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Why are the Lakers So Mediocre?

Through 20 games of the 2023-24 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers sit at 7th in West with an 11-9 record. While a winning record is far from embarrassing, finding themselves in the middle of the standings constitutes an underwhelming start for a team with real championship aspirations. Indeed, for a team with multiple stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis and a deep supporting cast of quality NBA rotation players, the Lakers look surprisingly mediocre.

To understand why, I took a closer look at the Lakers’ offensive and defensive data from Cleaning the Glass, and performed a high level ‘Data Scout’ to diagnose what the Lakers do well and identify the biggest areas for improvement (note: all stats as of 12/1/23).

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Lakers Offensive Breakdown:

  • Offensive Rating: 112.9, 22nd overall
  • Shot Profile: 9th in eFG% on the 11th-best Loc eFG% (note: Loc eFG% essentially tells us how good a team’s shot profile is by providing the expected efficiency if an average player were to take each shot. Based on this data, the Lakers are slightly over-performing their shot profile quality)
  • Location Breakdown (i.e. how well the Lakers shoot at different areas on the court)
    • Rim: 1st in accuracy on the 7th-highest frequency
    • Midrange: 18th in accuracy on the 13th-highest frequency
    • 3PT: 25th in accuracy on the 27th-highest frequency
  • Play Type Breakdown
    • Half Court: 14th in efficiency, 28th in putback point per missed shot
    • Transition: 10th in efficiency on the 2nd-highest frequency

Imposing around the rim but bad at taking and making 3’s, the Lakers are elite at generating transition looks and would be an average half court offense if they could just grab offensive rebounds and convert them at a decent rate. This lack of putbacks is concerning, especially for a team that gets to the rim so often.

A couple of years ago, 112.9 ORTG would have been a blisteringly good offense. Times have changed, however, and with teams increasingly leveraging analytics to optimize their offense the league average currently sits at 114.4. If the Lakers cut down on midrange shots by swapping just a few of them for 3PT attempts, their shot profile would look substantially more analytically-friendly.

While the Lakers’ 3PT shooting accuracy is disappointing, there is room for optimism as their paltry 28.4% conversion rate on corner 3’s is so outlandishly below the league-average of 39.1% that it is unlikely to sustain over the whole year. With a mix of shooting regression from the corners and better rebounding habits the Lakers offense would be humming, likely improving to around the Top 10.

Lakers Defensive Breakdown:

  • Defensive Rating: 113.0, 10th in the NBA
  • Shot Profile: 10th in eFG% allowed, 9th in Loc eFG% conceded (i.e. the Lakers hold opponents to tougher than average shots, and they perform roughly as expected on those shots)
  • Location Breakdown:
    • Rim: 16th in efficiency allowed on 8th-lowest frequency
    • Midrange: 14th in efficiency allowed on 14th-lowest frequency
    • 3PT: 13th in efficiency allowed on 24th-lowest frequency
  • Play Type Breakdown:
    • Half Court: 7th-lowest efficiency allowed, 21st in putback points per missed shot
    • Transition: 9th-lowest efficiency allowed on the 15th-lowest frequency

The Lakers do a decent job of forcing opponents to take difficult shots, deterring opponents from getting to the rim particularly well. Although this comes at the expense of allowing opponents to shoot more 3PT attempts than average, the average shot attempt at the rim is significantly more efficient than the average 3PT attempt to the tune of roughly 10 points per 100 attempts, making it a worthwhile trade-off.

Notably, the Lakers’ transition defense is not nearly as woeful as the narratives suggested they might be preseason, falling similar to where last year’s post-trade deadline team finished. Who could have predicted this? None other than yours truly, on this very site.

Personal victory lap aside, the main blight on an otherwise solid defense is a familiar one: rebounding. Allowing opponents to grab more offensive rebounds than average and allowing them to score more points per possession (PPP) on putbacks (1.26) than they do in transition (1.23) is downright embarrassing. Cleaning up their box-out tendencies and preventing these kinds of hyper-efficient looks is the key step the Lakers must take to go from good to great defensively.

Lakers Season Outlook

The Lakers’ biggest issue is not the work they do for the majority of the shot clock on either end of the court, as the data clearly shows. Rather, it is the hole they dig themselves into after shots go up, failing to gain/retain possession of the basketball. By putting themselves in position to consistently generate fewer scoring chances than their opponents, every game becomes an uphill battle.

The fortunate takeaway is that this is one of the more fixable deficiencies a team can have, and significant progress is achievable if the Lakers’ coaching staff identifies it and makes it a major focus going forward. Unless and until that progress comes, however, the Lakers will be unlikely to break free from the chains of mediocrity anytime soon.


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