There’s a simmering level of proactivity that has fueled the Lakers’ improved play of late. Gone is the passivity displayed to start the season, and in its place is something mean and boisterous. Those punches to the jaw and gut the team had to once withstand, are now haymakers thrown first.
There’s a kinetic force in their drives, ball-pressure and post-basket roars that are as contagious amongst the players as they are exhilarating to watch as a viewer. These Lakers move, they pursue and then detonate.
Winners of eight of their last ten games, the team is finally trending in the right direction after their 2-10 start. Their noticeable uptick in aggression, which has also been calculated, is a big factor as into why. What follows are a couple ways this has manifested itself on the floor, as well as where tinkering may still need to be occur.
Anthony Davis, roll-man extraordinaire
The “hot-hand” simply isn't enough of a sufficient descriptor to what Anthony Davis has right now.
Instead, let the history books show that it was during this stretch when his massive palms were sculpted and glazed within a volcano on Venus like a piece of stoneware. Encrusted, scorched, fingers whose only repose has come in the form of spewing lava all over the opposition’s net.
Over his last ten contests, Davis is averaging 34.2 points, 15.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks on 70.9% true shooting. He’s a basketball-playing Paul Bunyan, who has cradled the rest of the Lakers underneath one of the straps of his overalls and propelled them nearly all the way out of their early season hole.
One of the biggest contributors behind his play and recent torrid scoring outputs has been Davis’ performances out of the roll.
As the team’s primary center and usual lone big on the floor, Davis has often served as the Lakers’ main screener in the half-court. This has resulted in more opportunities to engage the defense off-ball, specifically by getting downhill and receiving the pass after the initial pick where he’s then been able to bulldoze his way to the rim.
Although Davis’ roll-man play-type frequency doesn't look that much different than his output last season (20.6% this year vs 20.5% last year), the main difference has come in the distribution of his actions within the “roll-man” umbrella.
When Davis has served as the screener, he is rolling to the cup 78.6% of the time versus popping just 14.3% according to Synergy. Compared to last campaign, Davis was only the roller only 58.7% of his chances out of screen-action and popped at a much higher 35.2% rate.
This improved allocation has magnified his strengths as a finisher and helped minimize his weaknesses as a jump-shooter. And so far, the results have been otherworldly.
As of this article, only six players have logged at least 75 roll-man possessions this season, Davis — whose 98 chances ranks 2nd most — has the highest points per possession (1.38) and eFG% (67.9%) of the group according to Synergy.
There is also a variety to which Davis is racking up points once he catches a pass on the move. In the Lakers win over the Wizards, 20 of Davis’ 55 points came directly off roll-man possessions where he showcased his repertoire by throwing down lobs from the clouds, dropping in floaters over contested arms and displaying grace in catching pocket passes before finishing in traffic.
Davis’ utilization on offense finally feels like it’s catching up to his incredible talent. It’s a simple concept putting Davis on the move and toward the bucket, but it's also an effective one.
The results have thus far been a life-preserver for the Lakers and a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
Shooting smarter not harder
There is no sugarcoating the truth that the Lakers are not a good 3-point shooting team. That said, they are also not the worst 3-point shooting team in history like they were performing as to start the year. Regression to the mean is real, and it’s spectacular.
The raw numbers have certainly improved as since the start of November the Lakers have made 36.2% of their chances from behind the arc, which is good for 12th in the league and a considerable improvement to their initial disastrous conversion rate.
Although shots beginning to fall ultimately goes a long way, the team has also benefited from self-restraint when it comes to their perimeter game.
During that same time span, the Lakers have put their heads down and bullied their way toward the paint with the highest frequency of shot-attempts coming at the rim in the league (40.4%).
This has directly coincided with the drop-off in volume on their outside chances, as just 28.8% of their shot-diet has been composed of 3-point attempts which is the lowest rate in the NBA since the start of November.
Beyond tightening up how much they let it fly from a night to night basis, the Lakers have also done a better job on the “how” and “when” they decide to shoot from downtown.
While not completely out of their menu, the team has cut a lot of the fat of their 3-point attempts, namely minimizing the early shot-clock and off-the-dribble looks. In their place are more in-rhythm and stationary opportunities.
According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers have converted on 38.7% of their catch-and-shoot opportunities in their last ten games, which ranks 10th best in the league during that span. Also during this stretch, the team has attempted the 4th fewest pull-up attempts per game and are tied for the 3rd fewest 3-pointers that have come after a touch time of 2-6 seconds.
In their most recent win against the Wizards for example, all ten of the Lakers’ makes from the outside came via an assist and were nearly all courtesy of the catch and shoot or spot-up variety.
Notice how little thinking or legwork the team’s shooters had to do once the ball reached their hands on Sunday. It’s catch and shoot when you’re open, pass it when you’re not.
This is also one of the clear benefits that comes with having a roster with multiple guards who can create shots for others through their ability to collapse the paint. However, there are also downsides to this element as well.
The Lakers’ exiguous and redundant multi-guard lineups
Outside of the question marks surrounding the team’s shooting ability, the other cause for concern in relation to the Lakers’ roster makeup heading into the year was their sheer abundance of guards. Specifically, their employment of guards who all are: 1) small, 2) do not strike fear in the eyes of the defense when it comes to their 3-point stroke and 3) simply redundant.
Because of the roster imbalance leaning more heavily in the backcourt, Darvin Ham has attempted to compensate for this by playing variations of multi-guard lineups. Unfortunately, the results thus far have not been encouraging.
The trio of Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schröder specifically have gotten some more traction as grouping since Schröder’s return from injury and Beverley’s return from suspension.
On the season, lineups featuring the three-man unit of Westbrook, Beverley and Schröder have a defensive rating of 150, and a woeful net rating of -50. While the 11-minute sample size is still very small, the combination of their size drop-off as well as the compounding offensive limitations makes it difficult to have an optimistic outlook on their trajectory going forward.
These issues most recently manifested themselves in the 4th quarter against Washington, where the Wizards trimmed a once 29-point lead under single digits.
While not the sole reason behind the slippage on the scoreboard, both the components and collection of this multi-guard lineup in particular offered little defensive resistance to 6’9” Kyle Kuzma, who spearheaded his team’s comeback attempt by pouring in 17 points in the final frame on 7-8 shooting from the field.
As seen in his buckets above, Kuzma found a lot of success whenever matched up with one of the Lakers’ smaller guards.
Whether it was finishing over the top, or creating separation with his size advantage, the wing/forward shined a light on the exact types of players that will likely give these slight groups issues going forward if they continue to get minutes together.
After an abysmal start to their season, there is an unquestionable budding level of excitement surrounding the Lakers right now.
Davis is playing out of his mind and this world in conjunction with the team’s role players slotting into their puzzle pieces on the floor as complements. There is an identity and ethos beginning to reveal itself with every glimmer of growth shown.
They may not have turned that figurative corner all the way yet, but they’re starting to figure both the positive and negative things out. Each development serves as an important baby-step closer toward a more crystalized image of a team that is perhaps more formidable than previously perceived.