clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Five Reasons the Lakers Will Get Better—and One Reason It May Not Matter

The Lakers have been a train wreck through six games, but believe it or not, their start to the season isn’t as bad as it seems

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s easy to pile on the Los Angeles Lakers, who kind of deserve the mockery through their first half-dozen games of the 2022-23 season. They were the last team to win a game. They’ve already shuffled through starting lineups. They can’t even look to the future, because the New Orleans Pelicans have swap rights on their 2023 first-round pick.

The team’s offense looks particularly dire. Even after scoring 121 points against Denver on Sunday in their first win of the season, the Lakers still rank:

  • 29th in points per game
  • 29th in field goal percentage
  • 29th in transition points per 100 possessions
  • 28th in above-the-break 3-point percentage
  • 30th in corner 3-point percentage
  • 30th in overall 3-point percentage
  • 30th in offensive rating

Even that dismal set of rankings undersells just how poorly the team has scored through six games. According to Basketball Reference, the Lakers offense is scoring 11.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average. That would be the worst relative rating since at least 1973-74, the first season that B-Ref has this data. Every team near the bottom of this list—from a Process 76ers team to a couple of expansion franchises to two editions of the post-Jordan Bulls—was unsurprisingly terrible.

Worst NBA Offenses Relative to League Average

Team Record Points Below Average
Team Record Points Below Average
2003 Nuggets 17-65 11.4
1988 Clippers 17-65 10.6
2015 76ers 18-64 10.1
1996 Grizzlies 15-67 10
1989 Heat 15-67 10
2000 Bulls 17-65 9.9
1999 Bulls 13-37 9.8
2012 Bobcats 7-59 9.4
1998 Warriors 19-63 9.2
Based on analysis of data from Basketball-Reference, which contains offensive rating records back to 1973-74.

But today, I come not to pile on to the Lakers’ heap of misery. (Well, other than reciting all those sorry stats to set the scene.) Rather, I come to offer positive glimmers for Lakers fans. Because hiding under the grim surface stats, there are hints for hope in a coming turnaround. Here are five reasons to expect the Lakers’ offensive performance to improve, as well as a look at what this anticipated boost might mean for the team’s ultimate fortunes.

1. They have an excellent shot profile.

Especially this early in a new season, I like to look at a team’s process more than its results. The former is more under a team’s control; the latter is subject to all sorts of small-sample flukes. And according to Second Spectrum’s shot-quality model, which estimates the expected effective field goal percentage of every shot based on factors like location and defender distance, the Lakers have the best shot profile in the league.

“Well, sure,” you might be thinking, “the Lakers might take good shots in a vacuum. But they’re not in a vacuum—and the players taking those shots aren’t good.”

But here’s the weird wrinkle. Second Spectrum has a similar stat that adjusts each shot’s expected eFG% based on the identity of the shooter. For some teams, this makes a huge difference; the Nets rank 29th in the shooter-agnostic shot-quality model, but jump all the way to first in the shooter-adjusted model because it knows that their tough looks are coming from the likes of Kevin Durant.

In the model that considers the identity of the shooter, the Lakers fall all the way to … second place in shot quality, right behind the Nets.

This result means that even though the Lakers don’t have “a lot of lasers,” as LeBron James put it, they’re still generating high-quality looks with the players they do have on the roster. The issue is that those shots just haven’t fallen, which from my vantage point looks to be largely the result of terrible luck. Right now, the Lakers are collectively underperforming their expected eFG% by 8.2 percentage points, even after accounting for the fact that their shooters are bad. No other team is worse than 3.6 percentage points below expectation.

Shot profile doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to, but we’d still expect a team with the Lakers’ looks to perform a lot closer to expectation as the season progresses.

2. They’re bound to make more wide-open shots.

The Lakers’ greatest issues have come from long distance, as they have the worst 3-point percentage of any team in the 21st century (26.6 percent). That’s not going to continue—and I say that knowing full well that the Lakers lack marksmen.

Yet through six games, the Lakers have made just 26 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers (when the closest defender is at least 6 feet away). Over the past decade, which is as far back as NBA Advanced Stats tracks this data, the worst team on wide-open 3s is the 2016-17 Thunder, who were still well clear of these Lakers at 32 percent. No team has been below 34 percent on wide-open 3s in half a decade.

(Oklahoma City wasn’t the worst because of Russell Westbrook, either. He made a perfectly acceptable 38 percent of his wide-open 3s that season, when he won MVP. The issue was that Thunder teammates Andre Roberson, Semaj Christon, Cameron Payne, and Kyle Singler shot a combined 25 percent on 260 wide-open attempts.)

This unprecedented underperformance matters because wide-open 3s make up nearly half of the Lakers’ overall 3-point attempts. (Their 46 percent ratio is also six percentage points higher than the leaguewide average.) And even the lackluster shooters on L.A.’s roster are bound to start making more of these attempts. Lonnie Walker IV is shooting 22 percent on wide-open 3s so far, according to Second Spectrum. Patrick Beverley’s at 25 percent. Kendrick Nunn’s at 31 percent. Over a larger sample, almost every rotation player in the NBA will shoot better than that when left open beyond the arc.

3. Yes, even Russ.

The natural rejoinder to the last point is that the Lakers might be wide open because defenses are comfortable “defending” them that way. As our Kevin O’Connor wrote last week, defenses are ignoring Westbrook in particular.

Yet we should expect even the Lakers’ worst shooter to make more of his wide-open tries going forward.

I built a simple model that compares how many wide-open 3s players have actually made this season with how many we’d expect them to make based on their past three seasons of results. Thus we can see which players are over- or underperforming their own history so far.

This chart shows how each individual Laker has fared by this metric in the early season. (Note that for players like Matt Ryan, without much of a track record, I added in a regression factor that assumed they’d be about league-average.)

Lakers’ Wide-Open 3-Pointers Versus Expectation

Shooter Attempts Expected Makes Actual Makes Difference
Shooter Attempts Expected Makes Actual Makes Difference
Russell Westbrook 15 5.0 2 -3.0
Lonnie Walker IV 18 6.5 4 -2.5
Patrick Beverley 12 4.6 3 -1.6
Juan Toscano-Anderson 7 2.6 1 -1.6
Kendrick Nunn 13 5.6 4 -1.6
Wenyen Gabriel 2 0.8 0 -0.8
Anthony Davis 8 2.5 2 -0.5
Damian Jones 1 0.3 0 -0.3
Troy Brown Jr. 8 3.2 3 -0.2
LeBron James 10 4.1 4 -0.1
Max Christie 1 0.4 1 0.6
Austin Reaves 12 4.2 5 0.8
Matt Ryan 3 1.1 2 0.9

Over the past three seasons, Westbrook made 33.6 percent of his wide-open 3s. That’s not good, but it’s worlds better than his 13.3 percent mark through six games this season. This decline is probably not a function of pure aging, either: If you take out the Lakers, NBA players in their age-34 seasons or older are actually slightly overperforming their expected wide-open 3-point percentage this season.

Adding up all the individual Lakers’ performances versus expectation reveals that the team has collectively missed 9.9 more 3s than we’d expect based on the shooters’ own histories. That’s unsurprisingly the largest gap in the league.

Most Wide-Open 3-Point Makes Below Expectation

Team "Lost" Wide-Open 3s
Team "Lost" Wide-Open 3s
Los Angeles Lakers 9.9
LA Clippers 5.9
Milwaukee Bucks 5.5
Minnesota Timberwolves 5.5
Brooklyn Nets 5.0

The Lakers have been outscored by 31 total points this season—and this chart shows that they’ve lost 30 points versus expectation to missed wide-open 3s. Underperforming teams like the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Nets would also look a lot better if only their players had made wide-open 3s like their own histories say they should. (That the 6-0 Bucks also appear on this list should be a warning sign to the rest of the league: Milwaukee’s so good it can survive Khris Middleton’s absence and aberrant off nights from other players.)

4. LeBron will play better.

LeBron is averaging 25.8 points per game this season, which would best Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 23.4 per game in 1985-86 as the highest scoring average in NBA history for a player in his age-38 season. Only John Stockton averaged more assists per game as a 38-year-old; only Dennis Rodman, Tim Duncan, and Robert Parish averaged more rebounds.

But this isn’t the LeBron we’re used to watching. His scoring efficiency has plummeted: He’s shooting 45 percent on field goals (his worst mark since he was a rookie) and 26 percent on 3s (his worst mark ever). He hasn’t finished so poorly at the rim since he was a rookie.

This isn’t an issue of LeBron settling for bad looks, though—Second Spectrum says he actually has his best shot profile compared to any other season in the past decade. But for the first time on record, LeBron’s shot making is worse than we’d expect from an average player.

Is it possible that LeBron’s scoring touch abandoned him over the summer? Perhaps. He has to obey the aging curve at some point.

But the four-time MVP has slumped for short stretches before. Even in the 2019-20 season, he still suffered from periodic slumps throughout the winter—which look remarkably similar to his early slump now—yet rebounded to finish second in MVP voting and lead his Lakers to a title.

5. They’ll shoot more free throws.

I should amend the first part of this argument, because the Lakers’ shot profile looks good—except that it’s lacking in free throws. On a team level, L.A.’s offense ranks just 27th in free throw rate, per Cleaning the Glass; on an individual level, both LeBron’s and Anthony Davis’s free throw rates are at career lows.

Yet there’s an imbalance here because the Lakers are getting to the basket at the second-highest rate, according to CtG. They’re just not getting the calls. For context, the Trail Blazers lead the league in rim rate—and they also lead in free throw rate.

The Lakers probably won’t add a ton more points at the line as the season continues because they’re only three free throws per 100 possessions below the league average, but all of these small advantages should add up. If an extra couple wide-open 3s connect each game, LeBron makes a couple more shots, and if the Lakers add a few trips to the line, that’s roughly a boost of 10 points per game—without making trades, tweaking strategies, or revamping the rotation. The Lakers offense looks dire through six games, but there are reasons to expect meaningful improvement going forward.

Why it won’t matter

And yet, the Lakers are positioned so that even “meaningful improvement” probably won’t help the team reach its ambitious playoff goals. Consider that even if the Lakers scored 10 more points per 100 possessions, they’d still rank just 25th in the league on offense, per CtG, ahead of only the Wizards, Thunder, Magic, Rockets, and Clippers. That’s not the placement of a contender. (The Lakers’ early drama has really masked a nearly-as-atrocious start for the Clippers, huh?)

And although we can expect the Lakers offense to improve, we should also expect their defense—which is currently tied for second in efficiency—to fall back to the pack.

Remember that stat from earlier that showed the Lakers offense has “lost” more wide-open 3s versus expectation than any other? That’s also true for the Lakers defense: L.A.’s opponents have missed 5.9 more 3s than we’d expect from those players’ personal histories, which is the widest gap in the league. So just as the Lakers should start making more shots soon, so should their opponents.

And regardless of expectations, the reality is the Lakers have already dug a decent hole in the Western Conference standings, where the play-in spots look mighty contested as fringe contenders like the Trail Blazers excel and even teams like the Jazz and Spurs play well. The Lakers will get better as shots start falling and their players, well, play like themselves—but counterintuitive optimism about a 1-5 team has its limits.

The Lakers’ dreadful offense will improve, but it might not matter. Barring a trade, they’re in deep trouble this season, no matter how you look at their situation.

Leaguewide stats through Monday’s games.