Every single coach in the NBA, if asked, will tell you they want their team to pass more. In this respect, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel is no different.
“We’re trying to play extra pass basketball, but also recognize the shot that comes in the rhythm of the offense and make sure we’re not overpassing. Which we do on occasion, but to me that’s okay,” Vogel said recently. “I’d rather overpass then not pass enough.”
To this point, though, the Lakers have definitely not overpassed. The team actually ranks in the bottom 10 in the league in passes per game, with their 283 the ninth-fewest of any team so far. But as much as coaches across sports and fans equate “more passes” with “better offense,” the Lakers have been just fine in that department: Their offense is the fifth-best in the league, scoring 114.8 points per 100 possessions.
Interestingly enough, the Lakers aren’t the only team putting up such efficiency despite their more limited passing. The Milwaukee Bucks (261.3 passes per game) and Portland Trail Blazers (253.6) both pass even less than the Lakers, and rank above them in offensive rating, with the Bucks scoring a league-high 118.1 points per 100 possessions, and the Blazers managing 115.6. In other news: Teams with great isolation scorers don’t necessarily need to play like the scrappy underdogs from “Hoosiers.” More at 11.
What has been unique about the Lakers’ attack, however, has been their willingness to pass up a good shot for a great one. It was something LeBron James said less than a week into the season would be a goal for them this year.
“We shouldn’t take any bad shots,” James said then. “We have so much body movement, player movement, we have so many guys who can just make shots. And we have guys who can make the right play, the right pass, from Dennis (Schröder), to Marc (Gasol), to myself.
“No one should ever feel pressure to take a bad shot.”
So far, the Lakers don’t even necessarily feel pressure to take good ones, at least not if they can get something better. Despite their low passing totals, and that they only rank 13th in the league in assists — a middle-of-the-pack 25.3 per game — the team ranks fifth in the NBA in secondary assists. More commonly known as “hockey assists,” a secondary assist is a pass that directly sets up another pass that leads to a score. The team is averaging 3.7 secondary assists per game, and when watching how they move that ball, that feels like it might even be low.
I mean, look at this:
Here is the first play LeBron described in the quote above, which occurred in the 3rd quarter. pic.twitter.com/AvzQCbO1u6— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) December 28, 2020
That’s just straight-up clowning a team, and the mindset of constantly moving the ball for secondary assists is one that’s become, well... *puts on sunglasses*... second nature for the Lakers. Take a look at this play from their Wednesday win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and how great of a shot Markieff Morris passes up to keep the ball moving for an even more open one.
That’s obviously a great play, but if you slow it down, it’s even better. Look at how open Morris is when the pass reaches his hands:
That’s a corner three for a guy who is shooting 46.7% from the corners this year, but even he knows that the Basketball Gods reward unselfishness. By the time Aleksej Pokusevski takes one step to close out, Morris is already moving the ball on to Alex Caruso for one of the Lakers’ impressive four hockey assists on the night (for context on how good that is, the Atlanta Hawks lead the league with 3.9 per game):
A lot of this, intuitively, makes basketball sense. With the amount of gravity that James and Anthony Davis generate, defenses are going to collapse on them, which is going to lead to breakdowns when they’re scrambling to close out. That’s going to create opportunities to keep the ball moving for absurdly open shots, and that Lakers are capitalizing so far.
Will this trend continue? It’s impossible to say for sure, and the sample size is still relatively small so far. Plus, at some point, the Lakers are going to play better competition than they have to this point, but so far, they’re building the right habits as they continue to rack up wins in these glorified preseason scrimmages. They may occasionally risk overpassing, but as Vogel and James said, that’s just fine, because if they keep moving the ball like this against good teams, they’re going to be really, really hard to stop when it matters.