The Lakers Have More Shooting Than You Think
Basketball By Louis Spencer JR | August 22, 2018
Beyond the observation that they have signed some knuckleheads (or, put more kindly, out-sized personalities), the one critique that has been most damning this offseason focuses on the Lakers shooting deficiency. “The Lakers don’t have any shooters” is an oft-used cudgel used to hammer the front office’s approach and it’s coming from almost all who cover the league.
To a certain extent, this is reasonable. When you consider recent iterations of LeBron James led teams have been built with this skill as a chief priority, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka chasing the likes of Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson simply flies in the face of conventional team building when viewed through the prism of roster construction around the game’s best player.
That said, is the team the Lakers have constructed really as bad as is being bantered about? I’d argue it is being at least somewhat overblown.
First, some context which gives fuel to the fire for those who point at the Lakers shooting woes as a fatal flaw. Last season the Lakers ranked 29th in 3-point field goal percentage while ranking 20th in 3-pointers made per game and in total 3’s made. They then replaced Brook Lopez (112 threes made last year) with JaVale McGee (zero made 3’s last year), Isaiah Thomas with Rajon Rondo (Thomas made 33 triples in 17 games played with the Lakers, Rondo made 50 all season for the Pelicans), and then added Stephenson (67 total made 3’s last year on 28.9% shooting) as a key free agent.
These things, taken on their face, are not good.
That said, there is more context that is not being discussed enough when looking at the team’s roster construction and when examining how the team played last year vs. how they should be looking to play last year — specifically when looking at the types of threes they take most often.
On the latter point, last season the Lakers were middle of the pack (16th) on corner three point percentage, shooting 39.4% from those spots. However, they ranked 26th in the league in the number of attempts from the corners, hoisting only 414 attempts on the year. On the flip side, the Lakers ranked 29th in above the break threes (33.7%) while taking the 8th most attempts in the league.
Now, let’s look at the Cavs ranks in those same stats. On corner threes, Cleveland took the 2nd most shots and hit 41.3% from those spots — good for the 8th best percentage. The Cavs also did well on above the break threes, shooting 36% (11th in the NBA) and while taking the 11th most attempts.
If the Lakers could become a more balanced shooting team by taking more from the corners and fewer from above the break, they should be able to bump up their overall percentage and become a more efficient outside shooting team. LeBron, with his ability to draw extra defensive attention on the strong side combined with his innate and elite skill to deliver passes over the top of the defense to the weakside corner should help create this balance.
They could bump up that overall 3-point percentage even more if they’re able to steer those shots towards their better shooters — especially ones of the catch and shoot variety. Specifically, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma should be taking a higher percentage of the overall attempted threes by the team next season.
Consider the following stats for players with a minimum of 50 games played last year on catch and shoot threes:
Hart: 2.7 attempts per game, 40.7% KCP: 4.2 attempts per game, 40.3% Kuzma: 4.6 attempts per game, 37.6%
Now, look at how those same players shoot on corner threes:
Hart: 51.3% KCP: 40.6% Kuzma: 37.2%
Hart and KCP can thrive as spot up shooters, especially on corner threes. Kuzma can shoot well from all over the floor (as his lower percentage on corner shots than his overall 3-point percentage shows), but should benefit from getting more open looks by playing next to LeBron (as well as Rondo, Lonzo, Ingram, and even Stephenson) as shot creators.
Further, the Lakers would do well to influence Brandon Ingram and Michael Beasley to up their 3-point rate this upcoming season.
Ingram only took 1.6 spot up 3-point attempts per game last season (and only 1.8 threes per game overall), but hit 39.4% of those spot-up shots. He also hit 44.8% of his corner threes, but took a low volume of those due to his role as a primary ball-handler and strong side shot creator. Beasley only took .9 spot-up attempts per game last year for the Knicks, but hit 37.9% of those shots. Beasley shot poorly from the corners, however, so he might be better served playing above the break either at the shoulder or at the top of the key (similar to how Kuzma was used last year).
Still, though, upping Ingram’s and Beasley’s volume of threes taken could also help skew the Lakers 3-point percentage upward if their respective efficiency holds (or even increases) from where it was last season. Again, if more of these shots are open or wide open, this isn’t so farfetched.
It should also be noted that the Lakers drafted Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, both viable long range shooters in college who project to have that skill translate to the pros. Wagner didn’t shoot well during the summer, so it remains to be seen if he can hit the deeper NBA ball with any consistency. But Svi showed great ability as a shooter in Vegas, from well beyond the line, and did so not only as a spot up shooter, but also in early offense/transition situations and when moving off the ball via relocations and screen actions.
All of this, then, leads us to Luke Walton. As noted above, the Lakers ratios of corner to above the break threes were out of whack compared to the success rates of both types of shots. Luke, coming from the Warriors system which produces these exact types of ratios (the Warriors were also a low volume corner, high volume above the break team) must find ways to rejigger the offense to create more balance.
Sets which involve more off-ball movement and actions which flow shooters to the corners while leveraging the shot creation and passing skills of LeBron, Lonzo, and Rondo are a must. Further, Luke must impress on his team via the installation and reinforcement of fast break principles which get his shooters to the corners in the open court to leverage the team’s pace and ability to get out into transition to generate more threes.
Remember, the Lakers played at one of the fastest paces in the league last year. They were 2nd in the league in points scored in transition (trailing only the Warriors). They were also 3rd in the league in points scored in the paint. Transition baskets and points in the paint both create gravity towards the rim. Gravity towards the rim draws in the defense and creates open shots all over the floor.
If the Lakers can leverage this in order to create more 3-point attempts, especially by their best shooters, they can really surprise.
Beyond scheme and play design, Walton will need to manage his rotation in a way which promotes the type of balanced lineups which feature enough shooting and floor spacing over the course of a full game. Lineup management has been an up and down experience under Walton, but he can do well this season by not featuring lineups which overlap more than two non-shooters at any given time. This can get especially tricky if bench units feature both Rondo and Stephenson, but Walton will need to juggle things accordingly. I think he can, but it remains to be seen.
Of course, this is all the best case scenario and it’s always foolish to assume any situation will play out in its most ideal form. But, I will say that these ideas are ones which deserve to be a part of the conversation when talking about the Lakers lack of shooting and should give fans some sense of hope things can go better than what many are calling the Lakers’ achilles heel this upcoming season.
*You’ll notice one player I did not mention is, the elephant in the room, Lonzo Ball. Lonzo took 5.7 3-pointers a game in his 52 appearances while only hitting 30.5% of those shots. He, alone, helped drag the Lakers overall percentage down. As Reed noted in his great post about the Lakers off-season signings, Lonzo was a fantastic shooter at UCLA and he had a really good stretch in the middle of the year where he shot 38% (though, on only 84 attempts) over the months of January and February.
If Lonzo can up his overall percentage into the 33-35% range for the year on a similar volume to what he shot last season, he can single-handedly help change the perception of how good a shooting team the Lakers are. He truly is the x-factor in this regard. I remain incredibly high on Lonzo and think his shooting will stabilize and trend upward. But, like any other player, he’ll need to actually prove it on the court to make true believers of league-wide observers.