Do the Lakers have the best offense in the league? Try the best ever.
This was the headline I was staring at two short weeks ago. I was trying to properly verbalize just how amazing the Los Angeles Lakers had been playing on the offensive end of the floor. On a hunch, I did a little research, and looked at the top offensive performers over the past 30 years, the teams which had the best offensive ratings since the 1980s. The best offense I could find was (somewhat surprisingly) one of Michael Jordan’s teams, who topped out just a shade under 116 points per 100 possessions.
At the time, the Lakers were clocking in with a cool 117.6. That’s how dominant the Lakers offense was over the first month of the season. Outside of a single stink bomb (which ironically occurred in victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves), the Lakers did not fail to reach the 110 mark in any single game, which is startlingly consistent when considering that they did not average that mark last season. And yet, despite all this wealth of information, despite all my research, you never saw that headline grace Silver Screen and Roll’s front page, because I couldn’t bring myself to write it. No matter what all the numbers said, I knew it was stupid to make such bold proclamations on the face of a small percentage of the season. What if the Lakers 3 pt shooting died? What if Pau Gasol started playing meekly, or Lamar Odom disappeared? What if Shannon Brown lost his shooting stroke?
Sometimes, I hate being right.
Besides that previously mentioned Wolves game, the Lakers have just had their 4 worst offensive performances of the season, back to back to back to back. Some of this is surely due to some good defenses, as the Indiana Pacers (3), Chicago Bulls (8), Utah Jazz (10) and Memphis Grizzlies (13) are all above average defensively, and a majority of the Lakers opponents previously fell into categories of bad and worse defensively. That said, Utah and Memphis are not that much above average, and the Lakers offense wasn’t slowed down at all when going up against the (only) other strong defense they’ve faced. Consider the 128 OR the Lakers threw down against the Bucks (in Milwaukee) currently ranked 5th in the league.
But it’s not like the Lakers have been bad on offense, right? Those four "bad" performances consist of the following: 108 OR, 108 OR, 100 OR, and 110 OR. Three of those are still above the league average, so what’s the big deal? That would be the team’s performance in the first 3 quarters, otherwise known as the quarters in which they aren’t frantically trying to stage a comeback in the face of yet another loss. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the Lakers powerhouse offense has thrown up the following numbers: 104 OR, 107 OR, 97 OR, 102 OR. Those are some ugly, ugly numbers, right down there with the dregs of the league.
So what's the problem? Well, all those factors I mentioned above, any one of which could have caused the Lakers offense to sputter a bit, they all happened at once. The outside shooting over the last four games is just under 33%, a far cry from the 41% 3 point shooting that the Lakers still currently average. Pau Gasol is shooting only 42% over the last 4 games, averaging 15 points (though he is still grabbing 14 boards per game), and he has been clearly outplayed by opposing big men Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert, two names not likely to grace the All-NBA teams that Pau has made home in recent years. And, after carrying the Lakers to their last victory against Chicago with 21 bench points, Shannon Brown has fallen off the earth, shooting only 32% and averaging 6 points in his last 6 games.
But those are all symptoms of a greater problem, a problem that I did not foresee rearing it's ugly head again. The Lakers ball movement has regressed back to last season's form, and this is the single problem from which all other problems are originating. The 3 point shooting has suffered because the 3 point looks aren't a result of inside outside play. Shannon Brown's shooting has suffered because his shots are not coming within the context of the offense. Even Pau Gasol's struggles can be explained, at least in part, by a lack of ball movement to cutters in the lane.
Which brings us to the real problem, the symptom behind the symptom. The Lakers ball movement has regressed to last season's form, but not because Kobe Bryant has decided to take unwarranted shots (only averaging 24 shots/game, well within acceptable limits), or because the ball isn't running inside out anymore. The ball movement has regressed because the player movement is non-existent. It's tough to pass the ball around a lot when everyone is standing still. There was a possession in last night's game which summed up the Lakers offensive struggles in a nutshell. The ball was dribbled slowly up court, and passed off to Kobe at the top of the 3 point line. Kobe turned and faced up his man ... and waited ... and waited ... and jab stepped ... and waited ... and jab stepped ... and launched a long contested 3 pointer. Now, you can blame Kobe for this particularly bad offensive possession, and he certainly deserves some of the "credit", but for me, the far more shocking part of that failed possession is that there was not a single Laker on the court who moved at all. Every single one of Kobe's teammates were hanging out around the perimeter. No screens were set either on or off the ball. They just sat there, clearly thinking "Kobe can handle this one on his own."
Yes, yes he can handle it on his own. But that's not a great long term offensive strategy, as both Kobe and his teammates well know at this point. This wasn't the last two minutes of the ball game. This wasn't Kobe demanding the ball so he can close the game out. This was the 3rd fricken quarter, just another possession in a game that was slowly slipping away from the Lakers. That is a problem, because that is the type of systemic failure that we saw all last season. Of all the factors which have led to the Lakers eye-popping start to the offensive season, this was the factor I felt the most confident in. The coaching staff repeatedly played up ball movement throughout the preseason. Every game, the Lakers have made considerable effort to keep the ball (and themselves) moving and the results have been awesome. So why in the hell would that go away? This isn't tough luck or a run of poor form. The Lakers aren't being careless with the basketball or getting punished for playing at an opponent's pace. This is the Lakers putting as much effort into their offense as they have been on defense all season long, which is to say, not very much.
The Lakers are good enough to get away with only playing with energy on one side of the ball, but no one is good enough to get away with playing lazy basketball on both sides. After all, you can't play the T-wolves every night.