Identifying the weaknesses of a non-playoff team is like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole – possibilities just keep popping up.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to address those weaknesses over the course of this offseason (and the next, if we’re sticking to Magic Johnson’s timeline). While the search for superstar talent to upgrade the roster will dominate the upcoming free agency period, the front office began tackling the team’s other deficiencies during last week’s NBA Draft.
The selections of Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk made the primary focus of the Los Angeles brass crystal clear: shooting.
“We set out to get shooters in this draft, and guys that could stretch the floor,” Johnson said in the rookies’ debut press conference. “When we looked at both of them, they could add to our team what was missing.”
It was painfully obvious to anyone who watched a Laker game last season how much the team could benefit from quality shooting. Most of the early attention focused on Lonzo Ball’s unorthodox form and abominable shooting percentages, but every player had his own troubles putting the ball in the basket.
As a team, Los Angeles shot the worst percentage in the league from the free-throw line and ranked 29th out of 30 teams from 3-point range. The Lakers also ranked 30th from mid-range, per Cleaning the Glass. The top 12 Lakers in minutes played all shot below league average (relative to their position) on free throws, causing a number of late-game panic attacks for the L.A. faithful.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that, in their first opportunity to improve upon the 2017-18 squad, the front office went with shooters. The tandem of Johnson and Rob Pelinka was expressly straightforward with their intentions.
“This is the reason why we selected both of these guys, because we were missing people that could really stretch the floor,” Johnson said.
Wagner’s shooting and scoring prowess has been well-documented in this space, including how he projects to fit in the young Lakers core. His 60.5 effective field goal percentage last season, along with 41.7 percent from beyond the arc, both would have been the highest of any Laker rotation player.
The Michigan product follows the mold of L.A.’s current center, Brook Lopez, who took 39 percent of his shots from long range last season at a 35 percent clip. Magic noted that he expects Wagner to continue that shooting threat, as well as be a better passer than Lopez and more effective in transition, a staple for any player joining this roster.
“The things that we need for our team, the Lakers, he [Wagner] can provide,” Johnson said. “What he could add to the Lakers, I thought that was really important.”
Mykhailiuk, while less heralded than his first-round counterpart, possesses similar strengths to Wagner. The Kansas wing made 44 percent of his 3-pointers last season on high volume in addition to 80 percent of his free throws, traditionally a better indicator of NBA shooting accuracy.
Johnson and Pelinka specifically noted that Mykhailiuk caught their eye in the Elite Eight game against Duke in which he scored or assisted on four of the Jayhawks’ final five baskets in regulation, including nailing the tying three to send the game into overtime.
Although both Laker executives noted that Mykhailiuk also impressed them with his defense in the NCAA Tournament, the focus of the presser came back to shooting time and time again.
“This is really good that we got him in the purple and gold, and got both of these guys because stretching the floor is going to be very important for our team,” Johnson reiterated. “It’ll create a lot of driving lanes for Zo and BI and Josh. All of them will be able to see lanes that they didn’t see last season.”
There are still several improvements the Lakers need to make if they plan on returning to the playoffs and entering the realm of NBA contenders once more. However, it’s telling that as the team enters a free agency period where Los Angeles hopes to attract a ball-dominant star, they’ve prioritized placing shooters around the court to such a tremendous degree.
A lot of opportunities are likely to emerge for the Lakers this offseason, and when it comes to converting on them, a little extra accuracy couldn’t hurt.