As we notch the quarter mark of the first season of the Lebron-era in the land of purple and gold, the young core has been making all kinds of adjustments on the fly as it relates to both ingratiating themselves with the roster turnover as well as adjusting to the new offensive style.
As the Lakers early season defensive struggles were due heavily to their rim defense when Javale was off the court, it looks like the Lakers are more of a complete team with Chandler now manning the back end of the second unit allowing for more consistent defensive and offensive play for the team.
With a more complete roster, the spotlight moves beyond the roster issues to more player and scheme specific trends that have presented themselves in the first twenty games of the season. Many of the observations and trends are positive but there are definitely some negative observations, and of the issues the team has many are correctable as the season progresses
1) The presence of Javale McGee (and Tyson Chandler) has been invaluable to solving the Lakers’ defensive woes
As the early season progressed and the Lakers played a frenetic pace, one the things that become increasingly apparent was the lack of rebounding and rim defense with Javale off the court. The Lakers were hemorrhaging points in the paint as opposing defenders had the green light to attack the rim and the Lakers struggled to rotate in time.
So just how good has Javale been so far this year for the Lakers?
When looking at the advanced stats specifically looking at shots defended 6ft or closer to the rim, Javale is top ten in the amount of shots defended but more importantly he is significantly better than anyone in the top ten in defending shots at the rim (including DPOY conversation regulars Embiid and Davis)
At the cost of a MINIMUM SALARY the Lakers are getting defensive player of the year output from Javale and if the Lakers find a way to continue their success and move up the ranks in a tight Western Conference, I don’t see how Javale doesn’t get first place votes if he continues his dominant rim defense.
2) Rondo’s over-dribbling has helped the Lakers survive poor half court possessions
As the early “constantly in transition” offense did their best to blitz defenses on both made and missed baskets, more often then not games especially in late game situations came to a slower half court grind as opposing teams made sure to get back on defense.
A lot has been mentioned about the Luke not running any sort of real sets outside of the usual down screen for Kuzma which results in a curl to the basket or pin down screen for KCP which results in a top or wing three which he has started making after an abysmal start.
Part of what has helped the Lakers get through the rough half court patches has been the stellar play of Rondo in half court situations. As much as folks lament (including yours truly) about how painful it is to watch Rondo dribble excessively during possessions, what he is doing with the ball in his hands is in half court situations is saving those possessions in general (and is partly why I think Luke was playing Rondo over Lonzo in the second half but more on that at another time)
3) Lonzo’s next “progression” is going to involve him consistently attack the rim when defenses play off of him
I cannot stress how important the “consistently” part of the statement above. As fantastic as some of Lonzo’s reads are, it looked like the early season defensive strategy against Lonzo was just to lay off of him enough to be able to help on whoever was going to drive the lane eventually and take your chances with his shot.
Though his shot has improved this season, Lonzo’s adjustment to that style of defense initially was to just to settle for the open three but with the injury to Rondo and teams become more brazen with there defensive schemes, Lonzo has begun to see rim attacking opportunities and he is making the most of them.
Watch the play below in a sequence against Portland where Lebron plays the iso post up on the opposing block but opts to pass to Pope who fumbles the skip pass over to Lonzo. He gets the first step to attack the rim but opts to whip it out over the gaze of an unsuspecting Stauskas to get Pope an excellent look at a three.
The above sequence is a good example of how defenses would play against Lonzo early on in the season as he settled for jumper instead of attacking the open lane. Usually it was a late close-out by the defender or just no attempt to contest his shot out right.
As Lonzo gets more confident with his three ball, defenders will start closing out on him in more of a normal manner and Lonzo has adjusted to that by using fakes and out right attacks to the rim to create plays for his teammates
In fact per Second Spectrum Lonzo’s drive attempts have increased since Rondo went down with injury and though Lonzo isn’t driving to the rim at the rate I absolutely believe that good things will happen as long as he keeps attacking consistently.
4) Kyle Kuzma’s three point shooting woes are preventing the Lakers from being “slightly tough” to “very difficult” to defend
For anyone who has been following the season, the general consensus has been that the one player who by far fits the best with Lebron is Kyle Kuzma and that is also not by chance either. The pairing of Lebron and Kuzma has the most minutes played together of any combination on the roster so far.
More importantly the addition of Lebron and other playmakers in the roster have resulted in Kuzma operating in less ISO situations and more in “catch and shoot” or “cutting to the rim” situations lessening the burden on him to have to exert himself on offense to score
So if Kuzma should really be excelling next to players who can get him easier shots what is going on?
The answer lies in the Kuzma’s shot distribution and percentages. The hypothesis is that Kuzma cutting to the basket and receiving pinpoint passes from his teammates should result in easier makes and so far this season that has rung true.
The frequency of shots within 10 feet has increased from 40% last season to 51% this season and his FG% in that area has actually improved to 63% compared to 61% last season
The issue lies in Kuzma’s three point shooting which has regressed significantly this season. He has been shooting a whopping 29% this season compared to a much more respectable 36% last season. When taking a deeper dive into Kuzma’s shooting, the issues unveils itself.
The new offense has allowed Kuzma to be much more successful at the rim this season but it hasn’t translated over to Kuzma’s three point shooting and that may be as a result of many different things including the increased pace causing fatigue and his responsibility to guard the better offensive player so Lebron doesn’t have to but I suspect he will eventually break out of his funk and improve allowing for the Lakers really start firing on all cylinders