Turbo-charging the Lakers offense!
How advanced analytics provides the Lakers with the perfect blueprint to modernize and weaponize their offense
With the hiring of former Warriors’ assistant Luke Walton as head coach, the Lakers made a strong commitment to implementing a progressive, modern, analytics-driven offense focused on increased pace and spacing.
After a promising start winning 10 of their first 20 games, the Lakers stumbled badly last season and finished with just 26 wins and the 3rd worst record in the NBA. Key injuries, young players, and subpar talent were too much for head coach Luke Walton to overcome in his rookie season, as the Lakers stumbled their way to the 3rd worst record in the NBA.
While they knew it would take time for their young players to develop defensively, the Lakers hoped the new pace-and-space offense Luke Walton had brought with him from Golden State would carry the team in the interim. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and, after a promising start, the Lakers’ offense regressed and struggled with shot selection, ball movement, and transition scoring, finishing the season as the 24th ranked offense.
The good news is the Lakers did a great job this offseason revamping their roster at both ends of the court. Defensively, they’ve added several potential plus defenders and should be greatly improved at every position. Offensively, they’ve made major upgrades to their team playmaking and 3-point shooting, which should fix the vexing shot selection, ball movement, and transition scoring issues that haunted the Lakers’ offense last season.
While defense will be a work-in-progress for these young Lakers, I think the hopes the Lakers had last year that Luke’s new offense could carry the team until their defense develops will actually come to fruition this year.
Here’s a look at the three key offensive areas modern analytics-driven offenses need to optimize and how advanced analytics provides the Lakers with the perfect blueprint to modernize and weaponize their offense:
1. SHOT SELECTION
Advanced analytics wants teams to build modern rosters and offenses with the goal of taking a greater percentage of their shots at the rim, beyond the arc, or from the line. These are the three types of shots that generate the most points per possession and are the shots opportunistic teams should be working to generate. For this discussion, we’re only talking about shot attempts, not makes, with 2 or 3 free throws equaling a shot attempt.
Last year, 67% of shot attempts the Lakers took were at the rim, behind the arc, or from the free throw line, which was 17th in the league behind the 84% favored shots by the Rockets or 70% to 75% posted by the Nets, Celtics, Cavs, Nuggets, Sixers, Warriors, Thunder, Bucks, and Hawks, the teams who made the league’s Top-10 list for best analytics-driven shot selection. In the Lakers case, the issue was simply too many long 2’s and too few 3's.
The solution is obvious: add more capable 3-point shooters to the roster and tweak the offense to create open 3’s instead of long 2’s. The Lakers took the first part of the solution to heart as all seven of the new players they added during the offseason possess 3-point shooting potential. Just as importantly, the addition of a ‘Stretch 5’ in new center Brook Lopez now gives the Lakers the ability to put four capable 3-point shooters on the floor at all times.
The catalyst for the Lakers’ success in improving their shot selection will be rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who is the poster child for analytics as he focuses his scoring and playmaking on creating shots at the rim or beyond the arc, while avoiding less valuable midrange jumpers. Lonzo will transform the Lakers’ offense into an analytics juggernaut, much like last year’s Bruins, whose offense he elevated from obscurity to nation’s best.
While I don’t expect the Lakers to embrace analytics shot selection to the extent they reject midrange jumpers like the Rockets, I do expect them to work to increase the percentage of analytics favored shot attempts this year with a goal of having over 75% of their shot attempts being at the rim, beyond the arc, or from the line. That would give the Lakers the NBA’s 2nd best analytics-driven offense and help their push to the playoffs.
2. BALL MOVEMENT
While the Lakers improved from a league worst 18.0 assists per game to 20.9 assists per game last year, they were still the 5th worst team in the league when it came to sharing the ball and creating assists. That why the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball. With Lonzo’s selfless style of play, I expect the Lakers assists per game to jump to 25, which would rank 2nd in the league after the Golden State Warriors 30.4 assists per game.
Assists are not the only measure of a team’s ball movement. Thanks to the NBA, we now have two modern metrics based on spatial-tracking data to help measure how well a team is sharing the ball. The first is seconds-per-touch or the time a player holds the ball before passing, shooting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over. The faster the ball moves, the lower the average seconds-per-touch, and the better the team’s ball movement.
Last year, the Lakers averaged 2.75 seconds-per-touch, 14th best in the league. The Philadelphia 76ers’ average of 2.42 seconds- per-touch was the league’s lowest last year, followed closely by the Warriors’ 2.43 seconds-per-touch. With Lonzo’s contagious willingness to move the ball quickly, the Lakers should be able to lower their average time to 2.5 seconds-per-touch, which would rank 2nd in the league behind the Warriors.
Besides measuring how long the ball sticks for each team, the NBA is also now tracking secondary assists, more commonly known as ‘hockey’ assists. Secondary assists occur when a team strings together two quick passes to create an open shot. Last year, the Lakers averaged just 4.67 secondary assists per game, which was 25th in the league. I’d like to see them increase their secondary assists to over 6 per game this year, which would be Top-5.
The Lakers’ new front office did a great job revamping the roster and drafting Lonzo Ball to transform how the team shares the ball. Assists per game will always be the critical measure of ball movement but the Lakers also need to monitor the league’s new spatial-tracking metrics which will help them track how long the ball sticks on offense and how willing the team is to make the extra pass that creates a secondary assist.
3. TRANSITION SCORING
Analytics proponents love transition scoring because the points are always from favored shots at the rim, beyond the arc, or from the line, which means better transition scoring is the quickest and easiest way to increase the percentage of analytic favored shots a team’s offense creates. It’s why teams are all now fine with sending 3-point shooters to the corners on fast breaks and allow players pull up and take wide open 3's in transition.
The Lakers averaged 17.4 transition points per game last year, which was 10th in the league and represented 14.3% of their offense. The Warriors’ 24.7 transition points per game led the league and represented 18.5% of their offense. With Lonzo at the point, I’m looking for the Lakers to increase the percentage of points they score in transition and raise their transition scoring to 20 points per game, which would be 2nd to the Warriors.
But while the Lakers scored the 6th most points in transition, they were very inefficient, ranking 24th in the league in transition efficiency with just 1.06 points per possession compared to the Warrior’s league best 1.22. With Lonzo relentlessly pushing the pace and improved team speed, I think the Lakers should be able to increase their transition efficiency to at least 1.15 points per possession next season, which would move them into the Top-10.
Scoring points in transition before the opposing defenses can get set is a critical component of a modern NBA pace-and-space offense. With Lonzo’s ability to turn a defensive rebound into a perfect outlet pass and his unique willingness to selflessly give up the ball early to help advance fast breaks, we should see a transition offense that challenges the Warriors and brings back memories of Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers of the 80's.