Last season, one of the concerns for the Lakers heading into the playoffs was that they wouldn’t be able to hit enough threes to punish defenses for overcommitting to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That worry obviously didn’t matter in the end — while the Lakers only improved from 34.9% to 35.4% in the postseason, they hit enough when it mattered to keep defenses somewhat honest.
This year, however, if things continue the way they are, shooting isn’t going to be a problem. The Lakers have skyrocketed from the 10th-worst shooting team in the NBA last season to a tie for third so far this year, canning 40% of their triples through 16 games. And of players to take more than 50 threes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ranks first in the league, shooting 56.9% from deep. Alex Caruso has only taken 28, but he’s made 16 of them (57.1%). Wesley Matthews and Kyle Kuzma are shooting 40% apiece, while LeBron James has gone from Washed King to Splash King, knocking down 39.6% percent of his attempts.
It all begs the question: Why have things been going so well for the Lakers from behind the arc this season? The team has a few theories, starting with continuity.
“I think it’s all part of the chemistry. Knowing your teammates, knowing where your teammates are going to be on the floor, and that comes with games played. It comes with minutes on the floor, it comes with film sessions,” James said. “When you start getting comfortable with your teammates, you know where guys are gonna be, and you know where the shots are going to be taken from, or where they’re going to come from, so it’s all about the chemistry on the floor.”
That’s not a surprising guess from a player whose focus is playmaking, but Caldwell-Pope, a shooting specialist who blew teammates away with his seven triple explosion against the Milwaukee Bucks, agreed with James’ reasoning.
“There’s a little bit of change (in the roster), but not really,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Wes was a great piece to add, he’s knocked down threes, Kuz, he’s very confident shooting the ball this year. AC, everybody is just comfortable. They know when the shots are coming.”
But being comfortable together doesn’t necessarily guarantee good 3-point shooting. Just ask the Grit and Grind Grizzlies of years past, or plenty of other teams throughout NBA history. There are also schematic reasons that the Lakers’ shooting has went up a notch this year.
“We were getting to the paint,” said Anthony Davis of the Lakers’ 51.4% shooting from three against the Bucks. “Last game we had 18 paint touches in the first quarter, and then 18 the entire second half, and when we get to the paint, we’re able to finish or kick out to our shooters and make some open threes. Tonight we were able to get into the paint, knowing this is a defense that protects the paint, keeps five guys in the paint, and guys made the right passes.”
It’s an interesting point. For all that was made of the Bucks’ 58-32 advantage in paint points throughout last night’s broadcast, the Lakers were clearly getting there at times. They were just letting it lead to shots that took place outside of the paint, drawing help and kicking the ball out instead of forcing up looks against Milwaukee’s human wall of interconnected arms inside.
Watch that play above: AD gets the ball, pivots into the paint to draw Giannis further in, and then hits Caruso with a laser. It's a really good read, and the numbers bear out that he's been good as a facilitator this year. Even if he's not happy with his play.— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) January 22, 2021
They’re also doing so by getting shots off of screens. According to NBA.com, the Lakers are second in the league in points per play on shots that come off of screens, getting 1.21 points per attempt (it does not sort for just on threes, unfortunately). But anecdotally, the Lakers do appear to be getting more looks that way, especially for Matthews.
Also aiding them in their efforts behind the arc has been that without Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee as their main two centers, the Lakers can play four-or-five-out basketball more often. For context, Caruso did not mention those two players and did not appear to be referencing them, but it’s hard not to think about that pair when listening to him describe what’s led to the Lakers’ shooting resurgence this season.
“It’s just being confident and shooting in rhythm. That’s part of what makes us a great team is we have so many guys who can get into the paint and draw attention, and then so many guys that can stretch the floor. I’d say everybody but maybe Trezz is stretching to the 3-point line that plays minutes,” Caruso said. “At any given time you have four or five guys out there that can shoot threes. That’s really hard to guard. And then just work. We’ve got professionals, guys that work all the time and step up and shoot and do this for a living, so it’s a combination of all of that.”
And to Caruso’s point, the Lakers’ big men (other than Montrezl Harrell) have gotten in on the fun. Forget the Splash Bros., because Davis has become the Splash Brow, shooting a career-best 35.1% from deep, while Marc Gasol is hitting 38.5% of his triples. Both are often just allowed to shoot wide-open shots by opposing defenses, and the Lakers as a whole are given 17.8 thees per game that NBA.com classifies as wide-open. Defenses have to give up something, after all. And while that only ranks 14th in the league, the Lakers are capitalizing better than average, knocking down 41.9% of their wide-open threes, which is good for ninth in the NBA, and fourth among teams who have more than 20% of their shots come on such attempts.
That success is why Lakers head coach Frank Vogel was annoyed with his team for passing up open looks in their Monday loss to the Warriors, and spent the two off days imploring everyone to fire away when they have a good look.
“I drilled it into our whole team,” Vogel said. “I think our whole group took that lesson and were very aggressive in those catch-and-shoot situations tonight.”
The team will likely suffer some regression to the mean, because Caldwell-Pope and Caruso suddenly becoming better versions of Klay Thompson and Steph Curry feels unlikely. But whenever that regression comes, the Lakers just know that they have to keep their heads up and stay confident, because they’ve already proven they can make enough threes to win a title, and that’s without the shooting infusion they got over the offseason.
“It’s not always about the makes for us. You love to make them. That’s part of me as a player, when I miss I get frustrated,” Caruso said, adding that he knows he needs to stay confident when he has “good misses,” i.e. shots that are on-line but just come a little short or hit the back of the rim. Even if the numbers eventually tail off a bit, playing with two of the best players in the world makes the whole shooting thing a whole lot easier.
“We’ve got guys that can shoot. We’ve got two of the best players in the world and they’re attracting attention. It’s about being ready to shoot,” Caruso said. “Being confident in your shot and knowing that when they throw it to you you’ve got to shoot it.”
And if the Lakers keep doing so at this rate, it’s going to be awfully hard to stop them from repeating as back-to-back champions. Or at the very least, we won’t have to listen to hot takes about them not having enough shooters for the postseason this year.