Lakers’ Failure To Embrace Analytics!

How the Lakers’ disdain for analytics and failure to value 3-point shooting wasted the first year of LeBron James 4-year contract

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are the Lakers’ version of Charles Barkley, old school fools lost in the past and dreaming of Showtime and Kobe Bryant midrange jumpers in a league dominated by analytics and 3-point shooting.

Rather than join the modern NBA, embrace analytics and 3-point shooting, and surround LeBron James with the capable shooters that had been key to his winning three championships, Johnson and Pelinka instead wasted the first year of James’ contract by signing a meme team of forgettable veterans who were mediocre shooters at best, resulting in the Lakers finishing 20th in the league in 3-pointers made and 29th in the league in 3-point percentage.

The result was the Lakers missing the playoffs for the sixth year in a row, ending LeBron James’ streak of 13 straight years in the playoffs and eight straight years in the Finals. Johnson’s and Pelinka’s continued disdain for analytics was further evident by their Director of Analytics Jason Rosenfield, former head of analytics for the NBA, resigning after just one year with the team, leaving the Lakers as the only team without an analytics director.

Compounding the Lakers’ disdain for 3-point shooting, Johnson and Pelinka allowed Brook Lopez, who led all centers in 3-point shots made last year, go in free agency without making an offer despite Luke Walton and his coaching staff’s desire to re-sign him. Signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to a 1-year $3.4 million contract, Lopez redefined how valuable a stretch five can be by taking 145 more and making 80 more 3-point shots than any center in NBA history.

Johnson’s and Pelinka’s failure to embrace the value of analytics and 3-point shooting has been a major factor in their inability to create a modern vision and identity to drive rebuilding the Lakers. A recent article by the respected Howard Beck indicated that Lakers’ rivals also consider them “to be behind the curve in areas like analytics, sports science and player development,” despite there being no limit to what NBA teams can spend in those areas.

As the Lakers finish off another disappointing season under Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, there are three big questions will dominate the offseason. The first question is will they fire head coach Luke Walton? The second is will they be able to use the $38 million in cap space they’ve saved to sign a second superstar to pair with LeBron James? And the third is whether they decide to trade some or all of their young stars to acquire a second or third superstar.

How well the Lakers answer each of these three questions will be greatly dependent upon whether they’re finally ready to embrace analytics and the value of 3-point shooting, which inherently means accepting blame for the poor job of roster construction last year and making a decision to modernize their approach to the game. Going forward, Johnson and Pelinka must adopt an organization wide complete embrace of analytics and 3-point shooting.

The first decision is what to do with head coach Luke Walton, whom even LeBron James has admitted did as good a job as could be expected with the hand he was dealt. Firing Luke as a scapegoat for the front office’s mistakes would be foolish. Replacing him with a new head coach who could engineer an offensive turnaround like Mike Budenholzer accomplished with the Bucks would be a great move provided the right coach to do the job is available.

If there’s no head coach out there who’s capable of accomplishing a major overhaul of the Lakers’ offense, Johnson and Pelinka would probably be better off keeping Luke and upgrading his coaching staff to include a good associate head coach to help him with the offense like Ettore Messina or Becky Hammond plus a shooting coach like Chris Matthews (KCP’s coach) or the Jamahl Mosley (DeAndre Jordan’s coach) to improve their shooting.

While the media has been rampant with rumors that none of the elite free agents who will be available this summer are likely to sign with the Lakers, the Lakers should still have many good options to spend their $38 million. Analytics should also be an important factor on whom Johnson and Pelinka decide to spend their $38 million in cap space. Right now, the Lakers’ only player who shoots over 40% from beyond is backup point guard Alex Caruso.

While the Lakers would jump at the chance to sign Kevin Durant (35.4% on 394 3-point attempts) or Kawhi Leonard (36.6% on 295 attempts), Klay Thomson (40.1% on 589 attempts) or Kyrie Irving (39.7% on 428 attempts) would be better fits. If the Lakers miss out on the top tier, Kemba Walker (35.5% on 701 attempts) would be a better choice due to volume than Jimmy Butler (34.0% of 147 attempts) or Nikola Vucevic (36.6% on 227 attempts).

There are other elite free agent 3-point shooters that wouldn’t require a max deal but would be upgrades for the Lakers like Brook Lopez (36.9% on 507 attempts), Danny Green (45.6% on 432 attempts), J.J. Reddick (39.7 on 605 attempts), Bojan Bogdanovic (42.4% on 382 attempts), Seth Curry (44.8% on 239 attempts), Rudy Gay (40.9% on 181 attempts), Khris Middleton (37.9% on 459 attempts), or Terrence Ross (37.8% on 545 attempts).

Lopez is currently making only $3.4 million, Green $10 million, Reddick $12.3 million, Bogdanovic $10.5 million, Curry $2.8 million, Gay $10.1 million, Middleton $13 million, and Ross $10.5 million. Even if the Lakers were to strike on the elite free agents who would demand max contracts, they could still be able to add two or three elite 3-point shooters like Brook Lopez, Danny Green, and Terrence Ross who would be great fits alongside LeBron.

Two realistic options I think would be great moves by the Lakers would be to use their $38 million in cap space to sign Kemba Walker and Brook Lopez or DeMarcus Cousins and Danny Green. While Cousins is only shooting 27.7% on 83 3-point attempts this year, he averaged 35.4% on 294 attempts last year before his injury. Since the Warriors can’t re-sign him for more the $6.5 million, the Lakers might be able to sign him short term for $18–20 million.

Finally, the Lakers will obviously test the market once again for Anthony Davis even though their chances are slim to none unless they were to win the lottery for Zion Stephenson, in which case they would be wise to keep Zion. Depending on what happens with the Wizards or Blazers, the Lakers could also try to trade a couple of their budding young stars for Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard, especially if they missed out on signing a max superstar.

Bradley Beal shot 35.0% on 586 3-point attempts while Damian Lillard shot 36.8% on 622 attempts so both would be excellent fits to upgrade the Lakers 3-point shooting. The players likely traded for them would be two of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Ball shot just 32.9% on 228 3-point attempts, Ingram 33% on 94 attempts, and Kuzma 30.3% on 422 attempts. Trading for Beal or Lillard would clearly improve the Lakers’ 3-point shooting.

What jumps out at me is that the Lakers definitely have the needed cap space and tradeable pieces and the free agent and trade markets definitely have the available candidates for the Lakers to greatly upgrade their 3-point shooting. The only question is will Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka join the modern NBA an embrace analytics and commit to building a team with elite 3-point shooters that LeBron needs for the Lakers to win an NBA championship.