pressure and collapse a defense, but Ingram is usually not creating for others once there. That said, we did see progress last night against Detroit, and hopefully that trend continues.
Overall, I’m very pleased with what I see from Ingram. He is getting better. He is figuring out what works, even game to game. There will be some two steps forward and one step back all year, but I’d be satisfied with the season tracking these first six games, and thrilled if it gets better from here. As the year unfolds, I’ll be watching his offensive role and corresponding play type data, and how this impacts efficiency, and hope that Luke finds the right balance for challenging growth and putting him in a position to succeed.
Diagnosing the Offense
The offense is a horror show, placing 27th in offensive efficiency at 96.9 points per 100 possessions. This is “Mozgov hands on a perfect Russell pocket pass” level bad. I’ll try to dig into a few issues that stand out.
First, LA has really juiced its pace, adding over 5 possessions per game from last year. Most of those extra plays have become fastbreaks, as the team’s allocation of transition plays has risen from 14.7% to 20.1%.
In the half court, the ways the team tries to score is pretty similar to last year. Pick and roll handler and spot up plays remain by far the two most common play types and make up nearly half the non-transition possessions. The rest are scattered between post ups, isolations, cuts, and other less frequent play types. Remarkably, the team is 3rd in transition points and 1st in points in the paint—two of the highest efficiency ways to attack—yet remains in the bottom five of offensive rating, thus highlighting the extreme incompetence in the half court.
Poor shooting is likely the single largest problem. The team is dead last in catch and shoot points and 3P% (shooting 5% worse than any team shot last year). Consider this:
No player in the rotation has ever shot over 35.0% from three one time during his NBA career.
The median NBA team shot 35.7% from three last year. This means that we had no reason to expect that any member of the rotation would even be average from three. If that was the case, then how could the team approach league average? Expecting anything more would require several players to suddenly have career years, on a team heavily reliant on rookie minutes. The poor shooting is a problem in roster construction and was avoidable.
Beyond having poor shooters, another likely cause of the shooting woes—and the offensive issues in general—is that the team is deficient in perimeter playmakers. Lonzo is the only player on the team averaging more than 3 assists per game; he and Clarkson are the only rotation members with AST%’s above 13%. Randle showed improved passing last year at 4.5 assists per 36min and 19.5 AST%, but has fallen nearly in half to 2.8 and 11.5% this year. The starting lineup is devoid of passing talent beyond Lonzo. LA’s wings, KCP and Ingram, look to finish a play, not create for others, and neither starting big offers any playmaking. This passing deficiency is one more reason Luke’s starting lineup seems questionable, as several talented passers are available on the bench.
The starting lineup—and roster in general—badly need a lead half court creator to generate open looks for the team’s shooters/finishers. Think about how good offenses generate open dunks, corner 3s, and other high efficiency opportunities… While executing well-crafted sets does matter, at some point you need the ability to throw the ball to your workhorse to make shots and draw the defense, especially as the clock ticks away in the half court. Who on the team is going to command a double team, draw two defenders out on a pick and roll, collapse the defense through penetration, make weak side defenders shade one or two steps further than they are comfortable, etc, etc.? And yes, Russell would have greatly helped (“peace be his name”), far more than Lopez based on early reviews.
Lopez, who was billed as our half court anchor, certainly isn’t doing anything to pressure defenses, much less actually make shots. Ingram is figuring out what he’s capable of, but it’s not going to be creative playmaking for others at this point. KCP is … solid. Nance is genuinely terrified of offensive creativity. Randle has been relegated to some kind of energy bench big. Lonzo is a teenage prodigy, but certainly can’t be expected to engine a good offense at this point, with efficient scoring plus the responsibility to create shots for every other starter. As a result, we are seeing what happens when Jordan Clarkson is a team’s second best playmaker and leading scorer … and it isn’t pretty.
At some point soon I expect the team to start shooting substantially better with regression up to typical career levels, and the offense to improve, but suspect it will be a rough year offensively. Luke acknowledged throughout training camp that the “plan” was to key everything off the run game and not work too hard at installing half court sets, and we now see the downside of that thinking. The Lakers are running and are scoring a tremendous amount of fast break points, but they are absolutely flailing around the other 80% of the time.
I’m not sure how much crisp execution can fix the problem given the talent issues. Who can create easy points? Lopez, the team’s best scorer, shot 47% from the field and under 5 free throws a game last year; he’s not a terribly efficient primary scorer. The “shooters”—KCP, Clarkson, Kuzma, Ingram, Lonzo, and Hart—are all optimistically 35% three point shooters, rather than 40% marksmen. Lonzo has shown wonderful drive and kick capabilities already (#4 in assists off drives), but the defense will learn to blanket the kick if he continues to struggle finishing at the rim (38 FG% on drives). Ingram is going to be low efficiency again this year relative to other scoring wings, probably topping out around 52-53 TS% (compared to 60%+ from all star perimeter scorers). Randle looks amazing when engaged (or enraged…), but will never be a volume scorer or terribly efficient given his struggles finishing at the rim, low FTAr, and poor perimeter shooting. What strengths can be leveraged to create league average or better offense? I’m not sure they are there right now.
The optimistic view is that this roster would likely be fantastic around a high usage Harden/Lebron-ish wing creator, with all kinds of interesting role players and Lonzo as a secondary creator. Imagine replacing Ingram with Harden, and having him carry the primary half court playmaking burden, with Lonzo as a secondary creator, KCP/Kuzma/Lopez/Clarkson/Lonzo/Hart spotting up once Harden compromises the defense, and fascinating switch happy defensive lineups (e.g. Lonzo-Harden-Ingram-Kuzma-Randle). Adding a true 30% usage perimeter scorer would allow everyone else to slot into more natural roles, and that makes the upcoming offseason all the more important.
What would help as things stand now? I hope that Luke does a better job putting players in positions to leverage their strengths. Put another playmaker in the starting lineup, allowing Lonzo to use his off ball strengths, and hopefully opening more clean looks our finishers. Let KCP do a bit more secondary playmaking off the pick and roll and dribble hand offs. Lessen the isolation load on Ingram. Take advantage of obvious player synergies, such as the Lonzo-Kuzma and Kuzma-Randle pairings. Get Lopez touches in the paint on the move against a non-set defense.
Teach the players basic but effective weak side concepts, especially for that over-used delay series. Don’t telegraph our first action, which just results in broken down late clock iso-possessions. Teach basic counters. Begin installing and mastering sets that fit our personnel – UCLA pick and rolls, horns sets with Kuzma and Randle as the bigs, split cuts after feeding Randle in the post (as a passer) that involve Kuzma and Lonzo, etc. etc.
I believe we can approach league average on offense with these kinds of tweaks plus better shooting, and hope to see quick improvement from where we are now…
Looking to the Future
(Note: I did not update this section after the Pistons win, which obviously showed progress…)
In my mind, the most important question underlying this season is which players will be part of the team’s future. Given Maginka’s Double Max plan, what could have been a slow, methodical rebuild is suddenly a race to (1) create enormous cap room, and (2) flash enough roster talent to tempt Lebron and other stars to join the team. Magic acknowledged as much during a too-honest moment in training camp, telling the media in one interview that the biggest thing he wanted out of this year was for potential free agents to look at the team as worth joining. I found that a remarkable statement given where we are in this roster construction cycle, stuffed with unproven 19-21 year olds… But that reality hangs over the franchise, and fast tracks our evaluation of the young core. Who is worth keeping? At what cost? Who can help Plan Lebron and Friends, and who needs to go? Magic’s plan requires an answer to those questions this year.
I have been pleasantly surprised with where we stand on this front. The key to Magic’s plan is to accumulate enough cheap productive labor to construct a viable roster around the massive free agents deals of Lebron and whoever else Magic recruits. And the key to cheap labor, as we know, are good players on rookie contracts. Thanks to what appears to be a homerun 2017 draft, the Lakers may run 6-7 deep in legitimate and diverse rotation level young players:
Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, Nance, Zubac, and Bryant will all be on rookie deals next year, and Randle has a reasonable $12Mish cap hold. This creates the trappings of a rotation for under 20% of the cap, with those players covering different positions and skill sets. The framework is in place to actually have a deep, well-balance roster IF Magic’s plan works. And if not, then the front office sold a transformative 21 year old offensive talent for an aging nickel, and all is lost. Low stakes.
I’ll finish with random thoughts on what I’ve seen from Lonzo, Randle, and Kuzma, who are the keys to attracting free agents and/or building organically from our own core:
Lonzo: I believe he will end up a perennial all star and am not scared of the Kidd comparisons. The efficiency and on/off numbers are gross, but I’m nevertheless encouraged. How many 19 year old rookies instantly transform the way their team plays? And he has answered the biggest question I had coming into the year – could he get where he wanted against NBA caliber defenders/athletes, or would he be easily contained to playing 20+ feet from the basket (as Russell was his first year)? So far he’s getting wherever he wants, even if he’s not finishing once there. He is averaging roughly 5 shots at the rim per game, 9 drives per game, and is near the top of the league in assists off drives, all of which confirms his ability to get past his defender. Despite all the buzz, Beverly, Wall, and others have not hampered his movements on the court. His ability to score once in position will improve with time, even if he’s never a Kyrie-level contorting shot maker, and he just needs to score enough to keep the defense honest.
While I think Luke is over-relying on him as the primary half court creator, and Lonzo’s shooting numbers would substantially improve if allowed to cut and spot up like he did at UCLA, I’m happy for him to get reps all year in this role, as it should pay off in the long run. Lonzo needs to learn what kinds of shots are effective when he attacks – when to use floaters and runners, when to go all the way to the rim, when to go into the post and use his fadeaway, when to pull up in the midrange, and on and on. I believe he’ll benefit from these reps all year as the primary playmaker, even if his role shifts next year next to whoever they acquire in free agency.
Beyond everything else, he shows advanced understanding of what’s happening on the court. Otherworldly outlets, evolving ability to work the nuances of the pick and roll, immediate rebounding production, weak side defense, flashes of on the ball defense (he actually bothered Wall for long stretches), creative experimentation with shot attempts (we didn’t see him put people in jail, show midrange fadeaways, etc. at UCLA). All of this shows him making “things” happen, even while he’s learning and trying new things almost quarter by quarter. Remember, all that matters this year is that he flash the ability to do great things, and that he get reps in figuring out how to do them consistently, and I’m seeing both in spades, even if the bottom line numbers enable the critics.
Randle: My perception of his possible floor/ceiling outcomes has changed significantly over these first two weeks as I’ve seen flashes on defense that I had not seen before. I always felt that he would settle in ultimately somewhere between average and mediocre on defense, but now see the possibility, even if somewhat remote, that he can develop into an elite defender. During the Washington victory, we saw Randle absolutely harness Wall and Beal on switches, using his lightning quickness to contain penetration and then bother their shots, which is no small feat. Randle has also substantially improved as a shot blocker, averaging 2.2 per 36 minutes. If Randle can emerge as a plus defender, thriving off switches and providing decent rim protection, and become passable shooting from the perimeter, then suddenly I see all star potential. I’m still unsure whether he maximizes his talents given the inconsistent focus and effort, but he has my attention and I’m hopeful he secures a future role, as I love watching him dominate when fully engaged.
Kuzma: He is my self-proclaimed adopted flesh and blood, and continues to produce beyond all expectations. What sets Kuzma apart to me is elite processing/decision-making capability. He has a rare ability to read real time action and react in productive ways. For example, when he attacks a close out or in the post, he can feel the defender’s pressure or help defense and immediately pivot or spin away from pressure, leading to separation on his shot attempts. Note the stark difference in separation when he shoots versus Ingram (who is still so predetermined in his attack plan, rather than reacting to what the defense does in ways that create space).
Between summer league, preseason, and now, Kuzma has shown three point range, elite cutting instincts, tremendous close out abilities, the ability to manipulate screens, great footwork, an advanced runner/floater (which he used in college to perfection), soft touch, a rare ability to flash to soft spots in the defense, etc, etc. On defense, he shows great control on switches, which raise his ceiling in today’s league.
I’m interested two things the rest of the year: (1) can he show the ability to self-create on offense, which probably is mostly dependent on his handle improving, and (2) can he continue to help on defense, through positioning, effective switches, and sufficient defensive rebounding. If he can develop in these two ways, I see limitless, all star potential, one on of the most cap friendly contracts in the league. He is the perfect forward in today’s league – versatility on both ends.
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Overall, this portends to be another choppy year, but one that offers the first reasons for genuine hope of the post-Kobe era. We have our north star in Lonzo, added at least one and maybe two additional blue chip rookies in Kuzma and Hart, and are seeing steady progress from Ingram, Randle, Nance, and Clarkson. They all won’t be part of the future because of cap necessities, but the team has built a core of young talent that can either complement megastar recruits, or, perhaps more likely, serve as the foundation of a solid organic rebuild. Either way, they have my interest, and that’s all I ask as a fan.