With the NBA playoffs off to a thrilling start, all the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have been able to do is sit at home and watch for what is now the fifth straight season. Despite registering the team's best record since 2012, the purple and gold still fell 12 games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings.
The sentiment is, of course, disappointing for those with ties to the team, yet there is still plenty of reasons to feel optimistic in Lakerland. The team statistically and visually performed much better than many expected heading into the season and the fact that their improvement was primarily due to their young core has given many fans hope of what is still to come around the corner.
That being said, the firsthand experience of being a part of the postseason for young players early in their careers is immensely valuable. The Philadelphia and Boston young cores are currently in the depths of gaining that intangible knowledge which will seemingly pay dividends down the road, something of which this collection of Lakers has yet to bask in.
Still, there is a certain virtue in watching and absorbing what playoff basketball looks like for this team. Games in April-June are an effective vacuum in gauging what rosters and combinations mesh, who and what is targeted, and what simply does and does not work. For the Lakers’ players and their newly appointed front office, this opportunity can serve as a crucial blueprint in mapping out the tendencies and tactical decisions on display and putting them into place ahead of what is to be a pivotal offseason.
Here is a list of three notable playoff trends the Lakers should take note of, and where their team currently stands in these areas in comparison to those currently in the midst of Fury Road:
1. Perimeter Shooting
In a league that has become more analytically self-aware than ever before, the three-point line has become almost a deity on the floor for many players and teams. The Steve Nash-led Suns, the Steph Curry-led Warriors, and the James Harden-led Rockets have all shaped and dictated the way professional basketball is now played. In many ways, all of the trends that are to follow can be traced back to these teams, but arguably their biggest achievement is designating the space behind the arc as the most valuable spot on the floor.
The simple notion that three points are better than two has not been more apparent than recently as the last five NBA champions with the exception of the 2012-13 Miami Heat (who were number one in corner three percentage) have ranked at the very least in the top five in terms of three-point percentage in their respective seasons.
The Lakers have in many ways made the necessary steps to associate themselves with a modern style of basketball under head coach Walton, as they just set the new franchise record for most three-pointers made in a single season, but unfortunately, they did so with the second-worst efficiency in the league.
The team’s inability to space the floor consistently (18th in frequency) and efficiently often stagnated their half-court offense and is something that would have been severely exploited in the playoffs. In theory, the Lakers would have three question marks in their probable starting lineup that teams would sag off of which if the playoffs have shown anything it is that having just one weak link on either end of the floor can swing an entire series.
The three aforementioned question marks that had varying success with their outside shooting this season were arguably the team’s three best players: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle.
Ball’s primary source of offense this season came from behind the arc which resulted in polarizing results and only worsened once defenders simply stopped going under screens against him as his offensive capabilities became severely stifled.
Brandon Ingram was much improved in shooting the three ball this season compared to his rookie year but unfortunately seemed to be allergic to letting it fly from distance.
For Julius Randle, who has always notably been recognized for his perimeter limitations, assuringly would have been met with globs of defenders waiting for him at the rim in a hypothetical playoff match-up.
Fortunately for the Lakers, one spacing option they did have that could possibly have been an effective postseason threat for teams to scheme against came in the form of their center, Brook Lopez. Although Lopez was only an about average shooter from three this season (34.5 percent) he still was fourth among all centers in made attempts behind only Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, and Karl Anthony-Towns.
Centers have been arguably the most polarizing position so far in the playoffs as teams with more traditional big men such as a Hassan Whiteside, have had trouble adjusting to their bigs being “played off the floor” either through opponents throwing out smaller lineups, or an opposing center with the spacing ability to negate rim protection as seen with Philidelphia’s Ersan Ilyasova in his matchup with the Heat.
Lopez is not the most efficient big man, and could possibly be played off the floor by smaller units (Lakers actually have a good counter to this with Randle moving to the five) but what he does do is space the floor and adequately protect the rim. Two optimal traits to have in the modern NBA.
2. Versatile Defenders
Professional basketball is simply just played differently now. Every team seems to have uber-athletic wings who can do basically everything on the floor like an army of inspector gadgets roaming the hardwood.
What began as a slow but gradual movement away from traditional positional roles, created new molds and functions that have become enormously important in roster construction. The initial prototypical role player, who assumed the “3-and-D” archetype, has morphed into arguably one of if not the most important player profile needed in terms of lineup versatility.
As offenses have evolved into trigger-happy speedways, so have defenses in a Darwinism attempt to remain relevant. Conceptually this has come in the form of multi-positional defenders who can seamlessly go from guarding an all-star point guard out on the perimeter to a banging down low with a big with bonafide post games in a pinch.
The Draymond Green’s and Andre Roberson’s of the world do not magically grow on trees very often, which is why so many teams around the league are grasping for any wings in the draft with the physical measurements they can hopefully mold and shape Dr. Frankenstein style, into these defensive difference makers that are so vital to playoff basketball.
In terms of the Lakers, the team has made striking improvements in defense specifically because of the versatility now present on their roster. The team’s jump from 29th to 14th in defensive rating was a result of stellar team and individual defense, especially from their young players.
As a rookie, Lonzo Ball finished the regular season ranked third in terms of ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus through his impressive defensive instincts and rebounding. Josh Hart was also one of the team’s stalwarts in being able to switch screens on defense, and notably seemed to take genuine joy in bodying bigger opponents in the post.
The team simply had multiple players with the combination of height and length at their position to be able to match-up better than in years past. Yet, the leader of the team’s switch-heavy defense this season and the “best one on one defender in the NBA” according to Luke Walton, was Julius Randle.
The former Kentucky Wildcat came into the season with the perceived knowledge that his time with the team may soon be coming to an end and devoted himself to improving his physique, which in turn improved his motor and his defensive intensity. This was best showcased no further than when the 6’9” big man got switched on to a point-guard and gave Lakers’ fans this type of effort:
Randle, who was playing center in this late game possession did not shy away from the switch on to Steph Curry out on the perimeter, and instead seemingly embraced it. Through impressive lateral quickness and anticipation, Julius clamped down on Curry and forced the crunch time miss. There are not many wing defenders in the NBA who could individually do this, and nearly close to no centers.
Just a few possessions later, Randle once again is found on a switch on the perimeter. This time it comes against recent Finals MVP, Kevin Durant. Yet again, the 23-year-old steps up to the challenge in what is potentially a game-saving defensive stand:
Randle gets low into his stance in preparation of a possible Durant drive, but with again solid lateral quickness and deceleration, he is able to gather himself in time to get an amazingly timed contest at Durant’s point of release and forces the miss.
Ultimately it can be argued these were simply just two sequences in one game, but Randle repeatedly displayed a keen ability to have these moments in a more consistent fashion compared to season’s past. Finding this type of defensive ability from the center spot especially in the playoffs is immensely valuable and rare, and the Lakers have the advantage of having one of the few in the NBA.
3. Multiple Creators
When looking at the teams currently battling it out in the playoffs it quickly becomes apparent how many high-level creators they each possess. The creator label does not simply signify creating points for your teammates, which is a big portion of it, but also the ability to manufacture individual scoring opportunities and advantages. Having multiple creators on the floor simply allows teams to scheme-break in the postseason, as when one part of the snake gets cut off, another portion arises in its place. Yet, if teams are too reliant or possess singular options on the floor, it becomes much easier to reach and chop off the head.
Let’s look how this has fared with the two eight-seeds in each conference: The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Washington Wizards. The Timberwolves arguably posses two bonafide creators in the sense of playmaking or individual scoring creation in the form of Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Wizards have arguably one of the best back-courts in the league with their star duo in John Wall and Bradley Beal. All that being said, the Wolves have recently been eliminated and the Wizards may soon follow.
Besides the obvious fact they are playing against higher quality teams, their shortcomings are arguably more because of their lack of ancillary offensive creators to alleviate the responsibilities of their primary ball-handlers. This may be the one chess piece of the postseason this Lakers’ team as currently constructed simply is not prepared for.
The team relied heavily on their pair of 20-year-olds to not only create their own scoring chances but that of their teammates as well. Lonzo Ball was challenged with the primary responsibility to run lead pick and roll duties, something of which he did not extensively run in UCLA. Ball more often modeled a secondary creator on the floor for the Bruins, running off-ball guard actions like cutting and running off screens.
This is not to say Ball struggled in this respect as a rookie, but he generally was very one-dimensional in terms of offensive outcomes from these actions.
Ball’s general lack of rudimentary lead-guard skills coupled with his work in process in-between game would make him one of the more exploitable components of the Lakers’ offense in a playoff series. Despite this, his struggles this season were arguably scheme based as he was used too often as the primary initiator when he could instead have been an ancillary dynamo.
This was similarly the case for Brandon Ingram as well, who had the pivotal responsibility this season to do both create for himself and for others as he switched offensive roles mid-season due to Lonzo’s injury. Ingram was much improved with the extra year of reps under his belt, but still ran into problems when attempting to force the issue. His sometimes questionable shot selection mixed with errant passes at times exemplified the youth and lack of upper-echelon ball handlers on the team.
Ultimately the roster both Ball and Ingram were a part of this season did not contain the necessary supplementary playmakers necessary to mock up an effective humming offense. That notion combined with the simple fact that neither of the two former lottery picks are yet at stages of their careers to be the primary creators for a playoff caliber team made it very difficult for the Lakers to close out games.
This hypothetically could be alleviated this summer when multiple high-level creators are set to become free-agents. Whether or not the Lakers are able to sign one, or multiple players is still yet to be determined. Though the improvements seen in the cases of Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram leave out hope that through time and development, the answer still could come from in-house.
The Lakers made a great leap this season in terms of wins, defense, and player growth. Yet there is still plenty of work to be done by everyone involved with the franchise in getting this team where it ultimately wants to go. Fortunately, this is the first time in many years where there is optimism, and even confidence, that the trajectory is finally back in proper line with where the rest of the NBA is heading.
Statistics provided by: Cleaningtheglass.com, and ESPN.com.