When an NBA team finishes the season with only 17 wins, it is abundantly clear there are many shortcomings to address in the offseason. In the Lakers’ case, they substituted Luke Walton for Byron Scott as head coach, and they replaced Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass in the frontcourt with Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng. They also traded for veteran point guard Jose Calderon and were able to draft two more promising young players in Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac.
These are positive changes, but will any of them succeed in correcting the team’s biggest flaws from last season?
One major issue was a lack of consistent outside shooting, especially from three-point range. It is easy to forget that as recently as 2013-14, the Lakers were one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league finishing with an excellent team average of 38.1. Jordan Farmer was the leader, converted 44 percent of his three-pointers, and several others, including Jodie Meeks, Kendall Marshall, and Steve Blake, finished at 40 percent. Nick Young made approximately 39 percent of his three-point shots, and on the lower end, Wesley Johnson and Kent Bazemore still connected on a respectable 37 percent from downtown.
In comparison, last season the Lakers were ranked dead last in the NBA in three-point shooting, finishing with a team average of only 31.7. It may surprise some, but the player with the highest percentage was D’Angelo Russell at 35.1, followed by Jordan Clarkson at 34.7. These percentages were only “fair” based on league averages, and certainly, they should not have been the team’s best. Everyone else did even worse, including Lou Williams at 34 percent, Nick Young at 32 percent, Anthony Brown at 29 percent, Kobe Bryant at 28 percent, and Ryan Kelly at an alarming 13 percent.
The new faces who will be counted on to improve the team’s three-point shooting are Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng, and Jose Calderon. Last season, as a member of the Miami Heat, Deng made only 34.4 of his three-point attempts which is okay but nothing more. Calderon, playing for the New York Knicks, connected on a stellar 41.4 from three-point range, but at age 34, there is a question of how many minutes he will play this season as Russell’s back-up. As for Ingram, his form looked solid in Summer League even if he did not connect on a high percentage of his outside shots. As a rookie who must adjust to the professional game, it may be unrealistic to expect that at season’s end his shooting statistics will be much better than what Russell achieved last year, although hopefully he will be more consistent than Russell.
If one of the Lakers’ biggest question marks going into the summer was outside shooting, it is unclear if the Lakers have done much to improve on that facet of the game. The team may have to hope that Russell and Clarkson take a giant leap forward this year and finish closer to the 40 percent mark. Whether that is realistic remains to be seen.
The Lakers also had the fewest assists in the entire league last season, which contributed in a big way to their final record. The team finished with only 1478 total assists, ranking 30th in the league by a wide margin. Some NBA teams had hundreds of more assists than the Lakers. The result was there was little ball movement and lots of selfish, ineffective play on offense.
Most teams look to their point guard to be the assist leader. Russell did not move the ball much last season and finished with a disappointing average of only 3.3 assists per game. To prove he can be a star NBA point guard, Russell will have to double that figure, at a minimum. Unfortunately, he looked like the same ball dominant player in the Summer League, and it will be interesting to see if in training camp Walton can force him to place a greater emphasis on getting his teammates involved.
Calderon is a new point guard on the roster. He averaged 4.2 assists per contest last season, and, like Russell, played around 28 minutes per game. It is unlikely that Calderon will play that many minutes this season in relief of Russell. Still, his statistics from last year suggest that Calderon remains a solid performer in limited spurts.
In the past, the Lakers were able to get assists from players other than their point guards, including, for example, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. When he chose to concentrate on sharing the ball, Bryant was prolific at picking up assists. Gasol may have been the best passing center in the league. Aside from Calderon, the other newcomers on next year’s roster are not known for their passing. Mozgov and Deng averaged only 0.4 and 1.9 assists per game last season, respectively.
A third weakness for the Lakers last year was defense in the paint and around the rim. This has been a problem for a while now — even Dwight Howard, in his one season with the team, was largely ineffective. Last summer, the team signed Roy Hibbert, who like Howard had once been an All-Star known for his defense. Hibbert was a big body in the middle, and there was reason to believe he would dramatically improve the defense, but it did not happen. Whether it was the coaching staff’s poor schemes or the fact that Hibbert was just too slow, opponents feasted in the paint against the Lakers like it was a scrimmage instead of a game.
The last five years have seen a revolving door at the center position from Howard (2012-13) to Gasol (2013-14) to Jordan Hill (2014-15) to Hibbert (2015-16) and now to Mozgov. He has skills, but as a seven year NBA veteran at age 30, Mozgov has never reminded anyone of Gasol, Howard or Hibbert in their prime. He has career averages of 0.9 blocks, 0.3 steals, and 5.0 rebounds, to go along with 0.5 assists and 6.3 points in 18.2 minutes per game. The enormous contract he recently signed suggests his playing time will increase dramatically next season. The best guess is that Walton envisions him in the role that Andrew Bogut performed the past few years for the Golden State Warriors, someone whose actual value is not always reflected in the final statistics.
In terms of offseason moves to improve rim protection, another option worth mentioning is Ivica Zubac. Of all the players on the roster, Zubac may one day develop into the best shot blocker and rim protector. However, he is very young and inexperienced, and it is unclear how just much he will dress for games in his first season. It is possible he will be assigned to the D’Fenders so he can play regularly and gain experience, although fans hope that doesn’t happen.
Poor outside shooting, playmaking, and defending inside the paint plagued the Lakers last season and were among the biggest factors contributing to their terrible record and listless play. While changes have been made, it is not clear that such changes will dramatically impact the team’s performance in these crucial areas. Given the limitations of the individual talents on the roster, the Lakers may have to count on the wizardry of new head coach Luke Walton to implement a system that allows the team to thrive as a collective group.