The gap between Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals and opening night of the 2019-20 NBA season was 131 days. The gap between the final day of the originally scheduled NBA season and its eventual resumption in Orlando was 141. There was, more than literally, an entire offseason between parts 1 and 2 of this particular season ... except that didn't technically create two separate seasons. The players, teams and standings, for the most part, were left unchanged.
Yet recency bias is powerful. A week and a half of unreliable data becomes a lot more convincing when, for nearly five months preceding it, no new data was generated to contradict it. It hardly mattered, through that lens, that the Los Angeles Lakers had the NBA's fourth-ranked offense from October through March. Six bad games over the summer meant that the sky must be falling.
Those games were, undoubtedly, awful. The Lakers scored only 97.9 points per 100 possessions during a 2-4 start in Disney after scoring a far better 112.6 prior to the pandemic. The manner in which those points were, or more accurately, weren't coming supposedly signaled the exposure of flaws that were simmering under the surface in the first place.
No team is ever going to shoot 25.4 percent on 32.8 3-pointers per game as the Lakers did to kick off their Disney experience, but they were 17th in 3-point percentage and 23rd in attempts prior to the move to Orlando. They had the most efficient transition offense in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass, but such points are harder to come by in the postseason, whereas their underwhelming half-court offense is theoretically supposed to become more problematic in the slower playoffs. Their anachronistic post-heavy offense is grossly inefficient to the analytically-influenced 3-point-heavy systems other contenders run.
These issues existed on paper prior to the pandemic. Six games were all it took to turn them into a full-blown crisis. Their seventh proved to be a reprieve. The Lakers scored 124 points in a win over the Denver Nuggets that saw their three best players combine for 80 points.
But the truth is that little actually changed in the Denver game, and the issues the Lakers faced were never daunting enough to need any sort of wholesale fix. Not even close. In fact, even a cursory glance at some of the underlying causes of their deficiencies made it clear the Lakers offense was never broken beyond repair. It was hindered through intentional design flaws meant to prioritize other things in a less-important setting.
In some form or another, lineup decisions were the root cause of pretty much every offensive weakness. The majority can be traced back to two season-long trends:
- Committing to playing Anthony Davis alongside a non-shooting center (JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard) for most of his minutes.
- Overplaying Rajon Rondo.
Both decisions cramped the floor for the drivers and shooters that actually saw it. Davis is at his most effective near the basket. Howard and McGee combined to attempt 11 3-pointers this season, so any play that didn't carry Davis away from the rim was going to allow for at least two defenders to camp out in the paint. Rondo made 41 3-pointers this season, but on 125 attempts (32.8 percent), and his presence has a similar impact. The Lakers offense scored 4.1 fewer points per possession with Rondo on the floor in part because defenses didn't treat him as a shooting threat.
These choices had legitimate motivations. Davis doesn't like taking the physical beating required to play center. Playing him with another center makes sense for defense. Rondo is popular in the locker room, so removing him from the rotation in the regular season would have been a political minefield. Contenders can afford to punt away a few games for the sake of health and harmony, but the numbers are perfectly clear: Changing course on those two fronts alone fixes nearly everything that was wrong with the Lakers offense.
All in all, the Lakers score 93.6 points per 100 possessions in a halfcourt setting, per Cleaning the Glass. That's below average league-wide. But when LeBron James and Anthony Davis play without Rondo and the centers? The number jumps to a far better 98.5 points per 100 possessions, near the top of the league. That figure is right in line with last season's champion. Vaunted half-court specialist Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to 98.9 points per 100 possessions when he played in a halfcourt setting last season.
What exactly is changing in those minutes? Well, for one, the Lakers shoot better. Defenses have to devote more attention to James and Davis without a clogged lane, creating opportunities for everyone else to take open shots. The only full-time Lakers rotation player to shoot worse than Rondo on wide-open 3s this season was Alex Caruso. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (41.4 percent) and Kyle Kuzma (38.3 percent) fare quite well on those looks. Danny Green hasn't this season, but has such a strong track record that defenses can't ignore him.
Rondo's absence has been particularly beneficial for Kuzma in Orlando. Lineups featuring he and Dion Waiters have scored a strong 114.5 point per 100 possessions, and a lot of that comes down to what Waiters can do as a ball-handler. Defenses stay completely at home on shooters when Rondo drives because they don't respect him as a finisher. Waiters bends defenses enough to give Kuzma the breathing room he needs to shoot.
The presence of another big man mostly precludes the Lakers from using the most dangerous play in their playbook: the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll. The paint is simply too busy to run it effectively. The goal, ideally, is a Davis dunk, but if a big man nominally defending Howard or McGee can just camp out under the basket unafraid of being punished by a non-shooter, that option is off the table. Unsurprisingly, this leads to the Lakers using among the fewest pick-and-rolls in basketball despite having one of the play's best initiators and almost indisputably its best finisher.
When the Lakers don't have another big man on the floor, though, they can run it with impunity. The Lakers ran five pick-and-roll variants in the final 5:30 of their win over the Nuggets Tuesday, scoring nine points in the process. The worst-case scenario here is, usually, the ability to switch Davis' bigger, slower defender onto LeBron. The best-case scenario is a clean look at the rim for Davis.
This might seem somewhat simplistic, and the Lakers won't base their entire playoff offense on switch-hunting and pick-and-roll, but those basic actions are the easiest to generate when it counts. This is, essentially, Kevin Durant's argument against motion offense. Defenses study tendencies to such a degree in the postseason that the only reliable form of playoff offense is star-caliber individual creation. Lineup choices need to be made with the support of that shot-creation in mind, and when coach Frank Vogel has done that by optimizing his lineups for offense, the numbers show somewhat definitively that the Lakers can score at a championship-caliber rate.
The downside, in theory, is supposed to come on defense. Centers are essential rim-protectors. Rondo, while hardly a stopper anymore, has a history of raising his game when it counts. The Lakers surely miss Avery Bradley. But for the most part, these Davis-at-center lineups have more than held up their end of the bargain defensively.
Davis and Howard
Davis and McGee
Davis without Howard or McGee
This makes sense, especially in the context of the rest of the roster. James is better suited to defending power forwards at this stage of his career, at least for the bulk of games. Kuzma's length substitutes for much of the lost size, at least in a cumulative sense, and his defensive growth only helps in that regard. Without Bradley (too small) and the centers (too slow), the Lakers can switch almost every screen, should the opponent call for it. Statistically speaking, no defensive sacrifice has ever come about as the result of offense-first lineup construction. Anecdotally, it opens the Lakers up to further defensive versatility.
And in the simplest terms, it allows the Lakers to devote their minutes to their best players. McGee has played in six seeding games ... and the Lakers have been outscored during his minutes in each of them. The Lakers were 8.4 points per 100 possessions better with Rondo off the floor than they were with him on it. Howard has somewhat emphatically won the battle for center minutes when Davis needs to sit, but his shortcomings limit what he can do offensively with Davis on the floor. We live in a world in which the Rockets don't play centers at all. The Lakers playing two at a time was never going to be a permanent solution.
And day by day, we inch closer to a world in which Vogel actually does limit his rotation to his best players. Davis saw 16 minutes at center on Monday. Vogel showed his hand by allowing Waiters to close the game after Caruso suffered an injury, suggesting that he has won the fourth-guard job. JR Smith, Jared Dudley and Quinn Cook didn't play against the Nuggets. Talen Horton-Tucker only saw a short stretch.
The Lakers spent 63 games proving that playoff-caliber offense was within them. Six meaningless games over the summer did not erase that. Monday's win was a small taste of what they are capable of when scoring shifts from a luxury to a necessity.