Editor’s Note: It is my pleasure to welcome Alex Regla back to the Silver Screen and Roll writing staff. In addition to his podcast with us, he will now be writing one column like this per week for the site, taking a deep dive into whatever is going on with the Lakers. His first is on the team’s stalled-out transition attack in 2021.
Basketball is many things. It is a dance, it is a war, it is a chess match played in real-time by hulking participants. Basketball is also a chameleon. And its end-game is typically decided by who can create more advantages.
These edges do not need to be mammoth, overpowering, or even flashy. The most effective advantages are often the ones concocted under a shroud of darkness, conjured up out of thin air like a magician pulling a king of clubs from behind an unsuspecting ear.
A year ago, the Lakers excelled in this by being Houdini-like in their ability to summon transition opportunities against their opponents en route to their eventual championship. It was a devastating skill that helped disguise the team’s half-court weaknesses while also allowing their athletic strengths to flourish in the open floor.
LeBron James’ presence was largely responsible for this, as he not only orchestrated the team’s running game, but wrote the sheet music, tuned the instruments, and made their transition offense hum.
And although his bulldozing grab and go’s played a big role, arguably his best method in speeding up the Lakers came without taking a step.
James’ unique ability to blister outlet passes consistently gave the Lakers advantageous scoring chances as defenses — and even his teammates — routinely needed to keep their heads on a swivel. Between James’ mastery in directing traffic and having multiple athletic bigs and crafty wings to fill the lanes, the team thrived in attacking the opposition before they knew what was coming.
Unfortunately, like other things, that was no longer the case this season.
There are several reasons why the Lakers’ year ultimately went the way it did. Contextual nuggets like James and Anthony Davis missing a large chunk of the year, incorporating new players and their seemingly cursed shooting were all critical contributors to why the team took a step back. Their offense in particular fell off, dropping from the 11th-best offensive rating to 23rd.
But when digging beneath the surface for other causes to what went wrong, their aforementioned running game coming to a grinding halt is an area that continues to fly under the radar. What once was an explosive source of early offense (first in transition points added, second in efficiency last season) swiftly turned into a shortcoming (19th in transition points added, 22nd in transition efficiency this season).
So what happened? Let’s take a look at three factors in the disappearance of the Lakers’ transition attack.
Out of gas
Fatigue can rear its ugly head in several ways in basketball. For the Lakers, their subdued offensive approach this year proved to be the most deafening example of the side effects that came with the shortest turnaround in modern sports history.
Beyond just a drop in transition frequency (17.5% vs. 15.4%), the 2021 squad also had 145 fewer attempts coming within a “very early shot clock” (22-18 seconds) compared to last season, according to NBA.com’s tracking data.
This directly — and negatively — correlated to 80.3% of the team’s possessions taking place in the half-court, according to Cleaning the Glass. That was the Lakers’ highest percentage in that stat since the 2015-16 season, and further exposed their warts against set defenses (23rd in half-court efficiency). It turns out that doing something a team is bad at more often isn’t good for their overall efficiency.
And unlike last year, the team was rarely able to find refuge during the instances when they did get out and run, and the results often looked like this:
Settling for jumpers and half-heartedly attacking a wall of defenders were not only physical representations of a team both literally and metaphorically gasping for air, but also exemplified a trend of self-preservation that severely hindered their offensive ceiling.
This may be epitomized best when considering James posted his lowest shot frequency at the rim since 2010, and the lowest for Davis in his career, both numbers serving as quantifiable and visual evidence that the short-term importance of the regular season was not deemed a priority, leaving their offense to suffer in the process.
Although it was understandable for players to protect their bodies during the slog of the year, it is easy to question if the lack of aggression may have seeped into other areas of the game. Namely in transition, where both mental and physical sharpness is paramount.
Dennis Schröder’s speed wobbles
When the Lakers first traded for Dennis Schröder this past offseason, one of the first skills many envisioned he’d bring to the team was speed.
Schröder is fast, but he’s at his quickest and his best when he’s also crafty. The guard is dynamic when he changes gears, hesitates, and uses his strengths to generate better looks for others.
However, when the stick shift is stuck on one speed, trouble often arises. This was seen most in transition, where the temptation to go faster and faster proved too enticing to resist.
In theory, the addition of a player like Schröder on an elite transition team seemed like a perfect marriage. Yet, between the guard’s antsy nature, tunnel vision, and sheer lack of control, the theoretical advantages of the union rarely came to fruition.
Schröder often served as the team’s wide receiver in early offense, being thrust into a role where he was responsible for assessing and leveraging the initial advantages created.
As the plays above illustrate, he often decided that attacking himself was the best course of action, regardless of the opposing bodies, or open teammates around him.
Schröder’s poor decision-making in transition resulted in him ranking in the mere 11th percentile among all players with at least 100 transition possessions. His 46.2% eFG% in these scoring chances was the fourth worst in the NBA, and his turnover frequency was the seventh highest.
Whether or not the 27-year-old returns next season, the team as a whole must do a better job in identifying and attacking their back-pedaling opposition with a plan in mind, rather than bail them out with their impatience.
Change in recipe
Ironically, most of the Lakers’ retooling of their roster this past offseason should have paved the way for an even better transition offense.
With the infusion of younger, quicker talent like Schröder and Montrezl Harrell, the pieces felt like they fell in place to bolster their breakneck attack.
However, the new formula missed the mark in replicating the magic ingredients that made last season’s breaks so formidable.
Those dazzling James outlet passes were still there, but came less often and sorely missed the snappy pull-up shooting from a player like Danny Green in particular.
Despite his flaws and ongoing love-hate relationship with Laker fans, Green’s knack for both filling open spaces on the move and possessing a quick trigger from deep did add a key spacing dimension to the team’s transition game that was absent this season.
That absence was felt. The team would go on to convert just 33.6% of their chances from behind the arc when shooting in a very early shot clock (28th in the league). Last season, the Lakers shot 37.3% on such opportunities, while Green thrived as the designated hit-ahead man (41.6% shooting).
Replacing Green with players with less reputable shooting resumes was also compounded by a drastically different frontcourt as well. Between Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and Davis, the Lakers had three legitimate rim-runners who also served as viable lob threats for James and the team’s other playmakers to spoon-feed against opposing plodding bigs.
But with Davis still feeling the lingering effects of the short offseason, and adding two non-vertical spacers in Marc Gasol (who only attempted 22 shots at the rim all season) and Harrell, the prospects of simulating what worked fell by the wayside. It was a trend that ultimately sunk the team.
Despite their bad luck and being victims of circumstance in several regards, the team needs to accept that their failures are still worth learning from and improving upon. While fixing their transition offense may not ultimately be the sole difference-maker in the Lakers’ pursuit of a comeback, addressing what went wrong, continuing to throw that outlet pass, and laying in one easy bucket at a time could be one of their quickest fixes as they look to race back into their title chase.