Recap: Some Rest, No One Defends and the Blazers Rise
Lakers and the Nuggets was an offensive tsunami with both teams with offensive ratings above 130. The Nuggets focused on load management, playing all their 10 players between 20 and 26 minutes, as the Lakers had an overdue lights-out shooting game. They were so fantastic on jump shots that this was the Lakers seeding game with the least transition possessions, their usual most efficient scenario, and they still had massive offensive production.
But the week belonged to Portland. Damian Lillard went for 61 points against Dallas for his 3rd 60 point game of this season (only player besides Wilt to ever do it) and second consecutive game over 50, he scored or assisted every Blazers point, with the exception of 2 points, between the 9 minute mark of the 4th until one of the intentional fouls in the final moments. Despite Caris LeVert’s best efforts, as he hit all kinds of shots inside on his way to 37 points, he couldn’t make the game winning shot and Lillard continued his career-best play with 42 points, 12 assists and a clutch steal in a victory against the Nets.
And of course, the peak for the Blazers’ quest was the win against Memphis in the play-in tournament. CJ massacred Ja Morant in isolation for 3 jump shot makes in the final minutes. Despite this, the rookie’s performance with a depleted Grizzlies squad is a sign of hope - He leaves the bubble more experienced in what it takes to lead a team in important games and on how to face defenses that don’t respect his jumper. Nurkic had an heroic performance, in part due to Whiteside being so terrible that Stotts had no choice but to play the starter for 43 minutes.
Harden scored 45 points with 17 rebounds, 9 assists and 3 steals but the Rockets without Westbrook still lost to an Indiana team where no individual player reached 20 points; In the same Thursday evening, the Heat made a 22-point 4th quarter comeback against the Thunder, in a game where 65% of minutes were given to bench players and Mike Muscala’s winning shot guaranteed Philadelphia receiving OKC’s 1st round pick for this year’s draft, making it Muscala’s more significant contribution to the 76ers; And finally, an acknowledgement to sustained greatness as the Spurs will miss the playoffs after 22 consecutive post-seasons.
The Suns managed to go undefeated in the seeding games and Devin Booker finished his bubble stint averaging 30.5 points per game on 63% True Shooting. This Phoenix team missed the playoffs but have earned everyone’s attention.
Preview: “Now I’m Actually Trying”
First rounds aren’t always the most exciting series. The Bucks and the Raptors should make quick work of the Magic and Nets, who are extra vulnerable with injuries to key pieces. Dallas’ defense is as impermeable as a sponge and the different ways the Clippers can make Luka’s life harder running pick and roll means a decisive affair, although we are still to see this iteration of the Clippers truly try hard for 4 games in a row, much less 7.
The Celtics-76ers series lost a lot of its glamour with Ben’s injury and now at least one of the Celtics top players will always have a favourable matchup. But just like the Lakers-Blazers series should be on the short side but with high odds of Lillard going nuclear, the same has to be said about Joel Embiid. The Philadelphia star often feasts on the Celtics lack of size and physical defensive bigs. Miami and Indiana will be a very interesting game of matchups, which the Heat should come out on top with their gorgeous defensive versatility and scheme-switching. However, it lacks the appeal to a casual fan by lacking any true must-see star on either side.
Houston has to plan around Westbrook’s absence against OKC. Losing Russell’s ability to attack 4-on-3 advantages means the load is back on the role layers to make enough shots when Harden is doubled forced to get rid of the ball. Chris Paul is surely extra motivated but he might struggle to recreate his usual efficiency since the Rockets switch everything and no real centre and CP’s main course of action has been attacking bigs who play conventional pick and roll defense. On the Nuggets against the Utah Jazz, the lack of Bogdanovic and Conley might prove too much to overcome. But regardless of how long it takes, every game can be counted to be a close affair - Snyder is a smart coach, Mitchell has gained extra versatility by becoming more proficient in working off screens and if they manage to get past the aggressive Nuggets point of attack defense, they might start collecting field goals. But look towards Denver countering by playing more drop coverage…
In Focus: The Los Angeles Lakers
The partnership of LeBron James and Anthony Davis was formed when the Lakers traded everything that wasn’t nailed down to floor of Staples – Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, the pick that turned into De’Andre Hunter and 1st round picks from the 2021, 2023 (in a swap) and 2024 drafts. Every LA fan knew none of that mattered because they had just created the most precious thing in basketball: a legit window for title contention. And with a collection of rejuvenated veterans, the Lakers were the league’s 3rd best defense while still retaining a top 10 offense. The LeBron-and-AD-lead group soared to a clear first seed in the Western Conference and with the winning percentage of a 60-win team. But performances since the restart have changed perceptions… The team dropped all the way to the 2nd worst offense in the bubble, only ahead of the “why are we here again?” Wizards, and the defense was not amongst the top half of bubble teams. With a full offseason between the pre-Orlando days and the seeding games, is there anything from the Lakers that should truly change the way we see them as contenders?
The first thing to reckon with is that the Lakers are not a good shooting team and what we’ve been seeing is a sequence where the more extreme side of that probability game was on display. Most of these awful games are set in a house built out of bricks that come from mostly open looks. And this should not be that surprising when KCP and Danny Green are the only players available that shoot over 35% from deep on at least 2 attempts per game. These poor performances are outliers to an extent, only the lack of quality shooting makes a negative outlier more frequent than a positive one. So this is actually in line with our knowledge of this team since the Lakers halfcourt offense has actually been mediocre all year - They were only 18th in that department, not showing any capable strategy for creating shots outside of LeBron James’s genius. However, this was easily compensated by how they lead the league in transition and were also a force to be reckoned with in putbacks.
Quite apparent as of late is the need for Anthony Davis to take up most of the minutes playing the 5. Davis as avoided playing centre to avoid the more demanding physical toll but the quality minutes from JaVale and Dwight are all but a memory at this point and the lack of offensive burst the team has can be slightly mitigated by moving up Davis to get in some extra shooting (though those options are limited, as mentioned). AD destroyed Gobert not even a couple of weeks ago and the way he can stretch out those anchors away from the paint makes life easier on drivers and cutters. AD is an elite rolling big, incredibly quick in transition and has a face up game that is deadly against most bigs because of his springs and high release. But a lack of post game makes him unable to punish smaller but more mobile players who will be more conformable defending outside and, while a good spot up shooter from the corner, settling for an above the break 3 is a win for the defense. All the more reason to have him play against centers that cannot keep up with him off the dribble.
His time in the bubble has been plagued by a concerning 7% reduction in frequency of shots at the rim, and pretty much all of those became three point shots attempted above the break. He’s taking shots away from where he is elite to somewhere where he is dirt poor. Davis exists in a separate plane defensively (the way he hedges and recovers in pick and roll is smothering) but he is merely a complementary offensive player and hopefully, at the same time as he plays more as a centre, his shot profile also sees him playing to his strengths once more.
Let us turn our attention to the man running the show where the case is there for some decline in LeBron James’ scoring. It’s his worst accuracy at the rim since 2006 by 2% and a 39 FG% in isolation represents a 2.2% decline from last year and 6% decline of his last Cleveland year, according to NBA.com. But the largest contributor for his dip in efficiency is getting noticeably less to the free throw line: He’s currently with the least free throws attempted in his career at 5.7 per game, with only his rookie year also being below 6.5, and the first time his BBRefs’s free throw rate is below 30%. He is in the 1st percentile of the league in on/off effect in FTRate - when he’s on the court, the lakers have -6.9 free throws per 100 (Last year it was a +2.7!). Some small decreasing percentages in similar amount of attacks to the rim combined with less calls, culminates on his least efficient year in Points per Shot Attempt (PSA) since his first Cleveland run.
Now, some negative trends are to be expected at his age. But LeBron also had a significantly better defensive year and the effort on that side can also take away from offensive efficiency. According to Krishna Narsu’s Guarding Roles, his percentage of possessions defending a primary creator (and this often means quicker guards) went from last season’s 9.6% to 16.2%! The Lakers are an elite defense with him on the court, better in his solo minutes than AD’s according to NBA.com, but give up an astounding -8.5 points per 100 when James sits. And the amazing thing about LeBron James is that for his so called “offensive decline” he still lead the league in assists (CraftedNBAs simplified version of Ben Taylor’s Passer rating has him as number 1 this year by a mile), is a top 2 MVP candidate and it’s foolish not to expect LeBron to be an historically great playoff performer this year all the same. It’s just this Lakers team has an offense that miss-clicks often, the margins are getting slimmer and it’s unfair in such a loaded West to expect a 35 year old LeBron James to be your entire gameplay.
So we must look at the supporting cast a bit further and Kuzma’s development is of the most importance. Recently, his drives and hard cuts put immense pressure on defenders and it’s best he looks to stay clear of isolation. The aggression on the defensive end has disguised a lot of his earlier career foibles and it also helps that in a super sized Lakers squad, he gets to defend a lot more against spot up wings, staying out of the post where he can be exploited. He’s become reliable enough at moving his feet 1v1 and staying in front of his matchup that adversaries lost a favoured hunted matchup. Kyle’s not only much more efficient in the bubble, which is still a small sample size, but his shot diet has changed: He’s diminished his attempts from midrange by 6% and NBA.com shows an increase in catch-and-shoot 3 and his pull-ups decreasing by 4%, a reduction almost exclusively in pull-up 2s which improves his contribution to spacing.
The Lakers will miss Avery Bradley’s spacing but will mostly miss the pressure he puts on point guards (Dion might fill the role on offense but he gives those points back). But nothing we saw in the seeding games shows any new concerns. The Lakers had nothing to play for and LeBron/AD pick and roll - perhaps the NBA’s most unguardable play - is a weapon that might be fully unleashed by the playoffs and AD playing the 5. Lakers are +15 (!) with a 95 DRTG when they play the two stars without Rondo, Howard or Javale. Add spacing from the team’s best shooters in Kuzma, Green and KCP and that PnR will be destructive once they decide to spam it. It’s only the 10th most used lineup of the Lakers with only 48 minutes total but ir is +23.3 in those minutes.
The 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers are a flawed team but what has been fun about this season is a new crop of contenders that all of them present their uncertainties and cracks in the arbor. It’s the team that rises above them that will be crowned, for better or for worst, an unforgettable NBA champion.
(Using Cleaning the Glass stats unless stated otherwise)