AD and LBJ

Lakers Team Rankings

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

When the 2019-20 regular season was suspended in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Lakers were a Western-Conference-best 49-14, pitting them first in the standings with a cozy 5.5-game lead.

While we don’t know when, or if, the season will resume, we dug into how the Lakers all but assured themselves the No. 1 seed should we get some postseason hoops to watch.

Below are several categories in which we compared the Lakers to the rest of the NBA with some nuts and bolts on the topic, followed by analysis:

NET RATING: 7.1, 2nd
Nuts and Bolts: Net rating measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions, and typically, the more a team outscores its opponent, the better that team is. You can argue that total wins is still the best metric, and that’s of course what the standings are based upon, not net rating. However, if a team outscore its opposition by seven points per 100 possessions (winning 100-93 on average) wouldn’t that suggest superiority over a team with a similar record that outscores teams by four points (100-96) on average? Probably, but there are some holes. Most importantly, not every team plays the same opposition, and therefore, there’s a net rating benefit to being in the weaker Eastern Conference. Also, what if that lesser team has a terrific closer and wins a ton of close games, something that matters more in the postseason? Furthermore, certain teams that have won in prior seasons, or that are composed mostly of veterans, may place a lesser priority on the regular season (like last year’s Warriors) and focus most on health, and not seeding.

Analysis: The Lakers trail only Milwaukee (10.7) in net rating; the Bucks are built on depth and coach Mike Budenholzer’s system to complement their star, Giannis Antetokounmpo. But that doesn’t mean the Bucks are better than LAL. This year, they’ve split H2H matchups. There’s a fair argument to favor the Lakers in a 7-game series mostly due to the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis in crunch time, as LeBron in particular has proven so many times that he shines brightest in such playoff settings. Meanwhile, Giannis – who’s only 25 and will still improve significantly – was limited some by Toronto in last year’s ECF (after he had little problem with Detroit or Boston) due in part to his jumper not yet being reliable, and Khris Middleton is not on AD’s level as go-to wingman. In fact, the Bucks led the NBA in net rating last season (8.6 to 2nd place Golden State’s 6.5), but ultimately lost in the Conference Finals (TOR). Statistically, Milwaukee does benefit from being in the East (where the 7th seed, BKN, is 30-34 compared to the 40-27 Mavs out West) by playing many more games against weak opposition. As such, their overall net rating is a bit misleading, compared to the Lakers and No. 3-ranked Clippers (6.4). In theory, being less dependent on a system (since things get bogged down more in the playoffs against stronger defenses that knows what to expect) and shortened rotations would benefit teams like the LAL and LAC, not Milwaukee. Posting a 10.7 net rating is fantastic, the highest since the 2016-17 Warriors (11.4); but it also doesn’t necessarily separate MIL from LAL (or LAC) in this particular season.

ROAD WINS: 26, 1st
Nuts and Bolts: An excellent predictor for postseason success is how a team does outside the comfort of its own building, and nobody’s been better in that sense than the Lakers. They have an NBA-best 26 road wins, including at least one W in every single Western gym, with the exception of Minnesota, where LAL have yet to play (the lone game was scheduled for March 30). In fact, the Lakers set a new NBA record by winning 18 straight games in road arenas within their conference. That’s insane, because these are all the places where the home fans love nothing more than to beat L.A. (Portland … Sacramento … Utah … San Antonio … Phoenix … Golden State … etc.). LAL have two losses all season in Western buildings: the season opener (at LAC) and at MEM on Feb. 28. The streak also included three wins on the second night of road B2B’s (at MEM, UTA and OKC), and LAL won at NOP on March 1, the night after the loss at Memphis. After LAL’s 26 road wins, the next most in the West come from Dallas, who had 21.

Analysis: It’s been interesting watching the Lakers play on the road this season, and comparing it to their play at home. During the aforementioned (ridiculous) 18-game streak, I found myself often asking Frank Vogel about my perception that the team had, overall, played better on the road. This because, prior to March, most of L.A.’s best wins came on the road. Take your pick from the at Denver (twice), at Utah on a B2B, at Houston, at Dallas (twice) or OKC (twice) group. Vogel typically underplayed his response, saying that they’d also been very good at home … and he’s of course right. LAL are 23-8 compared to 26-6 on the road. That said, only five teams have more wins on the road than at home*.

There are two things that have led to the Lakers to being a bit sharper on the road, where they turn the ball over less (14.9 to 15.3), shoot a bit better (48.6% to 48.3%), take more FT’s (24.3 to 23.2 – so much for getting the calls at home!) and make more 3’s (11.3 to 11.0):
- 1) It’s a veteran-laden team led by LeBron eager to show opponents that they have no advantage at home.
- 2) LAL get a mental edge from having such terrific showings from their fans in every road city.

Ultimately, I believe that same mindset would carry over to home games for the playoffs, as it did during the 113-103 win over MIL on March 6. But the larger point: the Lakers know they’ve won in the house of every single possible playoff opponent out West, and that’s significant.

Nuts and Bolts: The Lakers actually started pretty slowly on the offensive side of the court. They were the No. 1 defense, and No. 13 offense in the NBA when they were 10-2 on Nov. 16, before they started to pick things up considerably, ranking 5th on O by the end of the month. After the All-Star break, the O again took a backseat to the D, ranking 25th as the 2nd-ranked defense carried the day again, including the pair of playoff-style wins against MIL and LAC. Take the rating aside for a second, and what’s clear is that the Lakers have no problem scoring, or at least creating good shots, at any point of a game. LeBron’s mastery of that end of the floor is so complete that he’s certainly figured out the best way to operate, using the overall skills of Anthony Davis as a No. 2 option, the spacing from shooters like Danny Green and KCP, the vertical spacing of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard and the shot creation/making of Kyle Kuzma especially when LeBron or AD weren’t available.

Analysis: If you have LeBron James leading your offense, you’re going to be elite. Period. When LeBron is on the floor (team-high 2,094 minutes) LAL outscored their opponents by 483 points. When he sits, LAL were outscored by 16 points. Since he can control a game so easily from a mental standpoint – putting his teammates in the right positions; drawing double teams when he wants to; making the ideal reads – and still has his physical powers at age 35, the defense has to pick its poison, and there isn’t a great option. On a given night, if LeBron’s not hitting his jumper, he can always just go down into the post. When he’s on the block, there literally hasn’t been a more efficient play (if you include his passes out of the post) in the NBA. That also makes the Lakers dependent upon his abilities on that end, since you just can’t replicate what he does with a different player.

Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is averaging 26.7 points on 51.1 percent shooting (33.5 percent from three, including 41.0 percent after the All-Star break) with 3.1 assists, and he’s your second-best offensive player? That helps! AD can create a shot for himself from the post or off the dribble, and his shooting off the ball continues to be a weapon especially when LeBron draws the double on drives … but the thing I often think about is how little L.A. have needed AD to go into his ultra-aggressive, attack-the-rim mode that’s absolutely unstoppable, thanks to how great LeBron is at controlling games. The last time AD was in the playoffs, he averaged 33 points on 57.5 percent FG’s and took 9.5 free throws per game in a sweep over Portland, before losing to eventual champion GSW with similar numbers. He absolutely has another level he can reach offensively when things bog down, and that’s best utilized in the postseason.

Nuts and Bolts: Before the season started, nobody was picking the Lakers to have the best defense in the West, but it’s on D where they’ve done the most damage to opponents. The prevailing preseason theory seemed to be that it was a veteran group who would save its best effort for the postseason, and maybe there would be a lack of clarity about rotation and some uncertainty at the 1 and 5 positions. In reality, GM Rob Pelinka put together a roster full of defensive talent. And his coaching hire, Frank Vogel, designed an ambitious scheme where protecting the rim is top priority … but he still got his players to play really hard – typically the most important, if most basic key to a good NBA defense – and make the proper rotations to protect against open 3’s.

Analysis: Here’s how Vogel explained what he wanted to do on defense when I asked him about how he’d adjusted his approach from his previous coaching gigs:

“There’s been a major evolution stylistically how I want to play the game, and it’s about the evolution of the league,” he responded. “The whole league has changed with the 3-point shot and the amount of switching that occurs and is necessary to occur on some level – I do believe it’s overdone on some level. But the two years in Orlando, while we were developing the young talent – and it was a rebuild situation – turned into a little bit of a laboratory for me. To figure out this new NBA. Figure out this new world. What is the exact scheme that needs to go in to be successful in the modern NBA. It was a great learning experience. I continued that in my sabbatical year this past year, visiting with teams all around the league, having a lot of lengthy discussions about offensively, how to play this style of play and how to transform the scheme, and defensively as well.”

Well, it worked!

DPOY candidate AD is essential; he does absolutely everything on that end from the rim out to the perimeter. In his opening presser, AD said he also expected LeBron’s defense to go up a notch, and the leadership he showed there extended to the rest of the roster. And in his 17th season, James was flying around early in the season, and that set a great tone. With the starters, Avery Bradley came in healthy after an injury-plagued 2018-19, and his pressure on the ball sets yet another tone. Green’s versatility on the wing and ability to often take the toughest wing assignment is huge, while McGee’s rim protection is exponentially impactful since AD so often flies into the paint from the weak side. Meanwhile, Alex Caruso’s outstanding instincts on D are huge off the bench, as is KCP’s constant energy and ball pressure, while Kuzma has shown real growth. The biggest surprise has been just how good Dwight Howard still is on defense after he’d been healthy enough to play only nine games the season before, and had his struggles at his previous few stops. Vogel has a lot of directions to go on that end, whether he opts to stay big with McGee or Howard at the rim, or go small with AD at center, when he could still get rim protection thanks to AD’s abilities, plus more perimeter D from Caruso or KCP.

Nuts and Bolts: One of the reasons the Lakers started the season slowly from an offensive standpoint is they simply weren’t hitting open perimeter shots. That inevitably got better, because the open looks – thanks to LeBron and AD and all the attention they drew – were always there. By Nov. 16 (12 games in), LAL were just 25th in 3-point percentage (32.4%), but they climbed up to No. 11 (36.2%) by the end of the month. For the season, they rank 17th at 35.5%. The Lakers are more impressive from a true shooting percentage standpoint (TS% which factors in the value of 3’s and FT’s in addition to conventional two-point shots.) They don’t stand out in free throw attempts (10th), makes (18th) or certainly, percentage (28th), numbers that need to shore up for a postseason run (and LeBron’s were on an uptick after the break).

Analysis: The reason for that very strong 57.7% TS% certainly isn’t the 3-point or FT shooting. It was how great the Lakers are at creating easy baskets at the rim. In fact, LAL shoot an NBA-best 63.2% at the rim. Part of that is a result of LeBron’s drives and dishes, and all of the lobs to McGee, AD and Howard. Part is all the successful plays out of LeBron or AD post ups: LAL post up 14.5 times per game, second only to Philly (17.0), and when a player touches the paint, they have an NBA-best 70.9% FG%. That’s at least somewhat related to the Lakers having an NBA low 20.3 drive points per game, showing that not many players aside from LeBron drive with the intent to score. Of course, when LeBron drives, he’s so often making the ideal read out of the typical double team from the help defender, and getting a teammate an uncontested shot. The other helper here from a TS% is all of the fastbreak buckets scored by the Lakers, who ranked 2nd in the NBA with 19.2 fastbreak points (TOR, 19.4), and of course, most fastbreak points are uncontested shots at the rim. A hat tip there goes to AD, who so often streaks up the floor and catches LeBron football passes, plus KCP, who’s seemingly always flying up the wing.

Nuts and Bolts: The Lakers rank 8th in the NBA in rebounding, 11th on the defensive glass and 10th on the offensive glass. Davis leads the team with 9.4 boards per game, followed by LeBron at 7.9 and Dwight Howard with 7.4 in just 19.2 minutes per game (that’s 13.8 boards per 36 minutes from the 3X DPOY). Howard’s 2.5 offensive boards per game led the way, with AD grabbing 2.3, while AD’s 7.1 defensive boards were tops.

Analysis: Before the season started, I thought rebounding would be one of L.A.’s major advantage areas, just given their tremendous size with McGee, AD and LeBron, plus Howard off the bench. And while ranking 8th in the league is good, defensive rebounding in particular has been something that Frank Vogel frequently cited as needing to shore up. This can probably be attributed to L.A.’s guards, though it’s not necessarily their fault. Starting guards Green and Bradley, who combine for 5.7 boards per game, are often looking to get out and run once a shot goes up, instead of helping the bigs rebound ... and as we covered, scoring in transition is a big boost for L.A., so you can’t have it both ways. Meanwhile, because LeBron is the point guard on offense, Green and Bradley are often operating on the wings, mostly in catch-and-shoot roles. Typically, the PG is a player expected to be one of the first two guys back in transition on a non-penetrating play, but since LeBron is so often either at the rim or in the paint dishing off, it’s not on him to be first back in transition. But with Green and Bradley having to be back in transition first, they aren’t getting much of a chance to attack the offensive glass. Bottom line: L.A. are certainly good enough on the glass, and could shore things up on either end during a playoff series in which Vogel told them where to focus their attention.

Nuts and Bolts: The Lakers rank 12th in the NBA in pace, at 101.11, down significantly from their No. 4 spot the prior season (103.6). Playing at that still-faster-than-average tempo, they still hold teams to the third-fewest points per game at 106.9, while averaging the 7th most points (114.3).

Analysis: When the Lakers decide to run, they do it efficiently. They also score pretty quickly on many possessions, and so their pace number is held down more by the fact that they’re really tough to score on, and often force teams to eat up a lot of the shot clock. And yes, their own frequent post ups do take more time, but often render a good shot. Vogel is keen to point out that playing faster isn’t always better, but depends upon several other factors. And the good news for the Lakers is they can play fast or slow, depending on their opponent and the game plan. Generally, things slow down in the playoffs, and the Lakers are really strong in that way, due to their stout halfcourt defense, and ability to score in the halfcourt thanks to LeBron and AD’s abilities. But if there’s a chance to run, they have the horses to do it in a punishing manner, most easily typified by their rank of No. 2 in FB points, despite their 12th rank in pace.

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