LOS ANGELES — After the Lakers lost to the Toronto Raptors, the focus of their preparation over the next few days was on making the extra pass. The team had managed a then-season-high 31 assists in their streak-snapping defeat, which head coach Frank Vogel said left some of his players confused when he continued to harp on them to truly commit to the extra pass mentality.
“We were playing pretty good extra pass basketball, but not good enough,” Vogel told reporters on Tuesday in Phoenix.
The team responded racking up a new season high of 39 assists in their win over the Suns, pinging the rock around like a bouncy ball thrown at full speed into a studio apartment. And while they couldn’t set a new high in their win against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday, they kept the ball continuing to move finishing with 31 assists again, and carried on in their progress up the league’s passing charts. Before the game, Vogel said he was “hopeful” the team had turned a corner, and was truly buying into the idea of moving the ball around.
“Obviously it’s not easy to replicate 39 assists every night, but if we have the intent to truly play for each other, hopefully we can get in that ballpark,” Vogel said.
The numbers should give Vogel optimism that this is a real trend. Through their first six games, the Lakers were averaging 263.2 passes, which ranked 21st in the league. Over their last five contests, they're averaging 300.2 passes per game, which would rank sixth in the league over that timeframe, according to NBA.com.
Their win in Phoenix wasn’t even the most passes the Lakers managed this season. They passed the ball 302 times that night, which still ranks behind the 304 they managed in their third game of the year against the Charlotte Hornets, and the 332 they had against the Miami Heat.
“We know we’re very good when we’re moving the ball and the ball is moving from one side to the other,” said Lakers star LeBron James.
Still, it’s easy to see why the team would have felt the ball moved more in Phoenix after they set season-highs in assists (39), field goal percentage (53.7%) and 3-point percentage (40%), the latter two of which they surpassed (with 53.9% and 45% shooting, respectively) the next night against the Warriors’ historically bad defense.
Even on the second night of a back-to-back, the ball was finding energy, and seemingly giving the Lakers a boost in the process. It’s easier to buy into the pass — and for a team to feel like they see the results from said movement — when the ball is going in.
Now here is where we should note that more passing doesn’t always correlate to more winning, despite what your high school basketball coach who thought he was Coach Carter might have told you. The two teams averaging the most passes in the NBA right now — the New Orleans Pelicans and, yup, the Warriors — are also among the two worst teams in the league. Sometimes moving the ball a ton can just mean an offense is struggling to generate open looks.
Still, in the minds of the Lakers, overpassing a bit as they continue to adjust to playing together and learning where their shots are going to come from can be better than the alternative.
“I think it’s a good problem to have when you’re overpassing, because you know teams that are one pass and then a shot usually shoot bad percentages,” said Lakers forward Jared Dudley. “I’d rather caution on the side of overpassing rather than not passing enough.”
Sure enough, several of the league’s worst teams also rank low in passes per game, implying that balance is perhaps the best indicator of offensive health. And it’s also hard for their increasing ball movement not to feel like a positive improvement for the Lakers, especially when they aren’t at the very top of the passing rankings, indicating some level of struggle.
Plus, the Heat, Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers have all been pretty good teams while ranking towards the top in the league in passing. It can lead to success, under the right circumstances. The Lakers’ passes are also resulting in assists, as the team has had their four highest assist games of the season over their last four games. That means all their ball movement is at least generating decent shots.
“We just have a really unselfish team, a team that’s playing together, and when we’re making shots it’s really hard to guard us,” said Lakers guard Alex Caruso.
During the preseason Frank Vogel said that he thinks 25 assists is a number he wanted his team to get to each night and that 30 is a night where he thinks his team is doing really well. This is the 4th straight game the Lakers have reached the 30 assist mark.— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) November 14, 2019
How hard the Lakers have been to guard — and how many assists that tendency is resulting in — may also force Vogel to adjust his expectations for how many helpers he wants his team to average per game.
“Well it was 25 (assists per game), but I might have to change it,” Vogel said before being asked how many he’ll change his goal to. The coach took a quick glance at the stat sheet for the Lakers’ win against the Warriors and smiled.
“To 31,” Vogel said with a chuckle.
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.