(Photo via CaliSportsNews.com)
The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a surprising 4 and 3 start to the season and they have done it in part by moving at an accelerated rate to the point of leading the league in pace (105.3 possessions per game*). The Lakers are even topping the team most known in the league for pace, the Golden State Warriors who rank 2nd in the league.
The pace is one that Lakers’ fans haven’t seen since the days of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. The pace in which the current Lakers squad are playing would rank 8th since 1980 and the non-1980s team to crack the top 10.
The rate in which the Lakers play should not come as too much of a surprise considering head coach Luke Walton is just 1 year removed from working with the Warriors and their famously brisk moving offensive system. Also, the Lakers have a surplus of young legs; currently with 8 players on the 15 man roster being age 25 years or younger.
In order to sustain the rabid pace that the Lakers have been on Walton has implemented a deep rotation where all players are averaging under 30 minutes per game.
Randle currently leads the Lakers in minutes at 27.8 per game, with a slew of Lakers right behind him averaging in the neighborhood of twenty.
While the Lakers fast pace will naturally put them near the top in most team offensive categories, it also places them in the bottom of most defensive categories as well. Here’s a snap shot of some the team’s current stats, arranged to juxtapose the offensive and defensive numbers.
What stands out immediately is that while the Lakers rank high in many offensive categories they are not only ranked near the bottom of the league in those respective defensive category but they’re also being outdone by their opponent.
Their opponents are shooting better from the field overall and getting more fast break points, 2nd chance points and points in the paint, so it seems as if the fast pace is actually not an advantage for the Lakers, yet they’ve been in every game and sport a winning record despite a very competitive schedule to start the season.
The Lakers lead the league in committing turnovers at 17.9 per game which explains a lot of the points in the paint and fast break points that they give up. It also explains why they give up so many shots within 5 feet of the basket (36.4 shots per game – league worst) where their opponents shoot a league best 67.5 percent.
The Lakers success so far this season has been primarily in two areas: the 3 point line and converting on their opponents mistakes.
The Lakers take a lot of 3s but aren’t necessarily adept at hitting those shots. The Lakers are ranked 9th in the NBA at 3-point attempts per game (27.6 threes per game) but are only hitting them at a rate of 31.6 percent which ranks them 24th in the league. What matters, however, is that they are plus 3 points per game in 3 point shooting which is a byproduct of the Lakers biggest strength on defense end where they rank rank 1st in opponents 3-point percentage by only allowing them to shoot 28.1% from behind the arch.
A big part of the Lakers perimeter defense, at least in terms of contesting those 3s, is the 2nd unit which consist of the Lakers smaller but much more athletic group of Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Tarik Black and Larry Nance Jr.
The Lakers cough the ball up more than they take away from their opponents but they so far have done a better job of capitalizing on those mistakes. Lakers rank 4th in the NBA at 20.7 points scored per game off turnovers, compared to 20.0 points per game for their opponents which ranks them 26th in the league.
Luke Walton has established an identity that is as clear as day only 7 games into the season which is play fast, play hard and play like a team by moving the ball with a big emphasis on protecting the 3 point line on defense and crashing the offensive boards on offense. While their quick pace of playing will surely continue it is hard to project if their success will as well.
Lakers are vulnerable inside with their emphasis on running teams off the 3 point line and teams are dominating once they get in the paint with the Lakers going with a small line up void of any rim protection for big chunks of the game. Mozgov, a capable overall defender and rim protector, is only playing just shy of 21 minutes per game which isnt enough time to make a huge impact on the team’s struggles with defending the paint. If there is even modest improvement in this area, even if it is just slightly below league average, without taking any step back in their superb defense in the perimeter, it could have improve the team significantly.
The perimeter defense that the Lakers have showed this season should be an area that is sustainable considering the emphasis will remain and outside of injuries, the Lakers have the personnel with length, quickness and athleticism to recover and contest their opponents 3 point shooters.
Early success for a team, especially one where it wasn’t expected, means teams are examining video and looking for new ways to attack on both offense and defense, so what is working now doesn’t mean it is going to work later. If, or more accurately when, the league does solve the puzzle it’ll be up to Luke and his staff to find a way to successfully counter with their adjustments; based on the play thus far, albeit a small sample size, everybody should be pretty confident that they will be able to do just that.
*stat per nba.com/stats