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The Lakers can’t just play faster. They need to decide faster, too

The Lakers play at one of the fastest paces in the entire league, yet still find themselves operating late in the shot clock on too many possessions.

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Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Lakers

Stu Lantz, the long-time Lakers commentator who has watched the team every night for the last 34 years, can barely disguise the frustration in his voice. In fact, maybe he’s not even trying to anymore.

The Lakers have the ball, and they’re once again dribbling the air out of it. Or swinging it around the court to another Lakers player who has no advantage. Or looking to make a post entry to a tightly defended Anthony Davis as precious seconds tick away on the shot clock. The specifics of this play matter, but they really don’t.

Because as the clock ticks down, there’s Stu again, talking to us, but really more to the Lakers themselves. “Shot clock...gotta get a shot up”. He’s annoyed. Almost like a snooze alarm you pressed for the fourth time, reminding you again to get up already, only he’s telling the Lakers to do something (anything?) on offense before the clock expires on them.

The Lakers, as they’re wont to do in these situations, eventually find a suitable shot to close out the possession. Maybe it’s a good one, but most times it’s not. But they’ll live to run out the clock again another day. This much we know by now, just as Stu does.

Of course, the Lakers aren’t only that frustratingly slow team.

Heading into Friday’s game against the Celtics, the Lakers are second in the league in pace, averaging nearly 103 possessions a game. This commitment to playing fast has been evident since the preseason, and has continued since. At their core, the Lakers want to race up and down the court, looking to exploit the dynamic open court play of their three star players — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and (especially) Russell Westbrook. That they’ve continued to play as fast as they have with LeBron missing as many games as he has — especially considering Talen Horton-Tucker is only just returning, and Kendrick Nunn has yet playing a single minute in the regular season — speaks to how much this approach is a pillar to their approach on offense.

For a team that plays as fast as the Lakers, however, they also have a terrible habit of playing late into the shot clock on way too many of their possessions. Of the teams who rank in the top 10 in pace this season, only one of them also ranks in the top 10 of percentage of shots taken with 0-4 seconds left on the shot clock.

I’ll give you one guess on which team that might be. There’s a reason why Stu Lantz is irritated and can barely hide it anymore.

The Lakers, for all their want (and, based on those pace numbers, actual ability) to push the pace and play fast, have a peculiar — and at times frustrating — way of also being slow.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have figured out a way to play both fast and slow at the same time, and are getting the benefits of neither as a result.
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

First, a quick look at the roster tells us that the team is playing several players who are either older, or are not known for being elite athletes who move around the floor with real verve. Or, in some cases, they’re both. I’m mainly talking the Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Wayne Ellington group, but there are times where this can also apply to Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. When these players are on the floor, it can take time to get them set up and into the positions that they’re supposed to be in when running any given action.

Further, particularly with Dwight, in actions where he has to come from the paint to the perimeter to set screens (especially for Russ), this can take time and eat up valuable clock as he maneuvers to set (and some times reset) his pick as defenders duck under and around his original screen. As for actions for Ellington and Melo, there are times where they’re running around multiple screens in the hopes of breaking open to be able to get off an uncontested three. These actions, too, can just take time.

And then, of course, there’s the posting up of Anthony Davis. AD is one of the higher volume post players in the league (his 4.2 post up possessions per game rank 4th in the NBA), but it’s quite rare that these actions develop quickly or very smoothly. You see, the other team knows how dangerous Davis can be once he has the ball, so their goal is to try to not let him touch it at all, and especially not in the spots where he can be most effective. So, they three-quarter or fully front him to deny entry passes and they push and shove him further out on the floor to make his catch more difficult.

And then, when he does catch the ball, they show him multiple defenders in strong size zone looks, or send double teams at him in order to disrupt his rhythm or force him into making a pass. In turn, AD loves to hold the ball and examine the defense to get a better read on what tactics they’re going to deploy and when. So, on any given AD post up, he might have had to fight for position for a a few seconds, then he’s held the ball for a few more seconds sorting through his shot/pass decisions, and then he has to go into his move to pass or shoot fairly quickly because, you know, that clock just keeps ticking away.

Side note: I have no real evidence to support this, but I’d argue a main a reason it feels like Davis is shooting a lot of jumpers this season is at least partially related to the action developing slowly in the scenarios outlined above, even if it’s not necessarily true that he’s shooting a lot of jumpers.

I mean, AD is 2nd in the NBA in number of field goals attempted (7.9) and made (5.8) in the restricted area this season — trailing only Giannis in both categories — and by only about a half a field goal a game in both categories. Further, an additional 3.6 of his shots are in the paint, but not in the restricted area. So, 62.5% of his FGA are coming in the paint, which is actually higher than Giannis’ 59.7%. But, ask anyone who takes more jumpers between the two and I’m pretty sure what they’d think the answer would be.

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Anthony Davis post-ups aren’t going to yield a ton of good results until he (and the Lakers) start making decisions faster.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

So, how does all of this change? Not necessarily the AD post ups, but all the team’s extended possessions that eat up clock and run counter to the pace and tempo game that need to be drivers of the team’s overall offensive approach.

First, getting LeBron back should help some. Bron isn’t going to race up the floor like he did a decade ago, but he’s an amazing transition player and he can up the frequency of those chances both through hunting the chances that he sees develop and by helping the team’s defense. If the team can get more stops, they’ll be able to run more. LeBron will also help organize the team’s halfcourt offense in ways that give it more structure and a fulcrum to play off of to generate better shots earlier in the clock.

Beyond LeBron, integrating THT fully into the lineup will provide another dynamic rim attacker in transition, early offense, and in the half court. The easiest way to avoid playing deeper into the shot clock is to have players who can not only create their own shot, but create offensive advantage in general. Since returning from thumb surgery, THT is proving to have this in abundance by leveraging his driving ability to not only get shots in the paint, but to open up his jumper (which he’s been hitting at a good rate so far).

Ultimately, though, what I really believe this team needs is more time together to play this evolving style they’re trying to get used to, with AD playing primarily at the 5 and the team only playing a single traditional big in most of their lineups. This style is much different than what the team came out of training camp doing, and learning how these player groupings fit together and the best way for them to function in ways that allow them to play to their strengths is a process.

Like one of those possessions Stu (and the rest of us) have grown to loathe so much, it will take time. But unlike many of those plays, the result of this slow-developing action might just be worth the wait.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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