LOS ANGELES — While the Lakers’ have looked like a legitimate contender at times, their inability to compete at a high level on a night-to-night basis has cost them a number of games against what should be lesser opponents.
After winning four of six and cresting with a strong showing at home against the sixth-seeded Mavericks, the Lakers mailed in perhaps their most disappointing performance of the season to date. On Friday, they fell to the then 16-24 Brooklyn Nets in a 130-112 shellacking that drove fans to boos on their way to the exits by mid-fourth quarter despite starting the second half with a six-point advantage.
Brooklyn’s bevy of shoot-first guards gashed the Lakers’ defense, outscoring the Lakers in the paint by eight and from beyond the arc by 21. While the declining defense was quietly the main culprit for causing the losing effort as the team has slid all the way down to 21st in that category over the past two weeks, it was the lack of offensive rhythm that stood out on Friday night.
Inexplicably, after calling plays at the second-highest rate in the past season-and-a-half in the win over the Mavs, the Lakers ran organized offense on 80% of their possessions with the starting group in the first quarter, and then just 38% of the time over the rest of the game. Drifting away from the approach that earned them an eight-point first-quarter lead is bad on its own, but failing to pick it back up at any point in the game as your team is bludgeoned into submission by a cellar-dweller is even worse.
Similarly, the Lakers started out with better process against the Blazers on Sunday before losing focus. They used set plays or a help-beater on 71% of their half-court possessions in the first quarter, 22% in the second, 29% in the third, and then back up to 55% in the fourth.
Here’s what Austin Reaves had to say to a question about the Lakers’ offensive balance between freelancing vs. playcalling against the Nets, “We got a little stagnant in the second half, and you know when that happens, you have to be really good at making tough shots.”
Paired with D’Angelo Russell’s comments about what works for the Lakers after the team’s resounding win over the Blazers two days later — “We’re a hard team to guard when we move the ball” — it seems especially obvious that the Lakers should lean into a style of play that keeps the ball moving.
On the season, the Lakers have scored 1.12 points per possession when they run organized offense compared to 1.07 points per possession when freelancing. Over the last 10 games, the split between the two scoring rates is wider — 1.15 points per possession on organized offense compared to 1.03 when freelancing (per @Tim_NBA/Twitter).
A few hundredths of a point might not seem like much, but over the course of a game, that’s a 5-to-10-point gap, or the difference between the best halfcourt offense in the league and an average one.
The Lakers’ offensive ineptitude not only results in a lack of points, but infects their defense as well, chipping away at the team’s general verve and allowing the opponent to charge downhill before the Lakers have time to get set. By relinquishing control over the terms of engagement, the Lakers made life harder for themselves on both ends of the floor.
Although the evidence supports the idea that the Lakers are better when they run plays and should be doing so more consistently, understanding exactly why that’s happened is a murkier proposition. Theoretically, it should be on the coach to instill an offense and determine when it is deployed, but the Lakers exist beneath the specter of LeBron’s influence, making determining exactly who’s in charge of what a bit less clear.
One data point that might point a finger toward a culprit is the shift in offensive usage from the first half of the Nets’ game to the second. In the first half, LeBron had a usage rate of 30.6, a mark that jumped to 34.0 in the second half.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, LeBron breaking the play and going rogue is part of what’s stalled out the Lakers’ offense. Still, there’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem here in that a stalled-out offense might predictably feed the ball to their best player and repeatedly ask them to go find a bucket. Thus, LeBron’s slight usage uptick in this small sample is more likely a symptom of the issue, and not the heart of the problem itself.
When asked about his own predilection for foregoing offensive schemes and freestyling for buckets, D’Angelo Russell said, “I think you earn those guys’ trust...Last year I feel like I earned their trust.” He continued, explaining his mentality when he shoots, “So for me to come out and pull up in transition or shoot a shot the shots that I know I can make, and they’ve seen me make, I’m not looking at anybody for any reactions or validation. I’m just trusting myself and, hopefully, it can be contagious around anybody that’s not [trusting themselves].”
While D’Lo’s gusto might suggest that he plays with the kind of offense-derailing gunning scarcely seen in the NBA since the late 2000s, he’s more often the initiator of offensive sets than he is the one breaking them.
Still, Russell’s sense of liberty to go rogue may be indicative of Ham’s loose grip on the reins of the offense. While Ham has often stressed that he wants his players to feel confident in themselves, that broad faith may be misplaced when it comes at the expense of structured basketball. Any organized basketball team is theoretically optimized by running actions designed to create scoring opportunities for capable players. Otherwise, the schematic moves seen on the asphalt at Venice Beach would be indistinguishable from that of an NBA Finals game.
Combined with this month’s report of Ham’s waning support from the Lakers’ locker room, a sentiment that seems to have stemmed from the constantly churning rotations, perhaps Ham’s taken the wrong tack by enabling his players to this extent.
If Ham is going to help the Lakers turn their lackluster season around, he’ll need to lead with a clearer vision and firmer voice. If he can’t, maybe the Lakers should find someone better suited for the job.