NBA March Madness
As the NBA season winds down, a crazy playoff chase in the West has seen the San Antonio Spurs fall from the 4th seed to the 10 seed and back to the 7th seed in the span of just over a week. As of this writing, Utah, Minnesota, San Antonio are tied for 5th at 40–30, New Orleans is 8th at 39–30, with the L.A. Clippers (37–31) and Denver (38–32) 1 1/2 games out of the 8th spot. Every game is a land mine, and a losing streak of one game could represent the end of any team’s season. The East is much calmer as teams jockey for playoff position without any fear of not making the post season.
At the bottom, the tankapalooza rolls on, with nine teams Aching for Ayton™ (please send all royalties to my patreon account here, you’ll be glad you did). Seven teams have 19–23 wins, but the Bulls and Knicks are Deactivating for DeAndre™ by not giving everything they can to close the gap to the bottom.
With Detroit and Charlotte simply trying to keep their coaches from getting fired, only one team has been tilting against windmills, too young and inexperienced to believe that playoff miracles don’t happen.
The New Kids on the Block
Under coach Luke Walton, The Los Angeles Lakers have installed a system similar to the Warriors in the hopes of creating ShowTime 2.0. This is really year 2 of their rebuilding plan, as the Kobe farewell tour and Byron Scott’s luddite basketball theories didn’t mesh well with developing young players.
The Lakers have a core of seven young players that include three rookies (Ball, Kuzma, Hart) two second-year players (Ingram, Zubac), a beast in his third year (Randle) and a grizzled veteran of 25 (Caldwell-Pope). Their average age is 21.8.
Over the course of the this season, the Lakers were a top 10 defensive team for a number of months, a miraculous improvement over the league worst defense the team showed for the last few years. In addition, the team was among the league leaders in transition opportunities, fast break points, points in the paint, assists and pace. The problem was their league-worst performances in turnovers, 3-point shooting and free throw shooting. I wrote a number of articles that theorized what might happen if the Lakers could learn to protect the ball better — the one area within the team’s control. The results, as well as their shooting improvement have been amazing
In game terms, an NBA season represents a span of almost 2 1/2 years of college basketball. With all these young players developing since October, the Lakers have played like two completely different teams.
The 2017 Lakers
With a team culture of focusing on defense, sharing the ball and running the Lakers could battle with anyone, but made too many mistakes to win a lot of close games.
Like Chinese New Years, the arrival of the 2018 Lakers did not occur on its expected calendar date. A double overtime loss on New Year’s Eve to the Rockets followed by a New Year’s Day hangover with the Timberwolves left the Lakers in horrible shape. The 2017 season ended as the team reached its absolute low point with a 36-point home loss to the Thunder on January 3rd.
With a record of 11–26, the team was on pace to win 24 games, and headed for another bottom 5 season. Bill Simmons and Celtics fans were clucking over the possibility of getting the Lakers draft pick should it fall between 2 and 5.
The 2018 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2018 season started on January 5th, with their 9th loss in a row, but two factors marked the rebirth of the team: Lonzo Ball returned to the lineup after a six game absence and Lavar Ball reached out from Lithuania to tell the world that “the Lakers have stopped listening to Luke Walton.”
Starting with that game, the Lakers have gone 20–12, for the 6th best record in the league. That winning percentage translates to a 51-win season.
How did they do it?
TURNOVERS: The number one reason was the team’s improvement in taking care of the ball. Because of the Lakers’ pace of play and number of opportunities to score in transition, turnovers caused catastrophic damage. At least once or twice a game, a fast break for the Lakers that ended in a turnover would immediately turn into an easy fast break basket for their opponents. These 4- and even 5-point turnaround plays killed the team. Let’s look at how these differences affected the team’s results.
In 68% of the team’s 37 games, the 2017 Lakers committed turnovers at a league worst rate* (16 or more), resulting a 5–21 record. That’s on pace for a 15-win season. When they committed 15 or less, their record was 6–5 (with three of the losses were blown 4th quarter leads against playoff teams.)
The development of the young players is the only major difference in the team, as the exchange of veteran players hasn’t produced a marked difference in turnovers. (Isaiah Thomas and replacement player Travis Wear combine to average 3.4 turnovers per game, while Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and Corey Brewer combined to average 3.5 turnovers per game.)
Here’s the breakdown of the Lakers’ win-loss record based on how many turnovers they committed in each game:
12 or less turnovers: 5–1
13–15 turnovers: 8–4:
16–19 turnovers: 5–5
20 or more turnovers: 2–2
In 56% of their 32 games, the 2018 Lakers have protected the ball (15 or less turnovers), with a record is 13–5. That’s a 59-win pace. In the 14 games where they turned the ball over at a league worst average, the team was still 7–7.
3-POINT SHOOTING: The second reason for their jump is the team’s improvement in 3-point shooting. The Lakers started the season as the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA, at 31.9%. Since that horrible start, they’ve improved to 34.5%.
What’s remarkable here is the frequency of games where the team shoots well. In their 37 games, the 2017 Lakers shot below 30% 13 times, losing 12 of 13 games. When the Lakers shot 30–35%, they lost 7 of 10 games. And when they shot over 36% (the NBA team average), the team record was 7–7. The 2017 Lakers shot at or above league average in only 18.8% of their games, resulting in a 7–7 record.
The team’s 3-point shooting transformation since January 5th is staggering, as is the correlation to wins:
Under 30%: 2–4
Over 40%: 7–3
In 53% of the last 32 games, the 2018 Lakers shot at or above league average, compiling a record of 13–4. That’s a 63-win pace.
How will the season end?
On Feb. 28th, the Lakers waived Corey Brewer, allowing him to go to a playoff team. The next day, Josh Hart broke his hand in practice, and not scheduled to return until the end of March. The day after that, at the end of a rout in Miami, Brandon Ingram was injured, and has not returned. On March 13th, Kyle Kuzma sprained his ankle and missed the next game.
Since Ingram’s injury, the Lakers are 4–4. The loss of depth at the small forward position has forced the team to go with essentially a 6-man rotation. Over their last 5 games, Ball, Randle, Kuzma and KCP are averaging 36–38 minutes per game, while Lopez and IT average 31–32 mpg. Those number would be higher were it not for the big lead against Cleveland and extended garbage time. For the Lakers’ system to work, they need a 10-man rotation, so they can break down opponents with their running game. With the increased minutes, the fatigue is showing up in the outside shooting of the Lakers’ primary perimeter defenders in Ball and KCP.
The team ran itself into the ground with a hotly contested game against Denver where the starters played even more minutes, followed by a game the next night at Golden State where Kuzma sat out with a sprained ankle. Two days later, they played their worst game since the first three games where the were trying to incorporate IT into the lineup.
Of the 13 remaining games for the 2018 Lakers, 9 are against playoff teams. 8 of the games will be played in Los Angeles, with the lone back to back set of games taking place on the last two days of the season. With Ingram and Hart out, I don’t see how the Lakers can sustain their energy and high level of play. Where I imagined they had a chance to reach 41 games, it now appears to have been a mirage, the hallucination of a fan crawling through the desert for the last five seasons.
If Ingram is able to play before the end of the upcoming road trip, the Lakers could conceivably win their games against losing teams and play the role of spoiler in a few of their home games. With a little luck, they could end up with 38 wins, which is a solid improvement over last year, and a signal to potential free agents that the Lakers are one piece away from becoming a playoff team.
*Currently, Dallas, Minnesota and Charlotte lead the league with less than 13 turnovers per game. The league median is 14.3. The bottom four includes Golden State in 27th (15.7), Phoenix in 28th (15.7), the Lakers at 29th (15.9), and the Philadelphia 76ers in last place with 17.0 turnovers per game.