The 20 game mark is usually a good time to take stock in a team. About one-fourth of the season is complete, so while the sample size is still not where we’re comfortable making definitive conclusions, it is large enough to give us real insight into what a team is and can be. So, with these Lakers now at the quarter-pole of their campaign, what better time than now to take some stock in where they are and offer some thoughts on where they might be going?
With that, here’s 20 stats on the Lakers through their first 20 games that I find interesting, tell a part of the story for how the team has played, or serve as a predictor — good or bad — for the team’s chances moving forward.
1. 103.3. This is the Lakers current defensive rating, good for 5th in the league. Through the team’s first 10 games or so, the Lakers were either 1st or 2nd in the NBA defensively, so their current ranking of 5th is a drop off from where they were. Some of that is the quality of offenses the team has faced of late, some of it is having Avery Bradley miss the team’s last 9 games and 10 of their first 20,1Missing Bradley includes the resulting minutes bump for lesser quality defenders Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels with Bradley out and some of it is less attentiveness and focus against some lower quality opponents where wins could be earned without top effort. That said, in the Lakers first 20 games they’ve played 10 games vs. teams currently in the top 15 of the league offensively: Mavs (1st – twice), Wizards (4th), Raptors (5th), Clippers (7th), Suns (8th), Heat (12th), Spurs (13th – twice), and Pelicans (14th). In other words, while the Lakers schedule has been heavily dissected as not being as strong, they have played some very good offensive teams and still rank in the top 5 overall. This tells me that, particularly when dialed in and fully healthy, this team has a defensive ceiling that is worthy of praise and something that they should be able to lean on as the season progresses.
2. 31.1. This is LeBron’s usage rate this season. A number that high isn’t abnormal for James — he’s been at 30 or higher in all but 4 seasons in his career. That said, if that number stands for the full season, it would be the tied for the 6th highest mark of LeBron’s career. His 34.9 minutes per game are the lowest of his career, however, so while LeBron is carrying a fairly heavy burden, it is in fewer minutes than he’d normally play. All in all, though, LeBron is playing to a level that has him back in the MVP discussion which is quite a feat for a “#washedking”.
3. 10.9. Keeping on the LeBron theme, that’s the number of assists he’s averaging per game. That number is a full 1.8 assists per game higher than he’s ever averaged per game over a full season and currently leads the NBA at the time of this writing. His playmaking really has been next level, consistently showing off his next level feel and ability to dissect defenses.
4. 35.8%. That’s what the Lakers are currently shooting on 3’s this season. This number needs to be higher, honestly. If the Lakers are going to reach their peak offensively, they need this number to approach 37-38%. This isn’t a huge amount, honestly, but it can make a world of difference — particularly if the improvement comes from specific players shooting it better. If I had to target a few guys to bump their percentages to nudge the team in this direction, I’d look at Kuzma, Caruso, and Anthony Davis. These are the 3 players whose floor spacing can best help LeBron do work in the paint — either in the post or off dribble penetration — over the course of a game and in closing lineups.
5. 7.3. That’s the number of blocks per game the Lakers are averaging. We’ve talked about this a lot in this space, but the Lakers ability to contest, alter, and block shots all over the floor has been the foundation of their team defense. It allows their guards to be aggressive at the point of attack and play a funneling scheme that puts opposing guards on notice whenever they have what looks to be a clear path to the hoop. If there’s a vulnerability here it’s that the guards (and, at times, the other big defender) do not recover in time to the three point line on drive and kicks or pick and pop jumpers, but the Lakers scheme is built inside out so it feels like there’s a certain number of 3’s they’re willing to concede in order to defend the rim. It bears watching whether they can maintain their level of opposing 3-point defense where they currently rank 6th in the NBA, but if it can, expect their overall defensive ranking to remain in the top 5-10 all season.
6. 2.8. Keeping with the idea of blocks, that’s the number Anthony Davis averages a night. Combined with Davis’ 1.5 steals per game, he averages the most “stocks”2steals + blocks a night in the entire NBA. This also gives me an in to talk AD’s overall impact as a defender. The numbers, while fantastic, simply do not do his level of play justice. He’s an all-court defender who gets involved in so many defensive plays a night and cannot be schemed off the floor or made ineffective by any single player. If you need him to switch onto a guard or a wing, he can. If you need him to defend a traditional C like Embiid he can. A stretch big like Towns, you bet. He can trap, hedge and recover, or play in drop coverage in the P&R, too. Above it all, his help instincts and rotation/recovery speed are off the charts. He’s just an all-world defender who should be at (or near) the top of every DPOY list at this stage of the season, particularly when you consider the number of high leverage plays he’s made at the end of games that have helped secure wins.
7. +11.7. That’s the Lakers net rating during any time LeBron and AD share the floor. This number speaks for itself. The Lakers have two of the best players in the league and when they’re playing together, the other team is usually in trouble.
8. +19.2. Sticking with some lineup numbers, that’s the Lakers net rating when AD and Dwight Howard share the floor. Let me use this as an opportunity to tout Dwight’s play this year. While his play has dipped some in the past couple of weeks, overall he’s been a fantastic role player who works hard defensively, stays within himself offensively, and does a bunch of little things that help the team on both ends of the floor. He fouls a bit too much, but as a backup big man in a 3-man center rotation, you can live with the fouls. Give the man his due, he’s working hard and has brought a team first attitude that many doubted he could offer when he was signed.
9. 20.2. That’s the number of minutes Alex Caruso is playing each night and I honestly could not be happier about it. Coming into the season, I saw Caruso as a viable rotation player who might even be able to start at “point guard” where his ball handling would be limited by LeBron doing the heavy lifting as main offensive initator. While Caruso is not shooting as well as I’d hoped, he’s playing fantastic defense and is doing smaller things offensively that help the team win while he’s on the floor. For the season Caruso averages a +4.1 in boxscore plus-minus each night — good for 5th best on the team.3The only Lakers higher are LeBron, Danny Green, AD, and Bradley. His value is being proven with these types of numbers and it’s really great to see. Also, he dunks.
10. 96.9. That’s the Lakers defensive rating while Avery Bradley is on the court. Yes, the sample is small. I don’t care. When has played, the Lakers defense has been at another level and he helps set the rotation in a way where better defensive players get more of the minutes. Get well soon, AB, the Lakers miss your intensity and presence at the point of attack defensively.
11. 33.3. That’s the number of shots per game the Lakers take in the restricted area each night. 69% is percentage of those shots they make. Those numbers rank 3rd and 2nd in the league respectively. Before the season Pete and I talked at length about how, in LeBron and AD, the Lakers have two of the best players in the league who put pressure on the front of the rim offensively. Both remain killers in the restricted area and their value as paint finishers is as high as anyone in the league not named Giannis. Dwight and JaVale also do good work here too, both as strong offensive rebounders and as finishers off the gravity that LeBron and AD create as shot takers and assist men.
12. 72.2%. That’s the Lakers defensive rebounding percentage. This only ranks 21st in the NBA. This is one area where, quietly, I think they’ve underperformed and where I’ve been disappointed with how well they’ve performed. Considering how often the Lakers play with two traditional bigs and how well LeBron rebounds his position, I just expect them to be better here. One place I think the team can clean this up, too, is with their guards being more attentive in closing down the foul line and really looking to corral long rebounds on the 3’s the Lakers are willing to surrender defensively. Too often, the guards and wings relax or look to leak out when long jumpers go up instead of looking to either box out their man or stay in the play to be in better rebounding position.
13. 83. This isn’t really a stat, but it is the number of minutes LeBron, AD, and Kuzma have shared the floor this season. In those minutes the Lakers have an offensive rating of 106.3 and a defensive rating of 84.0. That +22.3 net rating is 2nd best among Lakers trios that have played at least 80 minutes together. I know that the sample is small. I also know that fans have been somewhat down on Kuzma after he was outright bad after returning from injury to start the year and then, after a good streak, has been mostly up and down of late. That said, these early numbers are super encouraging to what type of team the Lakers can be when they go with AD at C, LeBron and Kuz at the forward spots, and, honestly, any number of different guard combinations Vogel can throw out there depending on need and matchup. Need defense and an additional ball handler? Bradley and Caruso are there. Need shooting and some two way play? Play Green and KCP. Need another pure initiator? Play Rondo and Caruso. Or mix and match as you see fit.
14. 85.5. This is the Lakers defensive rating in “clutch” minutes this season.4The NBA defines “clutch” as games within 5 points with 5 minutes or less in the game. This ranks 2nd in the NBA in these situations, trailing only the Bucks. The Lakers have only played 39 such minutes this season, but it’s clear their defense has another level it can get to and this number helps illustrate that. As a bonus stat, the Lakers also have the NBA’s 2nd best net rating in the clutch at +27.0, not just because of their defense, but because they’ve found ways to hit timely shots when absolutely needed.
15. 9.7. That’s the number of post up possessions the Lakers have per game, good for 2nd in the NBA. Of teams that have 5 or more such possessions per game, the Lakers are tied for 3rd, scoring .91 points per possession. The post up is really is going extinct, but the Lakers utilize this play well — even if it’s too often for my tastes. In a handful of games this year the Lakers have hunted post ups for AD, particularly when teams switch the LeBron/AD P&R. I’d much rather the Lakers find a better way to leverage Davis’ unique gifts vs. smaller defenders than just running him to 15-18 feet, throwing him the ball, and asking him to get a basket. That said, if the Lakers are going to post up as much as they are, I’d like to see them incorporate more screen actions for their bigs so they can catch the ball moving into post position rather than some of the more stagnant actions the team is using now.
16. 7.4. This is the number of minutes Jared Dudley is averaging per game in his 12 appearances this season. I thought Dudley would be more of a contributor than he has been so far…and maybe there’s still time for that. But it seems Vogel has preferred to play a third guard and slide a player up to SF rather than play Dudley next to LeBron or Kuzma when the team plays with a single big on the floor. Personally, I’d still like to see Dudley get some of these minutes and get into competition with Cook and Troy Daniels for this final rotation spot, rather than being relegated to garbage time minutes or only seeing real floor time when there’s an injury to a player ahead of him in the forward rotation.
17. 100.4. This is the pace the Lakers play at this season. This number is only down a little over 3 possessions a game from last season, but is a major drop off compared to the rest of the league year over year. Last season, the Lakers were 4th in the NBA in pace and this year they’re 22nd. Playing slower does not necessarily mean playing slower, though. That’s because…
18. 18.4. That’s the number of transition possessions the Lakers have per game. This number is 10th in the NBA. On these transition chances, the Lakers shoot 55.9% overall, which is the 3rd highest percentage in the league. This type of success rate has the Lakers as the 8th most efficient offensive team in the league, averaging 1.13 points per transition possession. Again, playing slow doesn’t always mean playing slow — not when you’re as opportunistic in transition as the Lakers.
19. 17. This is the number of turnovers the Lakers force per game, which ranks 2nd in the league. This relates to the points about transition baskets I made above. One of the reasons the Lakers can get out on the break and score as efficiently as they do is because they’re forcing miscues at a high rate. I already mentioned that the Lakers rank 1st in blocked shots, but they’re also 6th in steals. When you add in that they’re 9th in charges drawn and 8th in number of loose balls recovered each game, this team is making a lot of plays on the margins which help you win. Which leads me to our last stat.
20. 17-3. This is the Lakers record through 20 games. I get the concerns about the schedule. I also get there are macro concerns with the roster and areas where it’s clear this team can upgrade. What I also get, though, is that if you’d have told me that the Lakers would only have 3 losses through 20 games I’d have told you that’s about as ideal a realistic start that could possibly be expected. And the Lakers did that. These wins will matter when the team hits a rough spot (or more) during the season, giving them some cushion to not fall too far back should (when, really) more losses come. So, be happy with this start even if it’s fair to always search for better play.