3-Pointers? We don’t need no stinkin’ 3‘s

Could the Lakers win 60 games by making layups?

On a cloudy night in Boston last November, a young, hopeful Los Angeles Lakers squad played a game where they were colder than the outside temperature. In the first quarter, they shot 0 for 6 from beyond the arc and fell behind by 17 points. While they eventually cut the lead to two points, their horrendous 3-point shooting for the night (20.8%) doomed them.

Or did it?

In a game they lost by 11 points, the Lakers had 20 turnovers and missed 12 layups. If you subtract the shots blocked by Boston, that’s still 9 blown layups, of which 6 were missed by the youngsters (Kuzma 3, Ball 2, Ingram 1).

The eye test vs advanced analytics

That early game basically summarized the Lakers’ season: terrible 3-point shooting (after starting the season under 32%, they had a massive surge, ending the season at 34.5% good for 29th in the league); terrible free throw shooting (worst in the league); and tons of turnovers (again, a massive improvement after the All-Star break helped them jump up to 29th).

But it also shined a light on the path moving forward: defend, rebound, run and share the ball, as they dominated the Celtics in fast break points, and created 24 points off turnovers.

Advanced analytics showed the team’s improvement in their core areas:

The Lakers’ improved to #12 in the NBA in defense in 2017 (up from dead last the year before), #1 in transition frequency, #1 in fast break points, and #7 in assists. The only problem is they were #22 in fast break efficiency at 1.06 point per possession (PPP).

By comparison, the Warriors were #9 in defense, #3 in transition frequency, #2 in fast break points, and #1 in assists. But their fast break efficiency made them deadly, as the Warriors were #3 in PPP at 1.15.

The main culprits for the poor transition efficiency were Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, just like they were in the Boston game.

Ball was in the bottom 5 percentile in transition PPP at 0.74, and Kuzma was below league average at 0.98.

What kind of improvement could the young guys make next season?

Obviously, it’s about getting physically stronger and learning how to absorb or even create contact with the defender, and the Lakers coaching staff already have one star pupil.

In 2016–2017, Brandon Ingram was a skinny kid who got pushed around and run over every time he went to the rim. On 1.6 transition possessions per game, he converted a ghastly 0.82 PPP.

Fast forward a year, and Ingram was the #9 volume finisher in the NBA (based on more than 50 games played and more than 3 possessions per game) at 1.17 PPP, with 3.1 possessions, 17.4% Frequency, 69.8% EFG, and a 57.2% Scoring Frequency. For context, Anthony Davis (1.25 PPP) , Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.20 PPP) and LeBron James (1.19 PPP) were numbers 6–8, while Kevin Durant (1.11 PPP) and James Harden (1.09 PPP) were numbers 18 and 19.)

Forget about making the Ingram jump, could Ball and Kuzma just improve to league average (the 50th percentile was 1.09 PPP)?

Last year, these two players accounted for 6.7 transition possessions per game, yielding 5.89 points per game. If they could improve to league average, the same number of transition possessions would score 7.30 points per game

While 1.41 points per game may not seem like a lot, it translates to roughly 7 more wins per season. (More on that later.)

How many points can a team score each night in transition?

While there is no way to know if the 3-pointer will fall on a given night, there is a much higher probability that players will make layups almost every night.

And the Lakers have added one of the most dominant transition players in the league in LeBron James: 5.5 possessions, 1.19 PPP. He also makes the shot and draws the foul 7.1% of the time. Although Westbrook scores the most transition points (6.8) in the league, his efficiency is below league average (1.01 PPP). Giannis is second at 6.7, and LeBron is third at 6.5.

Here are the other key Lakers back this season:

Josh Hart 2.3 POSS, 1.18 PPP
KCP 3.3 POSS, 1.16 PPP

Recall that the Lakers were #22 in efficiency at 1.06 PPP, while the Warriors were #1 at 1.15 PPP.

Now think about how many possessions there are in a game, based on the speed at which each team plays.

The Lakers were #2 in the NBA at 104.6 possessions per game, while Golden State was #7 at 102.3 possessions per game. If the Lakers could convert their fast break opportunities with the same efficiency as the Warriors, they would score about two points more in roughly every game the play.

For the 2017 season, the Lakers has an overall point differential of -1.5 points per game. Add those two points, and they would have a differential of +0.5 points per game.

How efficient will a team be with three top 10 passers?

Pete Zayas, one of my favorite basketball analysts, did a wonderful video analysis in The Athletic (free 7 day trial) into how a team with three of the top 10 passers in the NBA last season might play together.

That article inspired me to look into how these guys might impact the team using advanced analytics.

The Lakers will make huge strides offensively becuase of their passing efficiency. For context, last season, the Lakers were 18th in assists per possession (.227), and 26th in turnovers per possession (.151).

Here are the assist/turnover ratios of last season’s main passers besides Lonzo and Ingram: Clarkson (1.82), Thomas (1.57), Randle (0.99). They have all moved on to other teams.

Next season, the Lakers‘ main passers will show tremendous improvement in the assist/turnover ratio: Rondo (3.53); Ball (2.76); and LeBron (2.15). Only Ingram (1.54) lags behind, but he should make another jump, being mentored by LeBron.

Even more impressive are the assist percentage numbers of the new players joining Lonzo (29.2%). LeBron (44.5% ), and Rondo (41.5%) create assists at around double the rate of the players who left: Thomas (26.9%), Clarkson (23.1%), and Randle (15.8%).

LeBron is the ultimate in efficiency, because he scores 1.42 points per shot (#3 in the league after Harden and Davis), only turns the ball over 16.1% of the time, and has an assist percentage of 44.5% (#3, after Westbrook and Harden).

Based on the improvements made by these roster changes, I believe the Lakers could become a top 5 team in assists per possession (.249) and top 10 in fewest turnovers per possession (.136).

Now, multiply their new ratings by the Lakers pace from last year (104 possessions per game). At .249 x 104, the Lakers would average 2.3 more assists and 1.5 less turnovers per game. That’s 4.6 more points per game scored, and approximately 2 less points per game given up, a +6.6 point differential turnaround, compared to last year.

Point differential is commonly used metric to project team winning percentage.

Here is a commonly used formula, based on point differential.

Projected Win%=[(Points Differential)*2.7)+41]/82, which translates to 2.7 wins per point over the course of the season.

Here’s a sampling of NBA teams using this formula:

Houston (+8.5 DIFF) = 63.95 expected wins (won 65)
Toronto (+7.8 DIFF) = 62.05 expected wins (won 59)
Golden State (+6.0 DIFF) = 57.20 expected wins (won 58)
Philadelphia (+4.5 DIFF) = 53.15 expected wins (won 52)
Portland (+2.6 DIFF) = 48.02 expected wins (won 49)
Denver (+1.5 DIFF) = 45.05 expected wins (won 46)
Cleveland (+0.9 DIFF) = 43.43 expected wins (won 50)
Washington (+0.6 DIFF) = 42.62 expected wins (won 43)
Lakers (-1.5 DIFF) = 36.95 expected wins (won 35)
Knicks (-3.6 DIFF) = 31.28 expected wins (won 29)
Atlanta (-5.5 DIFF) = 26.15 expected wins (won 24)

Obviously, there will be some outliers. Some teams will tank and lose so badly that their point differential indicates an even bigger number of losses. Some teams will overachieve with a superstar who can single handedly win close games. Some teams will underachieve because of injuries or chemistry problems.

If you’ve read this far, you might as well meet me at the bottom of the rabbit hole…

In summary:

  1. If the Ball and Kuzma are able to make their layups, they would score 2 more points per game in transition.
  2. If the top 3 passers on the Lakers improve the team assist to turnover ratio, they could result in a 6.6 more points per game.
  3. In 2017, the team had a -1.5 point differential
  4. Adding 8.6 more points per game over last year’s team would give the Lakers a +7.1 point differential.
  5. Using the projected wins formula above, [(7.1 * 2.7) +41]/82 = .733 projected win %.
  6. Multiply by 82 and the Lakers project to win 60 games this season.

There are all kinds of unknown variables ahead. How will the vets react to playing behind the young kids? How will the young kids react if they lose playing time to the vets? How will LeBron’s body hold up, playing fewer minutes in an up tempo game? How will Luke Walton manage all the crazy personalities that have joined the team? How long will it take for everyone to get comfortable playing as a team?

The Lakers will face more challenges than the last two times LeBron changed teams. When LeBron joined Miami in 2010–2011, they started the season 9–8, but ended up with 58 wins and eventually lost in the Finals. But LeBron had two All-Stars in Wade and Bosh, and they played in the quickly decaying Eastern Conference, where the 5th seed wouldn’t have made the playoffs if they played in the West.

When LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014-2015, he again played with two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and the West was even more brutal, as the #3 seed in the East would have been tied for 7th in the West.

My best prediction is that this season will be one crazy ride. I am not suggesting the Lakers have a chance of beating the Warriors in the playoffs, but I do think all the talk about the team missing the playoffs is ridiculous. As I’ve shown above, there is a path to 60 wins, and it doesn’t seem to depend on making any real improvement in long distance shooting. Like I said (with apologies to The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Monkees, and Blazing Saddles…

3-pointers? We don’t need no stinkin’ 3-pointers!

For a more complete preview of the 2018 Los Angeles Lakers, please check out The Good, The Bad, The Crazy.

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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