After the Lakers had a season-high 25 turnovers in their recent loss to the New York Knicks, starting point guard Dennis Schröder knew something had to change if this team was going to have any chance to compete while LeBron James and Anthony Davis continued to miss time with injuries.
Clearly frustrated, Schröder spent several minutes talking about how everyone on the team had to do better with ball pressure, finally punctuating his soliloquy by putting the pressure squarely on himself.
“That starts with me,” Schröder said. “I take the blame for it, and we’ve just got to do better.”
Since then, Schröder (and the team) have kept his vow. Of the Lakers’ 10 lowest turnover games of the season, two have come in their last four matchups since that loss to the Knicks on April 12. The team has also done better at avoiding coughing up the ball in all four of those games, though, and gone 2-2 in that span, even without James and Davis.
So what is going on? Have the Lakers actually fixed one of their offensive Achilles heels? Let’s dig in.
How much better have the Lakers gotten at not turning the ball over?
Even before James and Davis went down, turnovers had been a problem for this team. Over the first 54 games of the season, the Lakers ranked dead-last in the league in turnovers per game, giving the ball away to their opponent 15.9 times per game. The advanced numbers weren’t much better, as they were tied for 28th of 30 teams in assist to turnover ratio (1.55 assists for every turnover) and dead-last in the percentage of possessions upon which they turned the ball over (15.8% of the time).
Since the loss to the Knicks that prompted Schröder’s frustration with the giveaways, however, the Lakers have turned into such an entirely different team that their fans may feel like they got catfished for the second time this week. In the last four games, the Lakers have ranked second in the league in turnovers (11 per game), fifth in assist to turnover ratio (2.16) and fourth in turnover percentage (11.3%), according to NBA.com.
Put more simply, over their last four games the Lakers have turned the ball over 11, 8, 14 and 10 times. For context, in the previous 10 games before that, they’d only turned the ball over less than 17 times twice. And it’s been Schröder, the player who was so frustrated after that Knicks loss, who has led the way.
Schröder has turned the ball over just four times since that Knicks game, less than the five he had in that loss alone. It’s an impressive level of ball security for a player not always known for how careful he is, and while it’s probably unsustainable, it’s a sign that he might be able to be a bit more cautious and efficient moving forward if called upon to.
Has this helped the offense?
That might seem like a dumb question, but the thing we have to note here is that while turnovers are never good in and of themselves, a lack of them isn’t always a positive thing, either. Sometimes referred to as a sort of “creativity tax,” players who are the best playmakers often turn the ball over more than players less capable of completing audacious passes. You can’t have highlights without a few lowlights.
Still, in a promising development, the Lakers have improved their offense since they’ve started taking better care of the ball, even without James and Davis. Over their first 54 games, this team ranked 20th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions. Over their last four, they’ve upped that number to 112 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 13th in the league over that span and would slot them as the 14th-best offense in the league if they managed it over the full season.
So yes, even without their stars in the lineup, turning the ball over less has helped the offense. Maybe even more so than it would have otherwise, which brings us to one final question...
What does this mean moving forward?
Anthony Davis will likely return for the Lakers this week. LeBron James is getting closer as well. The team is likely to take a few more turnovers per game while those two readjust and get their game legs back under them while building and rebuilding chemistry with their new and old teammates. That’s not necessarily something to be concerned about, at least right away.
One of the things Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has talked about often during this star-less stretch has been that one of the benefits of the team playing without James and Davis will be the chances that some key contributors will get to both grow their games without them. He and his coaching staff will also get to see what other positions these role players can succeed in, and where they can’t.
“We talked all along about the silver lining in other guys getting added opportunities, and finding more creative ways to use them offensively,” Vogel said. “That’s definitely going to be a silver lining for the guys that have been playing.”
And he’s right, because longer-term, this is a promising evolution. If nothing else, this stretch has shown that the Lakers’ role players, even while receiving more defensive attention than they ever have in the absence of their two stars, were able to clean up their act on the fly and avoid giving away the ball so much, even with almost no practice time to do so. That would seem to bode well for their abilities to deal with the crucible of the postseason, when teams will be trying harder than ever to find weak links in the Lakers’ attack and force players who aren’t used to making decisions into forcing bad ones.
With James and Davis healthy, the Lakers’ supporting cast won’t be called upon to step up as often. But in delivering on Schröder’s edict to clean up their act and not give their opponents so many extra chances to beat them, they’ve shown that this team could be even more dangerous in the playoffs when they start to tighten things up.
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