On Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers played the Washington Wizards for the second time in 15 months. Their performances in those two games were both remarkably similar and yet troublingly different at the same time. The Lakers scored 125 points in their November 2019 tilt. They scored 124 points in February 2021. They made 14 3-pointers in 2019 and 15 in 2021, both relatively high figures by their standards. The difference was in the outcome. The Lakers dominated their 2019 matchup with the Wizards, 125-103. They lost in overtime to the Wizards on Monday, 127-124.
In the grand scheme of things, that single regular-season loss to the Wizards doesn't mean much of anything. The Lakers were missing two starters, Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder. They ran into two star guards on hot streaks. It happens.
This season, it's happening more than ever. It's why the symmetry between the two Wizards games is so foreboding. The Lakers are struggling through a four-game losing streak -- including an ugly loss Wednesday night to the top-ranked Utah Jazz -- and weeks of offensive discord, yes, but that's not exactly unfamiliar territory for this team, which just won a championship despite a rickety half-court attack. No, the truth is that the Lakers are, practically to a tee, the same offensive team that they were a year ago.
Before the Orlando bubble, the 2019-20 Lakers scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions. Prior to this four-game losing streak without Davis and Schroder, the 2020-21 Lakers had scored 112.2. Compare the two teams in just about any offensive category and you'll see such similarities. The Lakers improved from 94.4 points per 100 possession on half-court plays to 95.2 this season, per Cleaning the Glass. They took 31.6 3-pointers per game last season and they're taking 31 per game now. The list goes on and on. Some categories tilt toward one team and some the other, but in almost all of them, the margin is minimal. A few stylistic changes aside, the Lakers have the same general strengths and weaknesses they did on offense a season ago.
And yet, on a relative basis, they're struggling. The pre-bubble Lakers ranked fourth on offense last season. The current iteration is ranked 17th. They are scoring more in the half court, but their rank has fallen from 17th to 20th. The problem isn't that the Lakers have gotten worse. The problem is that everybody else has gotten better, and they've all gotten better in the same way: They're shooting historically well from behind the arc.
The average NBA team shot 35.8 percent on 3-pointers last season. It has jumped over a full percentage point this season up to 36.9 percent. We've seen a similar jump in 3-point rate, as 39.5 percent of field goal attempts this season have come from behind the arc compared to 38.4 percent last season. These trends are especially prevalent among contenders. The Clippers, Nets and Jazz are the NBA's three leaders in 3-point percentage.
That doesn't quite do their success justice. With all three now shooting at least 39.8 percent from behind the arc, they are all currently on pace to finish among the top-20 3-point shooting teams in NBA history. Here's where things get scarier: In addition to that efficiency, the Clippers, Nets and Jazz are on pace to average more 3-point attempts per game than any other team that has matched their percentage in history. The Jazz currently lead the NBA in 3-point attempts. The Nets are in eighth. The best teams this season also happen to be among the best shooting teams in NBA history.
Except, of course, for the Lakers, who entered Wednesday ranked 25th in 3-point attempts per game and 21st in 3-point percentage. They're experiencing this mathematical disadvantage firsthand whenever they play against these contenders. They've lost to the Clippers, Nets and Jazz, and shooting has been the difference in each defeat.
|Lakers 3P||Opponent 3P||Lakers 3PA||Opponent 3PA||Lakers 3P%||Opponent 3P%|
12/22 vs. Clippers
2/18 vs. Nets
2/25 vs. Jazz
It's a small sample, yes, but it's one that makes intuitive sense even if the Lakers were shorthanded in two of those games. The NBA's best teams are all built to play a certain way, and they've beaten the Lakers playing that style. They've beaten just above everybody playing that way. Last season, the Mavericks posted the most efficient offense in NBA history by scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions. Right now, five different NBA teams are on pace to beat that mark, including those three contenders, the Bucks, who play a similar style, and the Denver Nuggets, who currently have the fifth-highest 3-point percentage in the NBA.
The old adage suggests that defense wins championships. It was true for the Lakers last season. As the No. 1 defense so far this season, they're relying on it to be true again this postseason. But the best teams this season are thriving offensively, and those offenses are dominating by shooting.
The Lakers are not. Their competition is practically playing a different sport, and it puts the low-variance Lakers in a somewhat precarious position. They played four playoff series last season in which none of their opponents hit even 38 percent of their 3-pointers. To win the championship this season, they might have to beat four teams that all do so, which makes masking their own shooting deficiencies more difficult.
The Lakers successfully bet last season that their defense and interior scoring would be so overwhelming that a minor gap in shooting wouldn't sink them. Whether Davis is healthy or not, the gap won't be minor this time around. If even the lowly Wizards have grown explosive enough to overcome 124-point nights by the Lakers, things are going to get a whole lot harder against postseason-caliber competition.