Luke Walton said something somewhat concerning earlier this week about how the Lakers would approach their offense while Rajon Rondo recovers from a broken hand.
“We don’t want to slow things down, but we haven’t been emphasizing as much as far as ‘push every chance we get.’ One, because we’re more focused on our defense right now, and two, we know that Rondo is a big part of leading those breaks,” Walton said.
“(He was) playmaking, making sure that guys get in the right spots and making sure that we’re taking care of the ball,” Walton continued. “Not having him out there, we’re just trying to play solid basketball right now.”
The Lakers started off the season with the intent to run. A lot. In the first two games of the season, Los Angeles started about 26 percent of its plays in transition, which would lead the league by an overwhelming margin. Their offense in transition isn’t particularly effective compared to other transition offenses, but it’s still easier to score on the break than it is versus a set defense, so the mere volume of transition opportunities boosted the team’s offensive efficiency.
Without Rondo, the Lakers have slowed down, and their offense is consequently suffering. Knowing that this is a point of emphasis from the coaching staff is annoying, because the team is being encouraged to play in a way that impedes its success.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Lakers performed on offense in the first 14 games of the season versus the last seven, when Rondo has been injured. Admittedly, this is an imperfect demarcation because Rondo also missed three games earlier in the year.
Before Rondo got hurt, the Lakers’ offensive rating (the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions) was 110.2. Since then, it is 102.8. That’s the gap between a top-10 offense and a bottom-3 unit. In that same stretch, the team’s pace (the number of possessions in a 48 minute game) has dropped from 105.5 to 100.36. The percentage of plays the Lakers have started in transition has also decreased, from 20.8 to 18.9 percent.
It’s true that Los Angeles has been worse on the open floor without Rondo, as its offensive rating in transition possessions has gone down from 122.7 to 115.2. That is undoubtedly a sizable margin, but what is important to note is that 115.2 is way higher than the Lakers’ total offensive rating, even when the team was scoring well to start the year.
The math is fairly clear — Los Angeles is way better when it attacks before the defense is set, and they have the personnel to do so. The Lakers were a top five team in transition frequency each of the last two years, so it’s in Walton’s DNA, and it’s definitely in Lonzo Ball’s DNA. The rest of the young core likes to get up and down the court, and nothing is quite as terrifying as LeBron James in the open floor. There were a lot of things about the Lakers’ offseason that didn’t make sense, but their commitment to pace was the most logical decision to make with this roster.
Walton also said that he wanted to focus on defense in lieu of emphasizing speed, and the Lakers have seen results on that end of the floor. Their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) has improved from 108.2 over the first 14 games to 104.7 over the last seven. And that second number would likely be even better had the team not just received a shellacking at the hands of the Denver Nuggets.
Nevertheless, that difference pales in comparison to the drop-off the Lakers have seen on offense, and it seems unreasonable that the team can’t work on both sides of the ball simultaneously. Sometimes the best defense is good offense, which takes opponents out of transition. Furthermore, once Rondo comes back, the pace should come back in full force, and the Lakers would be better off having retained a consistent style of play.
There is an argument to be made that Los Angeles is already too turnover-prone and could benefit from playing more conservatively, but many of their issues are in the halfcourt, so that doesn’t really hold water. Depth isn’t a good reason to slow down, because the Lakers have one of the youngest rosters in the league, and all of Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Svi Mykhailiuk could absorb more minutes.
This Lakers team is a weird fit, but it has a lot of specific strengths. Chief among those is the ability to play fast and force opponents to adapt. There are enough pieces on the roster who are suited to that style, even with Rondo on the shelf. It’s time for the Lakers to speed the game up again.