FanPost

What ails the Lakers in the clutch?

I've got inspired by the discussion about whether or not Russell Westbrook should play in crunch time. So I decided to expand on this topic a little bit and look at the Lakers' performance in clutch situations in general, as usual from a statistical point. There were a few surprising numbers...

To put things into perspective, I compared the Lakers' clutch stats to their overall season stats as well as to their stats over the last 10 games. Schedule was rather easy yet it starts to even out - and LeBron played 5 of those games while missing the other half so that could be a more reliable indicator for some categories than the overall numbers (for example 3-point shooting). Other stats may be more extreme outliers over the last 10 games than the abysmal shooting early on relative to total games played (e.g. offensive rating, plus minus or net rating gotta be taken with a grain of salt).

Unfortunately I find it still a bit complicated to smoothly embed sheets and overviews into this format, apologies if it's not as much of a nice, quick overview as it should be... I had the numbers available up to (but not including) the Milwaukee game.

1) Overall performance:

In terms of net rating, the Lakers rank 19th for the season at -0.8. Over the last 10 games, they rank 5th at +6.8. However, in the clutch, they rank just 28th with a horrendous net rating of -27.1. So yes, eye-test confirmed, they certainly struggle in the clutch. Plusminus stats are accordingly.

Do the issues include offense, defense or both?

2) Four factors:

Four factors includes effective field goal percentage, free throw attempt rate, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and those same stats for opponents.

Defensively, opponent effective field goal percentage is relatively steady. It only drops from 51.9% allowed (last 10 games) and 52.6% for the season to 53.6%. The issue here is that offenses tend to be less successful in the clutch which means that relatively speaking, the Lakers drop off significantly instead of slightly improving. That explains why they drop from a top7 defense in terms of effective field goal percentage allowed all the way to 20th.

In opponent free throw rate, the Lakers are elite. They lead the league for the season, their numbers over the past 10 games are even better and they are 3rd in opponent free throw rate in the clutch.

The ranking with regards to opponent turnover percentage doesn't really change (they are bottom 5 in this category), what changes in the clutch is the volume of turnovers forced: instead of 12.0 (last 10) to 12.8% turnovers, opponents only turn it over at a rate of 8.5%. Why is that? It's not due to a lack of steals: when looking at clutch stats per game, the Lakers rank tied for 7th in steals (despite only ranking 19th in minutes per clutch game). They are tied for 5th in blocks per clutch game. So it's gotta be a lack of charges, travels, illegal screens, stepping out-of-bounds... Factors that aren't really within their control. Small sample size may also play a role here, with only 8 clutch games counted so far.

Offensive rebounding percentage is slightly increased for opponents in the clutch. It is a factor why they struggle closing out games as second-chance points will prove but not a big deviation from their season numbers. The Lakers rank 12th for the season, 16th over the last 10 games and 14th in the 8 clutch games.

On offense, there's much more variance. The Lakers' effective field goal percentage drops from 52.5% (season) and 55.8% respectively (last 10) all the way to 40.7% in the clutch. The Milwaukee games will help alleviate this a little bit (effective field goal percentage of 60% vs the Bucks in crunch time) but the problem is obvious. The Lakers shoot 12.9% worse than opponents in the last 5 minutes with the score within 5.

Issues don't stop with shooting. While the Lakers' free throw rate sees a jump from 28.6% (tied for 5th, season) and 32.2% (3rd, last 10 games) to 35.2% in the clutch, it doesn't jump at the same rate as the league average free throw rate come crunch time. They drop from top5 to 22nd in free throw rate in the clutch. However, they have a higher free throw rate than opponents so the shooting discrepancy is clearly a much more pressing issue.

This one was the first big surprise to me (positive news!): the Lakers are 2nd in turnover rate come crunch time, up from ranking 9th for the season and 6th over the last 10. 6.8% turnover rate compared to 8.5% for opponents (no clutch turnovers vs Milwaukee, 1 for the Bucks).

Their own offensive rebounding percentage sees a jump, from 25.2% (26th, season) and 27.3% (19th, last 10) to 33.3% in clutch games (tied for 12th). But whether this is a positive or comes at the expense of transition defense remains to be seen.

Questions arising: why do they shoot so poorly? Why do opponents shoot better against them? Why do they struggle to draw (enough) fouls that get them to the line? How is their transition defense and is offensive rebounding a net positive?

3) Miscellaneous stats:

Miscellaneous includes points off turnovers, 2nd chance points, fast break points, points in the paint and the same stats for opposing teams. These are per 100 possessions to stick with percentages and account for the fact that every team played a different amount of clutch minutes.

Defensively, the Lakers have seen an improvement in opponents' points off turnovers per 100 possessions compared to the overall season percentage of 16.8 (which ranks tied for 11th), both over the last 10 (15.1, 5th) and in the clutch (8.5, 7th). As this stat is per 100 possessions, it seems as if both avoiding turnovers as well as the defense played after turnovers are positives.

Second chance points allowed are a different story: it's been an issue for the season already (15.0 allowed per 100 possessions, 23rd) and also over the last 10 games (15.6, 24th). It has been an even bigger problem in the clutch where they give up an astonishing 25.4 second-chance points per 100, ranking 29th. Vs the Bucks they allowed 2 points on second chances in the clutch. I'm not entirely sure what constitutes a 'possession' or a second chance in this regard, how deflections and ensuing side outs or lost 50/50 balls are counted. Just know that this is one of the major clutch problems for the team so far.

Fastbreak points: the Lakers allow too many (17.5 per 100 for the season, tied for 28th; 18.1 over the last 10, 29th). While seeing a big improvement in the clutch (8.5 per 100), that still only ranks 23rd as clutch defenses generally don't allow too many fast break points. When we look at the fact that they hardly ever turn the ball over in the clutch (and not much for the season or over the last 10 either), transition defense seems to be a general issue.

Opponents points in the paint: oh boy... You're gonna give up some points in the paint when you allow fast break points as the season numbers show: 51.4 points per 100 in the paint for opponents which ranks 22nd. 54.6 over the last 10 which puts them in the bottom 5. In the clutch, they give up a whopping 67.8 points in the paint per 100. Tied for last place. They rank tied 24th in the league per game, not adjusted for minutes/possessions btw, with only the Spurs averaging fewer clutch minutes per game.

Offensively, well let's start with points in the paint. The Lakers drop from 2nd place (56.7 points per 100 possessions, season, 58.2 points over the last 10, also 2nd) all the way to 23rd place at 40.7 paint points per 100 in the clutch. They get outscored by 2 points per game in the paint which doesn't sound very much. Per 100 possessions, they get outscored by 27.1 points in the paint which is exactly their net rating come crunch time.

In spite of not forcing a lot of turnovers, the Lakers rank 3rd in fast break points per 100 in the clutch (up from 5th, season numbers and tied 15th, last 10). Meaning they push the ball whenever they can and do well in those situations. Outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 on fast breaks. The problem is a lack of possessions here rather than a lack of efficiency.

The Lakers jump from 20th in second chance points per 100 (season) respectively 16th (last 10) to 15th in the clutch. The difference is minimal in efficiency though and they lose the battle in this category by 11.8 points per 100. I'd like to check this over a bigger sample size but I'm tempted to say that their increased offensive rebounding in the clutch hurts them more than it helps.

The Lakers are dead last in points off turnovers per 100 possessions (season and last 10 alike). They lose this category to opponents by 2.8 points, both per game and per 100. In the clutch, it's a little bit 'better' with a discrepancy of 1.7 points. Just on offense, they rank tied for 24th. This one feels a little bit weird as the team is much better in fast break points than in points off turnovers. Looks like a confirming stat to push the pace on fast breaks whenever they can (which they do, it just doesn't happen frequently enough).

This paragraph mainly addressed the questions about offensive rebounding, the value of it and the transition defense in the clutch. It also partially answers the question why opponents shoot better, not a surprise at all when you rank bottom 2 in opponents points in the paint and second chance points and then you top it off with the 8th-worst fast break defense.

Why does the team shoot so poorly? Why do they struggle to draw fouls?

4) Shooting stats:

The Lakers are steadily improving on offense. Their effective field goal percentage climbed to 52.5% for the season after shooting 55.8% over the last 10 games (11th, tied for 20th for the season). However, in the clutch these numbers are completely different. Effective field goal percentage drops to 40.7%. Amazingly, that's only 3rd-worst in the league...

Why do they shoot so poorly? 3-point shooting is NOT the problem. The Lakers shoot a 10th-best 35.3% from 3 in the clutch. They are now at now at 32.8% for the season which ranks 26th. Over the last 10 games, they are shooting 37.2% from deep (which also ranks 10th). That might be a little inflated but looks much more realistic than the season stats including those first four games.

The issues are free throw percentage (63.2% in the clutch, dead last) and 2-point percentage (34.0%, you read that right). Neither free throw percentage (80% for the season, 9th) nor 2-point percentage (54.2%) are big issues in general. Not much to discuss about free throw percentage either, you gotta make those, period. When looking at players, LeBron is now 4-8 on clutch free throws (after the Bucks game), Russ 2-6 and AD 5-8. In particular Russ, but frankly, all of them gotta be better. Fortunately those numbers also show that we're still talking small sample size.

How about 2-pointers? Several things stand out here: 68.5% of the Lakers' clutch field goal attempts are 2s - but they only account for 46.4% of total points scored. The Lakers are last (by a wide margin) in the percentage of made 2-point field goals that are assisted. Logically, they're also 1st with regards to the percentage of unassisted 2-pointers made. The good news is that we're still talking small sample size: those numbers mean that 3 of their 13 made 2-pointers were assisted, 10 weren't. The numbers could change quickly. E.g. when I add the Milwaukee game, the team should have an effective field goal percentage of 45.2% (instead of 40.7%) now, after just one additional game. That also means that their clutch free throw percentage will drop to a pathetic 56.0%. Still, there's some reason for hope and some reason for concern:

The biggest issue in the clutch (by a mile) is not getting points in the paint and consequently not drawing enough freebies. Teams pack the paint more. The team shoots well enough on 3s already but the volume might be too low and the threat of LeBron, Russ and AD getting to the basket too big.

Shot distribution is another issue here: Austin Reaves had a true shooting percentage of 61.1% last season in the clutch. This season, it's 113.6%. I don't know how exactly this works because according to the stats he has taken zero clutch shots this season, just made both of his free throws. That leads to a clutch usage rate of 3.1% - Reaves can and should do much more. He has played the second-most clutch minutes behind AD. Part of that is on him as he does have two assists/has had the ball and has to look to score as well. But at 3.1% (15.7% last year), he's grossly underutilised/trusted in the clutch.

LeBron on the other hand has a clutch usage rate of 39.7%, 10th in the league, 6th among star players. His effective field goal percentage was under 50% going into the Milwaukee game - and it was under 50% last season. He has taken 20 out of 44 clutch shots before the Milwaukee game despite ranking only 4th in total minutes. 24 of 53 shots taken including the last game. His percentages will improve now but that's way too top-heavy regardless of his percentages: Reaves can't provide value and the value of others, mostly AD is limited (even though he's the more efficient option, both for the season or clutch minutes or even for last season's clutch minutes).

The issues when it comes to percentages have been most of all Russ (effective field goal percentage of 25%, 2-10 with 1 made 3), Walker (1-7 with 1 made 3) and Beverley (0-3). Russ has provided some value with 2 steals, a block and a couple of offensive rebounds as well as the hustle play vs the Bucks. Overall though, he's far from a net neutral in spite of just a single turnover. The reasons here are a) very poor shooting (small sample size) and b) lack of points in the paint, whether that's from him or off an assist. And that's the major challenge for Ham, how to generate points in the paint out of a half court setting. LeBron, AD, Reaves and Walker seem to be set as closers (and that makes a lot of sense to me). The fifth spot is up for grabs and might be a situational choice as it has been so far. Like Ham, Russ gotta figure out how the team can be effective in the paint if he wants to close. If it's somebody else, they gotta figure out how they can contribute/shoot well enough to provide some spacing. Defensively, there's more issues, namely paint defense, transition defense and limiting second chance opportunities.