With 26 games now tucked under their belt, the Lakers still find themselves still tinkering, and this first benchmark of the season is the perfect time for self-reflection, tough conversations and fixing what needs fixing.
Questions like: ‘what are our strengths?’ ‘what are our weaknesses?’ and ‘which direction do we go in?’ naturally begin needing prompt answers.
At 11-15, the Lakers are thankfully trending upwards after their woeful start. With that said, until some potential external reinforcements ride their way into town, the team must focus on fine-tuning what they have in-house in order to make up ground within a Western Conference that is smack dab in trench warfare.
What follows are a few examples of these subtle adjustments the Lakers have recently made, as well as a battle they are winning on both ends of the floor.
Embracing the (danger) zone
Darvin Ham is the first person to admit when he’s made a mistake. So much so that he's even apologetic when the milk spilt wasn't his doing.
To be clear, this eagerness should not be mistaken for a sign of weakness. Instead, Ham takes the blame seemingly because he knows his broad shoulders can handle the slings and arrows. As a coach and a person, Ham is sturdy, but carries the important distinction of not being rigid. He is willing to adjust, even if it goes against the familiar.
One of the most recent examples of Ham’s limberness in his game plan is the staggering uptick of zone the Lakers have run on defense.
For a sizable portion of the early season, the team relied heavily on man-to-man principles and Anthony Davis’ drop coverage to attempt to stonewall the opposition. The latter in particular was a staple during Ham’s tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the first stamps he pressed onto his new squad.
While both man and drop coverage remain go-to’s for the defense, the team’s continued use of zone, especially recently, has emerged to be more than just an anomaly.
According to Synergy, the Lakers ran a zone just two total times before Nov. 18. Since then, the team has gone to it for a whopping 110 (!) possessions. 67 of those have come in just the last three games alone.
One of the biggest contributing factors to this drastic increase stems from Davis’ recent absence. Without their defensive anchor in the paint and any reliable size in general on the roster, throwing zone at the opposition was Ham’s attempt in applying a bandage and experimenting with an off-speed pitch simultaneously.
Naturally designed to keep the offense away from the rim and around the perimeter, the coverage makes logical sense for a team in search of a shortcut when it comes to their nightly height disadvantage while also utilizing the foot speed of their multi-guard lineups.
This recent surge of zone has grouped the Lakers as one of only nine teams who have logged at least 100 zone possessions as of this article. Among those clubs, the Lakers 0.98 points per opportunity allowed ranks fourth-best, and their opponent’s 51.5% eFG% is 3rd stingiest only behind the Heat and Clippers.
While the team has found success in the aggregate with their changeup, they have also experienced the volatility of the scheme. Zone-busting isn't a secret. The keys are essentially to get the ball in the middle of the floor, have capable shooters to exploit the gaps and crash the offensive glass.
The most recent example of a team exploring the flaws of the coverage came in Philadelphia, where after the zone initially helped the Lakers get back into the game, the Sixers adjusted and ended the night scoring 1.12 points per zone look.
Despite the hit-or-miss nature of the zone, the more reps notched now could prove to be a valuable long-term tool in Ham’s kit when needed. Versatility almost always trumps a one-trick pony, and adding optionality to the defensive playbook is one of the things the team can control during their continued experimentation.
Russell Westbrook, and snug pick and rolls
Even with a move to the bench while he averages the fewest minutes of his career, there is no real changing Russell Westbrook or his stripes. He is basketball’s equivalent of a zebra. His DNA is still made out of concrete, his approach remains unshakable and his weaknesses are as loud as ever.
The best a team can realistically hope for at this stage, then, is to smooth the jagged edges.
One of the ways Ham and his staff have gone about doing this is trying to solve what has been an ongoing Achilles heel of Westbrook's game in the half court, which is defenses swimming under the screen when he runs pick and rolls.
The answer has not been removing Westbrook off the ball or sending him away from the screen game, but instead, simply repositioning the pick itself.
For example, notice where LeBron James is when he makes contact with Westbrook’s defender in his play below.
By setting the screen closer to the free-throw line versus the traditional higher placement, this makes it nearly impossible for Westbrook’s man to go under. This also makes it difficult for the help to come over on drives given the proximity of the screener and basket. If the defense opts to switch, the likes of James or Davis instantly get a favorable mismatch.
This positioning of the ball screen, which is also known as a “snug” pick and roll or “logo” pick and roll, has helped both showcase Westbrook’s stellar interior passing, as well as demonstrated the hands and finishing ability of his screeners alike. James and Davis in particular have feasted off their point guard’s helpers at the cup.
According to PBP stats, Westbrook’s 109 assists at the rim this season ranks fourth-most in the league, and are only two behind the current second place leader, Nikola Jokic.
While the snug pick and roll won't magically change Westbrook’s flaws, it is an example of the subtle refining that has helped the 34-year-old make some more noise. This time, those cheers he hears are far louder than the boos.
The battle of the charity stripe
Don't look now, but after a dismal start to the season, the Lakers’ offense has quietly begun creeping up. In fact, since the start of November the team has posted the ninth-best offensive rating in the league with a 114.9 mark.
Beyond better shotmaking and ball control, the club has also benefited mightily from getting to the line thanks to alterations made to their shot profile.
After cutting back their 3-point volume in favor of more traction toward the rim, the result has been more contact and whistles. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have had the highest free-throw rate (how many free-throws did the team make per 100 field-goal attempts) in the NBA over their last 20 games.
Outside of their boost in aggression, the higher number of trips to the charity stripe has also been a result of the roster itself, which just so happens to have a slew of foul-drawing machines.
As of this article, the Lakers have four players — Davis, Westbrook, Austin Reaves and Thomas Bryant — who currently rank in at least the 84th percentile at their position in shooting-foul percentage (the percentage a player is fouled on their shot attempts).
Although this was likely not a deliberate roster-building strategy, it certainly doesn't hurt to have multiple players with a tendency to generate contact. Especially for a team that still slogs in the half-court.
The Lakers’ free-throw advantages do not solely reside on offense however, for as good as they are in getting to the line, they are just as good in keeping their opponents off of it.
Despite seeing some overall slippage in their defense, no other team is allowing a lower free-throw rate than the Lakers have since Nov. 1, as they have forced the opposition to beat them with makes from the field instead of unguarded at the charity stripe.
Due to their un-sexiness, free throws are an overlooked part of basketball. But even in an era defined by the number three, the ability to consistently get one to two points in easy fashion still adds up.
While the current iteration of the Lakers is likely not their finished product, there have been encouraging modifications that have made the most of the tools in their shed. Whether it’s experimenting with a new defensive alignment, the positioning of a screen or simply winning in one of the blandest areas of the game, it is these alterations and small victories that can lead to discovery. They’re the type of unearthing that can change the course of a game, and maybe, even a season itself.