Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re exploring the Los Angeles Lakers’ ongoing mediocrity, the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of a clutch record, and a Zach LaVine trade possibility before the deadline. This is the Kram Session.
Under Review: What Can These Lakers Learn From the Title-Winning 2020 Version?
The Lakers’ ship isn’t actively leaking anymore. Consecutive wins against the Clippers (by three points) and Raptors (by one) have snapped a losing streak and brought the inaugural in-season tournament champions back to .500.
But it’s not exactly steady, either. The 19-19 Lakers are in 10th place in the West, just a game away from dropping out of the play-in window entirely, with a negative point differential for the season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have both been healthy, missing just three and two games, respectively. And they’ve both excelled—the Lakers can say with more confidence than any of the best teams in the league that they’re on track to place two players on All-NBA teams this spring.
And yet they’re still struggling to generate any positive momentum outside Las Vegas, so rumors swirl around player dissatisfaction, coach Darvin Ham’s job security, and trade possibilities.
This inconsistency is, ironically, consistent for the Lakers in LeBron’s six seasons in town. Only once in those six seasons have the Lakers been even a top-six regular-season team in the West—when they finished first in 2019-20 and went on to win the bubble championship. At some point, this mediocrity has to be considered the norm, not the exception.
LeBron’s Lakers in the Regular Season
|Place in Western Standings
|Place in Western Standings
But for one glorious season, the Lakers rose to the top of the standings and earned a title as a result. So instead of focusing on trade candidates today, let’s compare that 2019-20 team to the Lakers’ current roster to try to determine what made that group so successful. Perhaps some of the answers can inform what the 2023-24 iteration needs to do to rise to the level of its two superstars.
The obvious problem the Lakers have faced during the LeBron era, including this season, is a dull offense without 3-point “lasers.” That marks a strong downward turn after a decade in which LeBron’s teams ranked in the top six in offensive rating every year.
This season, despite a near-career-high 40 percent mark from distance for LeBron and solid shooting from Taurean Prince (39 percent) and D’Angelo Russell (38 percent), the Lakers are once again struggling to match opponents shot for shot. This is partly an issue of accuracy, but even more an issue of volume: The Lakers rank last in 3-point attempts, and there isn’t a single individual Laker who ranks in the top 70 in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions.
Even in 2019-20, when the Lakers offense rose to a perfectly capable 11th in the league, they still struggled from 3-point range. In all six of LeBron’s seasons as a Laker, the team has ranked 18th or worse in made 3-pointers and 21st or worse in 3-point percentage.
LeBron’s Lakers’ Ranks From 3-Point Range
So the answer to what made the 2019-20 offense function wasn’t more 3-pointers. I think the reasons for that championship team’s success aren’t remembered quite right a few years later. I’m guilty of it, too: I recall the Lakers’ cast of 3-and-D perimeter players that season, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso, and I lament all the perfect role players the Lakers allowed to leave in trades and free agency. And I remember some individual outlier 3-point performances in the bubble’s empty gyms, like when Rajon Rondo made 40 percent of his playoff 3-pointers and Davis made 38 percent. (Davis is at a ghastly 25 percent and has just 0.4 makes per game since the bubble, across both regular seasons and playoffs.)
But the Lakers weren’t scorching the nets en route to the title. In the 2023-24 regular season, they’re making 11 3s per game on 35 percent shooting. In the 2019-20 regular season, they made … 11 3s per game on 35 percent shooting. And in the 2019-20 playoffs, they made 12 3s per game on 35 percent shooting, albeit with some series-to-series variation.
2019-20 Lakers From 3-Point Range
|First Round (Blazers)
|Second Round (Rockets)
|Conference Finals (Nuggets)
Another reason the current Lakers offense might seem mired in the muck is a lack of downhill direction from attacking guards. ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned on his podcast this week that the Lakers rank 28th in drives per game. But in 2019-20, they ranked even worse, at 30th in drives per game. Here, too, they’ve never been better than 18th in any season with LeBron.
Thus far, it seems as if both iterations of the Lakers—the 2019-20 title winner and the 2023-24 laggard—have a lot in common. Both teams were built in a similar way, and both exhibited similar weaknesses. But in examining the four factors that make up offensive performance, we do find one major difference between the two that allowed the 2019-20 offense to compensate for those shortcomings.
Lakers’ Four Factors on Offense, Then and Now
The 2019-20 Lakers, with Davis at power forward in a Twin Towers look, dominated the boards. In addition to ranking fifth in offensive rebounding rate, per Cleaning the Glass, they ranked sixth in second-chance points in the regular season, with 14.1 per game, then held steady with 13.6 per game in the playoffs—the most among teams that won at least one round.
This season, however, the Lakers are down to 29th in offensive rebounding rate and 30th in second-chance points, with just 9.8 per game.
Those figures seem impossible. Even with their new five-out approach, the Lakers still play near the rim (sixth in points in the paint), generate free throws at a top-10 rate (just ask Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic about that one), and have one of the NBA’s tallest rosters. They do everything that a big team should except win extra points and possessions on the glass.
Clearly, the solution is to bring back Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
I kid, but the two journeyman centers did provide meaningful value to the championship squad that is missing from the current Lakers roster. Howard and McGee combined to average 4.3 offensive rebounds in 35.5 minutes per game in 2019-20; this season, Mitchell Robinson and Clint Capela are the only players averaging that many offensive boards. Davis is near the top of the 2023-24 leaderboard with 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, but Jarred Vanderbilt, at 1.2, is the only other Laker averaging even one.
Admittedly, returning to double-big lineups probably isn’t the answer to the Lakers’ current troubles. Folks have been clamoring for Davis to play at the center position for years. But the point is that for LeBron’s Lakers, the first-chance offense has never been good enough. The shooting has never been good enough. But the best version of the team could compensate in other ways: It sought second chances to boost the offense from below average to acceptable, then relied on an elite defense to win lower-scoring contests.
Since then, the second chances have dried up, exposing the lack of first-shot success, and the defense has also slipped, from third best in the NBA in 2019-20 to just 12th this season. This decline is less noticeable than the offensive struggles—after all, 12th on defense is a lot better than 23rd on offense—but it’s been just as key to compromising L.A.’s record.
One massive, underdiscussed issue on that end of the floor is that the Lakers are allowing 22.7 wide-open 3-pointers per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats (which defines “wide open” as at least 6 feet between the shooter and nearest defender). That’s the most in the league; the average is 18.6 per game. So the Lakers are allowing four extra wide-open 3s—which NBA shooters make at a 39 percent clip—per contest. It’s no wonder the defense no longer ranks among the best in the league.
To win a championship, teams need to be either great on both ends of the floor or elite on one end and decent on the other. Right now, the Lakers don’t fit into either category because they’re not top 10 in either offense or defense. Their winning superstars-plus-defense formula falters without that strong defensive identity.
And on the other end, where the Lakers’ largest problems reside, the ultimate issue might be a lack of evolution in a more competitive league. The NBA has more talent than ever with more playoff-caliber competitors, especially in the West, whose ranks of contenders dropped off pretty precipitously following the Lakers and Clippers in 2019-20.
That lack of evolution is perhaps best expressed with this comparison: Even as the Lakers’ offensive ranking has declined, their offensive production has remained basically the same. In 2019-20, the Lakers averaged 111.7 points per 100 possessions; they’re at a nearly identical 112.1 now. But in 2019-20, that was good enough for 11th in the league; now, it places the Lakers all the way down in 23rd place, next to teams like the Bulls and Wizards.
Other teams are modernizing and improving, but the Lakers have mostly kept to their old approach. To be fair, it’s worked before, as recently as the IST and last season’s run to the Western Conference finals. LeBron and Davis are just that good.
But around those two stars, the Lakers haven’t added willing shooters and, in moving away from two-big lineups in an effort to adapt to a changing league, sacrificed a strength that once kept their offense afloat. This team still has time to sharpen its identity or make a narrative-changing trade, but right now it looks stuck while peers are passing it by.
Zacht of the Week: 28 Clutch Games
The Warriors play the Pelicans on ABC on Wednesday, and while it’s difficult to predict what will happen when two erratic teams face off, one outcome seems likely: The game will be close in the final minutes.
That’s because almost every Warriors game is close in the final minutes: Out of 36 Golden State games this season, 28 have entered the “clutch” zone, which NBA.com defines as a scoring margin of five points or fewer within the final five minutes. That’s an unprecedented ratio. The Warriors are on pace for 64 clutch games, which would shatter the record of 58 from the 2001-02 Rockets and 2002-03 Knicks. (All clutch statistics date back to 1996-97, which is the start of the NBA’s play-by-play era.)
Golden State is 14-14 in those games, and its consistently close contests turn every night into a referendum on the teetering contender. Which players does Steve Kerr trust in close games? Are the young guys or the vets a better option? Is Steph Curry clutch or not?
(To that final query, Steph has made 50 percent of his 3-pointers in the clutch this season—19-for-38—plus 30 of his 31 clutch free throws.)
The Warriors’ penchant for close games is even more notable given the leaguewide context: No other team has played more than 23 clutch games this season, and the NBA average is 17.5. Clutch games have become slightly less frequent in recent seasons as point totals have increased.
Percentage of Games Within Five Points in the Final Five Minutes
All those close games mean the Warriors have played less than half as much garbage time as most other teams. Golden State has had just 175 low-leverage possessions this season, as defined by PBP Stats. The next-lowest total belongs to the Heat, all the way at 239; the league average is 393.
For Warriors fans looking for an optimistic interpretation of their current close-game predicament, the Heat are the right place to start: They played 54 clutch games last season, going 32-22, then used their veteran experience and clutch acumen to romp through the Eastern Conference playoffs as the no. 8 seed. Glass-half-full Golden State supporters could reasonably say that their team is in almost every game.
But the Warriors are also not blowing any teams out, and blowout ability—which contributes to a better point differential—is a strong indicator of team strength. The fewest clutch games for any team over a full 82-game season is just 25, from the 2016-17 Warriors, who are maybe the best team in NBA history. They were good in clutch scenarios (16-9 in the regular season, 4-0 in the playoffs), but they didn’t need to be because they put so many opponents away before the final five minutes.
Overall, 29 teams since 1996-97 have recorded at least 10 more clutch games than average in their respective seasons (with shorter schedules prorated to 82 games). More than half of that group—including the record-holding ’02 Rockets and ’03 Knicks—missed the playoffs.
Playoff Results for Teams With Most Clutch Games in Regular Season
|Number of Teams
|Number of Teams
|Lost First Round
|Lost Second Round
|Lost Conference Finals
The only team to reach the Finals with such a clutch-heavy schedule was last year’s Heat. The other teams in this group to reach the conference finals were the Pacers in 1997-98 and two teams in shortened seasons: the Pacers again in 1998-99 and the Nuggets in 2019-20.
Fake Trade of the Week: Zach LaVine to the Pistons
A trade of LaVine to the Lakers remains the smoothest fit for the disgruntled All-Star, given that LaVine is a Klutch client and the Lakers need scoring. But reports continue to suggest a limited appetite for LaVine across the league; it might take a desperate franchise to take on the Bulls guard, given his stylistic limitations and hefty contract.
The Pistons might just be that desperate. Normally, the team with the league’s worst record would be an obvious seller at the deadline, yet both local and national reporters say that Detroit is leaning in the opposite direction. “Yes, the Pistons keep signaling to opposing executives an interest in buying,” Yahoo’s Jake Fischer wrote last Friday. Which leads us to today’s fake trade:
To Pistons: Zach LaVine
To Bulls: Jaden Ivey, Joe Harris, James Wiseman, future protected first-round pick
This trade would be a lesser version of the Domantas Sabonis–Tyrese Haliburton swap from two years ago. The Pistons are the Kings in this analogy, with an owner and fan base desperate to improve rapidly after years of misery. Cade Cunningham is De’Aaron Fox, a lead guard who doesn’t totally mesh with the recent lottery pick next to him in the backcourt. LaVine, a two-time All-Star with no All-NBA appearances, is Sabonis, who was also a two-time All-Star with no All-NBA nods at the time of his trade. And Ivey is Haliburton, albeit with much less success thus far in his NBA career (thus the extra first-round pick headed to Chicago, whereas the Pacers didn’t net any picks from the Kings).
Now, this entire trade is contingent upon the Pistons’ intent to buy, which makes little sense at first blush. Why wouldn’t a 3-34 team retool by, say, trading Bojan Bogdanovic for picks? Because Detroit has been retooling for years, and it now has the added motivation of avoiding the worst record in NBA history: 9-73, by the 1972-73 Sixers. (The 2011-12 Bobcats were 7-59 in a shortened season.) Losing Cunningham for a couple of weeks due to a knee injury won’t help in this regard.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that losing Bogdanovic would make the Pistons three games worse over the rest of the season but that adding LaVine would make them three games better. Opting for the latter would lead to a net swing of six wins, which could be the difference between finishing with the worst record ever and finishing as merely a run-of-the-mill terrible team. From the outside, I can’t properly assess the emotional component of avoiding that ignominy, but it will surely play a role in Detroit’s decision-making over the next month.
And if we grant that the Pistons might actually buy at the deadline, whom should they target? They’ve been linked to Pascal Siakam and former Piston Tobias Harris, but both forwards are impending free agents. If Detroit is interested, it should wait until the offseason to try to sign them, as the Rockets—another team that sought instant upgrades after years of 60-plus losses—did with Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks.
LaVine, though, has multiple seasons left on his deal. This might scare off suitors like the Lakers, but it makes him a better fit in Detroit. Imagine if the Pistons surrounded Cunningham with not just one elite shooter, but multiple. Welcome to the 21st century, Monty Williams!
From the Bulls’ perspective, this deal would make a lot of sense if they can’t find a better offer for LaVine but still want to move on from him. The logic would be to clear future cap space (Harris and Wiseman are both salary fillers and free agents after this season), rebuild around Ivey and Coby White in the backcourt, and see what the kids can do after their all-in push around veterans peaked with the no. 6 seed two years ago.
Take That for Data: The NBA’s Flopping Focus Flops
When a sports league introduces a new innovation or rule book emphasis, it typically isn’t clear whether that focus will sustain or peter out after an initial push. The NBA has experienced both sides of this coin in the past. Last year’s transition foul rule, for instance, meaningfully reduced the number of take fouls that stopped fast breaks. But other experiments like shirseys and the NBA Awards ceremony didn’t last.
The biggest novelties for 2023-24 are working as intended thus far. The in-season tournament generated excitement during a normally staid section of the NBA calendar, while the player participation policy has resulted in fewer missed games from stars. Even Kawhi Leonard is playing in back-to-backs now!
Two and a half months into the season, let’s assess one of the other new changes for 2023-24: an increased emphasis on curtailing player flopping, which included new potential in-game penalties and $2,000 fines for flops not called during games. The league handed out six fines for flopping in the first week of the season in October and then two more in the first days of November. But the focus has seemingly dwindled of late. Since December 11, a full 30 days ago, the league has issued only one flopping fine.
There are a couple of possible interpretations of this trend. Perhaps the early fines did the job, setting the tone for the season so that players stopped flopping so often. Or perhaps this is another point of emphasis that lost steam after the start of the season. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which explanation is most likely.
Fast Breaks: How Pick Trades and Protections Could Impact the Deadline
In today’s NBA of swaps and protections and pick-heavy trade packages, tracking which teams hold which draft selections requires the Pepe Silvia board. In the 2024 draft, only 12 out of 30 teams know that they’ll have their own first-round pick to use; the other 18 are all embroiled in transactions.
So let’s review which picks might transfer and what protections might come into play this summer. This knotty web of potentialities will inform how teams behave leading up to the trade deadline, as they decide whether to sell, hold, or buy.
1. Don’t worry, be happy with your high lottery pick
Four of the five worst teams in the league all owe protected picks to other teams: the Pistons (top-18 to the Knicks), Wizards (top-12 to the Knicks), Hornets (top-14 to the Spurs), and Trail Blazers (top-14 to the Bulls). Because those protections are all heavy, though, and because none of these teams are going to move very far up in the standings between now and the end of the season, they can rest easy knowing they won’t lose a first-round pick this summer.
2. Living on the edge
The Raptors owe a pick with top-six protections to the Spurs; right now, they have the eighth-worst record in the league. The Jazz are in a similar situation, as they owe a top-10-protected pick to the Thunder and sit 12th from the bottom.
If they really made an effort, it wouldn’t be that difficult for the Raptors to tank another spot to get the sixth-best lottery odds (though that might be a tougher task now than last week, because with Ja Morant out for the season, Memphis is no longer a sure bet to win more games than Toronto the rest of the way). But the Raptors have a winning record since adding Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett, and finishing sixth from the bottom wouldn’t guarantee them their pick, anyway; just one lottery jumper would be enough to send Toronto’s pick to San Antonio. The Raptors have a lot of weighty factors to consider as they approach the deadline, but their pick protection shouldn’t be one of them.
The Jazz, however, would have an easier time ducking under their protective threshold. For now, Utah is one of the league’s hottest teams and just half a game out of a play-in spot—but if Danny Ainge keeps his long view toward contention, he could trade some contributors and aim for a pick around no. 9 just like he did last season.
Finally, the Kings owe a top-14-protected pick to the Hawks, as a result of the Kevin Huerter trade. They don’t fit in any other category so I’m placing them here, because even though the 22-14 Kings will likely reach the playoffs, they do have a near-zero point differential and the West is crowded, so it’s not impossible to imagine that they could fall out of the playoff picture and thus keep their pick.
3. Not keepable without lottery luck
Three more teams owe protected first-round picks this summer, but they’re already too far ahead in the standings for those protections to come into play without major lottery luck. At this point, moreover, the Warriors (top-four to the Blazers), Rockets (top-four to the Thunder), and Mavericks (top-10 to the Knicks) are all concentrated on making the playoffs rather than backsliding into prime pick position. As if the Thunder needed more draft capital, this time courtesy of Houston.
4. Gone for good
Finally, we reach five teams that don’t control their 2024 first-rounder at all, because they traded those selections without protections.
- Nets to the Rockets
- Clippers to the Thunder
- Suns to the Wizards or Grizzlies (swap, likely won’t exercise)
- Bucks to the Pelicans (swap, likely won’t exercise)
- Lakers to the Pelicans (who can choose to take the Lakers’ 2025 pick instead)
Four of these five teams aim to win the championship this season, so going without a first-rounder this summer wouldn’t influence their plans anyway (other than reducing their assets to make an upgrade at the deadline).
But the Nets’ loss yields more interesting ramifications. Currently in Europe for a game in Paris, Brooklyn is just 16-21, in 10th place in the East, but could supply the trade market with a number of useful players, such as Dorian Finney-Smith and impending free agents Nic Claxton, Royce O’Neale, and Lonnie Walker IV. Knowing that the Rockets will get their pick no matter where it lands might make the Nets reluctant to fully give up on competing this season. Or they could choose to view the draft capital they sent Houston in the James Harden trade as a sunk cost and not let it affect their decision-making, which is the strategy the team pursued after the disastrous Kevin Garnett–Paul Pierce trade with the Celtics a decade ago.