Lakers Struggles: What is the cause? Can it be fixed?

With the All-Star break now upon us, the Lakers have some time to rest and reflect upon the season.  The Lakers began the season great and had a 13-2 record prior to Thanksgiving.  Perhaps they weren't "thankful" enough on our Nation's holiday to keep such good karma as they have gone a rather pedestrian 25-17 since then. As we enter the final third of the season and gear up for the playoffs the Lakers are immersed in a three game losing streak capped off by one of the worst losses in franchise history.  Now seems like a good time to take a look at what has changed since Turkey Day.

Here is a table showing some team statistics both before and after Thanksgiving:

Efficiency Eff. FG% Turnover Rate Off. Reb Rate Free Throw Rate
Off Def Own Opp Own Opp Own Opp Own Opp
First 15 games 114.0 102.7 52.5 46.9 14.4 14.9 31.7 31.2 28.3 26.1
Last 42 games 107.3 102.9 50.0 49.0 14.3 14.5 29.0 26.0 30.1 22.5
Change -6.7 0.2 -2.5 2.1 -0.1 -0.4 -2.7 -5.2 1.8 -3.5

While the Lakers defense has certainly been a concern at times, over these two periods the defense performed very similarly. The real decline has come at the offensive end.  Before we disect the offense however, I think it is interesting to point at that while the defense has produced a similar overall efficiency, the two samples show that they were achieved in very different ways.  During the first 15 games of the season the Lakers were excellent at holding the opposition to a low shooting percentage, however over the last 42 games they have not been as successful.  They have countered this dip in opposition FG% by reducing the number of second chance opportunities and avoiding putting the other team on the line. 

Now on to the offensive issues...

The Lakers have seen a pretty significant decline in effective FG% (from 52.5 to 50.0) and additionally have not grabbed quite as many of their own misses as they did early in the year.  The turnover rate has been virtually identical while the free-throw rate has actually increased.  The benefit of the increased number of free throw attempts has been offset though due to the Lakers decline in FT%.  During the first 15 games the Lakers converted 82.1% of their free throw attempts compared to only 76.3% over the subsequent 42 games.  The end result is no change in efficiency due to free throws.  The decrease in efficiency due to grabbing fewer offensive rebounds is roughly 1.3 points per 100 possessions which is only a small part of the decline so the real cause of the Lakers troubles is their drop in shooting percentage.

Is the issue shot selection or shot conversion?

In the past the Lakers have had offensive struggles when they settled for too many jump shots so lets take a look at shot location information to see if the shot selection has changed.


The Lakers shot distribution is mostly unchanged.  They have taken slightly fewer three's while increasing the number of mid range jumpshots.  This could have an impact on eFG% as the three point shots usually have pretty high eFG% due to the additional value of the shot, but for the most part shot selection doesn't appear to be the cause of the problem.

So how about shot conversion (making the attempt)


The Lakers have actually increased their eFG% for every shot location other than threes but the decrease in their shooting from beyond the arc is so dramatic that their overall eFG% still dropped significantly.

Now lets take a look at who is driving the decrease in three point shooting efficiency.  Here is a chart showing the three-point shooting percentages for the Lakers main three point shooters through the first 15 games and then the subsequent 42:


It appears that Kobe and Artest are the only two players who did not experience a decline in three point shooting, neither really improved either though.  What is really amazing is the magnitude of the declines by all of the other Lakers perimeter shooters. Brown dropped 22.6%, Blake 18.0%, Fisher 19.9%, Odom 16.3%, and Barnes 22.9%.  So despite Kobe and Artest maintaining their shooting percentages and taking 3 out of every 8 three point attempts for the team, the other players have seen their shooting drop down so much that the Lakers three point percentage has fallen from 43.1% during the first 15 game down to 32.1% over the last 42.  How do those 3P% compare to the league?  The 43.1% would be leading the league by a significant margin while the 32.1% would rank 29th ahead of only the Toronto Raptors.

Based on everything above, it appears the only real difference between the 13-2 Lakers that started the year and 25-17 Lakers we have since then is the ability to knock down the long ball.  These leads us to the million dollar question....

Is it a slump and thus fixable or is this a much bigger problem?

Every Lakers fan knew the hot shooting to start the year could not be maintained for an entire season.  The Lakers had four players hitting 50% or better from downtown.  We expected a "cooling off" as the season continued.  But are they back to their true ability or have they actually plummetted into a shooting slump in which we may see an increase in the near future.

To answer this question here is the same graph as above but now I have added the career three point shooting percentages for each player entering this season:


Now that is a little concerning.  It appears that the three point shooting of the Lakers over the last 42 games is actually pretty close to their career averages.   Blake has been in a slump and possibly Barnes (but his is based on a very small sample size), but other than that the rest of the players very close to their career averages.  To the far right you can see the total which was calculated by wieghting each players career average 3P% with the percent of Lakers three point attempts they take and as you can see the Lakers simply are a low 30's three point shooting team. The Lakers simply don't have the personell to make shots from beyond the arc.

This leads us to the much larger predicament, how to fix it.  It isn't simply a slump but actually a regression back to the mean.  There is no simple fix for this.  The Lakers were a poor three point shooting team last year (24th in the league). They let their best three point shooter of the season, Farmar (37,6%), leave as he wasn't a good fit otherwise.  They then traded one of their other top three point shooters, Vujacic (career 37.0%),  when they felt that Shannon Brown was the answer.  It now looks like Brown may have gotten hot at the right time (it led to the trade of his only competition for minutes) and is now regressing back to his true ability (a-la Trevor Ariza after the 2009 playoffs). 

With a lack of three point shooting once again plaguing the Lakers, they now very much resemble the team from last year, and while that team ended up winning the title, the competition is much stiffer this year and the Lakers could be looking at having to win 3 straight series without home court advantage.  The last time the Lakers won a series without home court advantage was when a certain "Mailman" and "Glove" were part of the roster so asking them to do it three times in a row is a pretty tall order.  Hopefully they can find a solution, either via trade, or via finding another hot streak but this time in the playoffs.

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