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Diagnosing the Lakers’ underperformance from downtown

After an offseason spent acquiring shooting to complement the Lakers’ superstar playmakers, the newcomers have mostly failed to live up to their billing.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

After the second straight season in the league’s bottom third of 3-point shooting accuracy, the Lakers apparently made an organizational decision to cash in their defensive prowess on the perimeter (Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma) for playmaking (Russell Westbrook) and outside shooting (just about everybody else who’s new).

Of the seven non-bigs the Lakers signed in the first couple days of free agency, five were coming off of career-highs in 3-point shooting, and five of them shot at least 40% in 2020-21.

So far, that gamble has yet to pay off on the whole. The Lakers as a team have shot significantly more accurately in comparison to the league than they did last year, but frankly, could be even better. After 20 games, they rank 11th in 3-point shooting accuracy (35.3%), but if you exclude Melo’s attempts, their accuracy falls to just 33.1%, a mark that would tie them with the sixth-worst shooting team in the Association. Other than Melo, each new(ish) Laker has failed to match the output of their previous season.

Basketball Reference

Before addressing the performance of this year’s Laker shooters in comparison to our expectations for them, it’s important to acknowledge that 3-point field goal percentage is just one point in an array of data indicating a particular player’s shooting talent. While every Laker below shot the ball relatively well last season, some did so on quite a bit tougher shots than the others.

Basketball Reference and The Basketball Index

In this light, Ellington, Monk, and Melo’s efficiency marks from downtown last season are particularly impressive, while Bazemore, Ariza, Rondo, and Nunn’s ability to drill shots appear far more dependent upon their team’s ability to set them up with quality looks. Although shot quality data from The Basketball Index is (for now) unavailable for the current NBA season, we can guesstimate the quality of the ancillary Lakers’ looks based on the quality of the playmaking they’ve shared the court with.

Apart from the rare zinger from Malik Monk or THT, the supporting cast’s shot diet is largely reliant upon Russell Westbrook and LeBron James’ playmaking. However, the Lakers’ shooting performance clearly favors having one of them on the floor over the other.

Across the board, the Lakers’ supporting cast has shot significantly better with LeBron on the floor compared to when he’s off, even with Russell Westbrook on it in the latter scenario. As a unit, the Lakers are shooting just 31.4% from three with Westbrook as the headliner, but 36.1% when he shares the floor with LeBron, and a blistering 48.5% with LeBron running the show alone.

Although Westbrook gets the ball to his teammates in positions to score as often as almost anyone in the NBA — right now he has created the third-most points off of his assists in the league with the highest minute total in the league — his teammates have been objectively less effective from three when receiving his passes than when the pass is thrown by James. While some statistical variance from samples this small surely affects this data (the Lakers won’t likely shoot near 50% off of passes from LeBron all year, the consistently and wildly superior shooting splits next to LeBron are suggestive of his unmatched ability to feed his teammates dishes they can always eat.

So, is something wrong with the Lakers’ shooting? Or is their broad regression merely a symptom of some early-season, small-sample variance? In short, yes. The issue may be endemic to the Lakers’ offense as currently constructed around Russell Westbrook and LeBron James, but the limited scope of the data available at this point in the season is inevitably imbued with some small sample variance.

Although the qualitative playmaking disparity between the two superstars may not be quite as extreme as the statistical splits above may suggest, I believe LeBron’s ability to consistently hit his teammates right on the money — in rhythm and in their shooting pocket — provides a tangible boon to their accuracy from deep. Further, his elite finishing ability around the rim forces defenses to treat his rumbling, prodding drives to the basket as their first priority, opening up the floor even more for his teammates.

Alternatively, Russ’ less potent blitzes often end just as quickly as they begin, leaving little time for his flanking shooters to achieve optimal spacing or match the rhythm of his eventual pass.

Check out how clean of a look Melo gets off of this drive-and-kick from LeBron.

Here’s another, and another, and another. These are in rhythm, wide-open attempts off of pinpoint passes. By the time Melo begins to rise up into his shooting motion, the subsequent 3-point make feels more like an inevitability than a possibility.

Compare those with what Melo has to work with on a pass like this.

While many (if not most) of Westbrook’s passes are effectively perfect, others, like the one above, lack the crispness, timing, or especially the pre-created space of those LeBron sends to his teammates.

Not all assists are created equal. The geometric precision of LeBron’s shot creation is nearly invariable, unlike that of Westbrook’s, leading to optimal looks for his teammates each and every time they touch the ball beyond the arc.

In fact, Wayne Ellington, the team’s most radically disparate performer in terms of his success shooting off of passes from LeBron and Westbrook, spoke to the difference between the two stars’ playmaking styles at Friday’s shootaround.

“They’re completely different players,” Ellington said. “It takes time to learn each other and each other’s games, and learn where to be at.”

He went on to specifically cite the tendencies of each player. On Westbrook, Ellington offered, “I’ve learned Russ likes to get up the left side of the floor, so I’m trying to get up the floor and beat him up the floor so I can get in that left corner a little bit more for him.”

Armed with this knowledge of Russ’ playmaking preference, Ellington may start to align himself within Westbrook’s comparatively narrow Madden ‘06-style QB vision cone.

In contrast, Ellington cited a specific adaptation to the looks LeBron likes to generate in order to elucidate one of the ways it’s easy to slot in next to the King, “Bron, he had a play last game where I sprinted up to get ahead of Melo and there was one defender up there, and Bron saw from all the way in the backcourt to advance the ball to Melo so I could get a corner three.”

On the play in question, after receiving the ball from Monk, LeBron holds his vision towards the basket, maintaining pressure on the defense as he trots upcourt. This hesitation gives time for Melo to reach the wing and Ellington to set up in the corner, providing each shooter optimal space to enable the ensuing basket. Just as Ellington described, LeBron kicked it to Melo, forcing Brogdon to commit, leaving Ellington alone in the corner for an A+ scoring opportunity.

Although Ellington’s description implies a slightly earlier downcourt pass from LeBron than is depicted in the film of LeBron’s more lateral swing, the relation of his experience of the play can tell us something about what it’s like to play with LeBron. The fact that Ellington recognizes how early LeBron made the play, mentally, portends a sense of clairvoyance or inevitability on the part of LeBron, a player who drafts shots in his mind before scribbling them down on the court in real-time.

Perhaps, like Ellington, the other Lakers just need more time to adapt to Russell Westbrook’s 0-to-60 pace of play and maximalist approach to playmaking than LeBron’s steadier rhythm and selective delivery. As of today, Russell Westbrook is sixth in assists (11.3) per 100 team possessions and second in turnovers (6.5) among players with at least 99 minutes, while LeBron is 18th (8.1) and 21st (4.7).

Still, the Lakers are objectively drilling shots off of LeBron’s passes in a way they are not (or have yet to) on those from Westbrook. While the aforementioned series of shooters’ overall percentages are mostly a bit below where the Lakers would like them, they’ve been better than advertised so long as LeBron’s on the court. Given the fact that the team’s ultimate aspirations are inevitably tied to his health anyways, and that he’s played in just seven of 20 games, the Lakers should be pleased with how “The Others” have performed their most important role next to the team’s most important player.

If LeBron stays healthy, takes over a greater share of the playmaking as the season progresses, and Westbrook sharpens up the quality of his already high quantity distribution, the Lakers have a strong chance of giving the Nets (38.8%) a run for their money as the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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