Much has been written about the Los Angeles Lakers’ poor defense the past few years, and the criticism is well deserved. However, when cataloging the team’s weaknesses, a close second is the absence of good outside shooters on the roster. The goal of any basketball game is to outscore the opponent, and in this era, even the losing teams routinely score over a hundred points a night due in large part to the number of three point shots that are taken by every team.
Statistically, the Lakers’ per game scoring differential/margin this year ranked dead last in the NBA. In addition, they were 24th in scoring efficiency, 21st in overall shooting percentage, and 22nd in three-point shooting percentage. Coupled with the team’s atrocious defense, the inevitable result was the third-worst record in the NBA.
This season, of the top 20 scorers in the NBA, all except one had a shooting percentage of 44 percent or better. As a rule, a good shooter is someone who takes 12-15 shots a game, or more, and makes at least 44 percent of those shots. From three-point range, a good shooter connects at least 37 percent of the time and a very good shooter from behind the arc is at 40 percent or better.
For the sake of comparison, the Milwaukee Bucks had five players this past season, Michael Beasley, Malcolm Brogdon, Kris Middleton, Jason Terry, and Tony Snell, who all shot over 40 percent from three-point range. Three other Bucks, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Matthew Dellavedova, all shot between 36 percent and 40 percent from long range.
The Lakers were anemic by comparison. They had six players on their full-time roster who were supposedly “shooters,” including Lou Williams, Nick Young, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, and Luol Deng. No one should confuse a streaky shooter with a good shooter, and all of these players are far more streaky than good.
Williams and Young made 38.6 and 40.4 percent of their three-point attempts this season, which was essentially a career year for both of them. They are historically low percentage, high volume shooters, but they were the best the Lakers had to offer this year. With Williams gone and Young likely to depart this summer, the Lakers are left with very little in the way of outside shooting.
Russell, Ingram, Clarkson, and Deng may all return next year. The problem is, none was a good outside shooter this past year. Of the group, only Clarkson had a good shooting percentage at 44.5 percent, but much of that was attributable to his vastly improved ability to drive and score at the rim. His three-point shot was not falling, as he connected on a paltry 33 percent.
Russell, Ingram, and Deng were miserable shooters this year, at least statistically. Russell shot a poor 40.4 percent from the field although his three-point shots were at least respectable at 35.2 percent. Ingram made only 40.2 percent of his shots overall and was a horrible 29.4 percent from three-point range. Deng was an anemic 38.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from three-point range.
In short, while the Lakers received strong inside scoring from Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Tarik Black, Ivica Zubac, Timofey Mozgov, Thomas Robinson, and even Ingram and Clarkson at the end of the year, they have a very poor outside shooting team which is an area which must improve.
So what are the options? For one, if the Lakers are fortunate enough to retain their top draft choice in next month’s lottery, they should think carefully about their presumptive choice which is Lonzo Ball.
Ball may be the right choice, or maybe not. The expectation is that he is an old school point guard who can run a high-paced offense, get his teammates easier shots, and finish with a lot of assists. But should the Lakers ignore his final college game, where, in their disappointing tournament run, UCLA in general, and Ball in particular, were torched by the University of Kentucky?
Ball was virtually destroyed by the Wildcats’ point guard De’Aaron Fox, who is currently projected to go either fourth in the draft to the Philadelphia 76ers or fifth to the Orlando Magic. With Ball guarding him in the biggest game of their respective careers, Fox finished with a blistering 39 points and ran the UK offense with efficiency. Meanwhile, to coin a vintage Tommy Lasorda quote, Ball couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.
If Ball were a lock-down defender that would be one thing, but apparently that is far from the case. There is a chance that Ball’s playmaking skills remind Magic Johnson of himself in 1979 – Johnson, too, was not a prolific scorer when he left college. But that was 1979, and this is 2017, and today the top point guards in the league score points and often lead their team (and the league) in scoring.
That does not appear to be Ball. Unless the Lakers feel that Russell, after two years of shooting a very poor 40 percent from the field and a mediocre 35 percent from three-point range, is going to suddenly become a much better shooter in his third season, it might be wiser to team Russell with Fox or his sharp-shooting backcourt mate Malik Monk, especially if they can play defense. Further, with the 28th pick in the draft, the Lakers should select the best outside shooter available.
It is for this reason that for the Lakers, Paul George is probably a better fit than Jimmy Butler if both are available in a trade this summer. George shot an excellent 46.1 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range during the 2016-17 season. In the past two years, he made 210 and 195 three-point shots, respectively. In the recent playoffs, he shot 42.9 percent from three-point range.
Butler had a solid shooting season with marks of 45.5 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from three-point range, but he only made 64 and 91 three-point shots the past two season, less than half the number of three pointers made by George during that period. He is connecting on only 23.9 percent of his three-point shots in the playoffs. Both players can score, but George is a demonstrably better outside shooter.
Whatever happens this summer, and whether the team ultimately chooses to shuffle the roster through the draft, in free agency, or by making trades, the Lakers must get much better as an outside shooting team next year if they hope to win more games. If they are unsuccessful in their efforts this summer, and the team returns with the roster from this past season largely intact, they will need Russell, Ingram, and Clarkson, along with Randle and Nance, to all make a huge leap in their three-point shooting percentage. That may be a tall order.