The Lakers are not a fast team. Or at least that’s not what a brief perusal of the NBA’s official stats site would lead one to believe.
To be more specific, the Lakers rank 20th in pace, according to NBA.com, which evaluates the stat based on how many possessions per game a team averages.
On some level, the Lakers ranking sort of low in such a stat would be expected. The team often plays two more traditional big men, making it (in theory) more difficult to run. That hypothesis is seemingly backed up by how poorly the team has defended when other teams run against them, ranking as one of the poorest transition defenses in the league so far.
So the Lakers are just a slow, grind it out team that wins by turning the pace to molasses and mucking things up with their top-ranked defense, right? Well, that’s partially accurate, but things may not fit quite so cookie-cutter of a narrative. In fact, Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel says the way that commonly used stats define pace isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of actual pace.
“Pace stats are one of the most misleading stats in the league. It’s a lot of times how quickly teams are shooting. The Rockets are one of the teams that are up there in pace a lot of times, and they don’t run that much at all, but they take quick threes so there are a lot of possessions,” Vogel said.
“And then it’s also a halfway stat, because if your defense is forcing the other team to work the clock for 24 seconds before they get a shot off, then that’s slowing down the pace of the game as well,” Vogel said. “I don’t think it’s really indicative of how fast we’re playing offensively.”
A quick look at the Lakers’ numbers on the break somewhat backs up Vogel’s argument. The Lakers spend 15.8% of their possessions in transition, which ranks 10th in the NBA. So even in a lower possession game overall, they’re still running opportunistically after forcing offenses to take their time to try and find a shot.
When the Lakers do get out and run, they’ve been more effective than their pace stats might make one think at first glance as well. L.A. ranks 14th in points per game in transition (19.2), are tied for 10th in points per play (1.08) and 13th in the percentage of transition possessions they score on (49.1%).
The Lakers have been able to reach that level of effectiveness not just with speed, but with strength, as they’ve finished through contact to draw and-ones on 3.7% of their transition possessions, which ranks sixth in the league.
Are some of these ranks somewhat middling? Yes, but they also do show the limits of pace stats as the sole measure of determining team speed. The Lakers may not play and up-and-down game every contest, but their effectiveness while being selective about their opportunities makes sense when looking deeper at their roster beyond traditional player archetypes.
The Lakers may be lacking in stereotypical floor generals and pace setters, but LeBron James can ignite a break as quickly as anyone to ever play. He may literally rest during games at times, but he also has one of the quickest accelerators in the league, and in part made his career on players who thought they were going to be the first one to challenge LeBron James in transition and have it end well. Good luck to anyone thinking they’ll have better fortunes against Anthony Davis, and even the team’s “traditional” centers (Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee) can get out and run better than most players of their size.
Essentially, the Lakers are like a runaway train: They maybe aren’t the fastest thing around anymore and look pretty heavy, but they’re really effective when they get to speeding, and lord help any team that gets in their way, lest they just finish through contact and get free points at the foul line.
Or, as Vogel put it when I asked him if he was happy with the pace so far, “I think we have a team that picks its spots. You know what I mean? And I think that’s okay. Especially when you have LeBron James as the quarterback of the offense, just recognizing when to ramp it up a little bit and when to be controlled.”
This tendency was on display even in the team’s recent loss to the Toronto Raptors, when James snared a rebound and immediately noticed that Davis had a head of steam going towards the rim after running out following his contest of a shot at the free throw line. James lasered a pass to Davis after just one dribble, leading to a foul from Fred VanVleet to prevent a dunk.
It was just one play that only took less than 10 seconds, but it was an apt demonstration of how quickly and effectively this Lakers team can decide to run when it has an easy opportunity to. And if they keep up this level of defense, such chances will keep coming, even if just a quick glance at their ranking in the pace stat their coach doesn’t like won’t make it seem that way.
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. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.