Los Angeles — The Lakers have looked different with LeBron James out of the lineup. That was always going to be expected given the caliber of player James is, but the change, especially in how much they pass, has been stark.
James is hardly a ball hog. Let’s get that out of the way, because that’s not the conclusion to draw from this. If you want takes like that, you can go here.
But without the normal engine of their offense, the Lakers have been forced to diversify their attack. The team is pinging the ball around the floor, collectively probing for weaknesses in their opponents’ defenses in a way they didn’t — or didn’t have to — before.
Over the three games since James went down against the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers went from making the third-fewest passes in the NBA (267.2) to making 302, which would rank 11th in the league over the course of a full season.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton says that’s no accident. He thinks his team absolutely needs to pass more without James there to leverage his prodigious gravity to create easy opportunities for others.
“Obviously LeBron being the dominant player he is, he can get double teams and manipulate matchups and get us great shots,” Walton said. “When we had success last year with these guys, we were playing fast and we were moving that ball and everyone was making plays out there, and that’s where we’ve got to get to again.”
Walton thinks the team “has done a pretty good job” of doing those things over the last few games, but before anyone runs away with the takeaway “ThE lAkErS aRe BeTtEr WiThOuT lEbRoN,” it’s worth pointing out that those extra passes haven’t actually correlated with better offense.
On the season the Lakers are scoring 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the 17th-best mark in the NBA. Over the three games since James went down, that number (as expected) has dropped, with the team managing 107.2 points per 100 possessions over that span.
“Lakers’ offense worse without LeBron James” isn’t actually a surprising headline unless you’re an idiot, but it needs to be mentioned so that people don’t run away with the idea that the team has been better on that side of the floor without their star.
But getting to that level of passing with James is still a worthy goal, and might be one route towards improving upon the play the team has shown with him in the lineup, so all this new ball movement could be a good indicator if the team can bring James back and try and find a balance between their style of play now, and how they’ve played with James.
“We want guys looking to attack and shoot when they’re open, but if you don’t have it we want the ball moving,” Walton said. “We’re going to continue to encourage that and with what we have right now, we’re best when that’s the case.”
So, why weren’t the Lakers passing like this before? Well, besides the obvious conclusion that James creates gaping wounds in a defense, making it less necessary to search for small openings with ball movement, Brandon Ingram revealed a simpler reason while talking about the team’s passing against the Kings, and whether it was a special point of emphasis heading into that win.
“There’s added emphasis every single night we step on the floor of passing the ball and getting the best shots for our team,” Ingram said, before smiling and continuing “I don’t think we always do it because we naturally want to score the basketball.”
Young players feeling like they have to score in order to be effective because that’s how they’ve had success at every level so far is something that too often goes ignored in the analysis of things like this, but Lakers guard Josh Hart explained why scorers like Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are that much more dangerous when they’re actively moving the ball when they should.
“A lot of times if guys come out at them and if they’re aggressive and able to hit the open man, it makes things that much harder for the defense,” Hart said. “If you try to double them and they’re making the correct pass and the correct plays, and we’re scoring then that doesn’t allow the defense to double them.
“Then they get to go one-on-one, and that’s the matchup they like.”
Walton thinks the Lakers can find the balance between the two styles of play, because it’s not necessarily asking the team to pass more. It’s just asking them to make the right passes and let the rest take care of itself.
“If you’re playing with pace and you’re moving it on to the next open guy, especially the way a lot of teams guard us where they load up the paint, you’re gonna have open teammates. If you catch it and you’re open let it fly, and if you don’t then move it on to somebody else,” Walton said. “Continuing to play that way puts pressure on the other team’s defense.”
And if the Lakers can pressure defenses with lightning-quick, egalitarian passing and James’ own bludgeoning drives into the paint to create space, they might become an even more dangerous offensive team than many thought possible. For that reason, it’s worth seeing if they can continue to pass as they have with James out, and if they can find a middle ground in terms of playing style when he returns.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.