Sports Opinion & Analysis

What Three-Pointers Can Tell Us About The Hideously Terrible Los Angeles Lakers

In NBA on January 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

By Jeff Weyant 

The Lakers’ bench is indicating their collective percentage from behind the arc this season.

The problems of the Los Angeles Lakers are at this point so numerous that it’s almost not worth discussing. If something exists such that it can go wrong, in their case it is. That being said, the most visible problems (defensive rotations, transition defense, general confusion on that end of the floor) are not necessarily the most revealing. At least not at first. But there is one problem which, once the root cause is uncovered, seems to indicate the larger problem which some have suggested but most have overlooked (up to this point, myself included). And this problem happens to be worth three points.

Throughout the lifespan of the National Basketball Association, the three-pointer has had an awkward history, spurned at first but, after many trials and tribulations, adopted and accepted by almost everybody. Early on, several innovative thinkers came up with the idea (but no one’s sure exactly who did what first) but the league was hideously slow in adopting this idea, waiting all the way until the rookie seasons of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (1979-80), at which point almost nobody attempted them and if they did it was considered miraculous if they went in even 30% of the time. It took until Danny Ainge in 1988 for someone to crack the century mark for single-season makes (and now it’s abnormal if the league-leader sinks less than 200).

Chris Ford, former NBA player and head coach, hit the first three-pointer in league history. He did it against Larry Bird, which makes him a legend, I think.

Since then, however, the three-point field goal has become one of the most important shots in the game, even if there’s currently still a delay in universal recognition (every year there’s a loud discussion on TNT’s Inside the NBA as to the various merits and demerits of the shot). One look at this page, of course, tells us all we need to know:  thirteen of the top fifteen players all-time in terms of made three-pointers are currently active. But no matter. The players understand and some coaches understand. And one in particular is Mike D’Antoni.

When D’Antoni brought his up-tempo system to Phoenix in 2003, he didn’t say “Three-pointers are amazing, shoot them as much as possible.” Instead, it just so happened that in the context of Seven Seconds Or Less, wide-open three-pointers were available everywhere nearly every trip down the court. And D’Antoni, master magician that he is, is also a mathematician: three is more than two, so shoot those threes.

People generally recall fast breaks when they think of the Seven Seconds Or Less era in Phoenix but what D’Antoni’s style is really about is transition, that small window of opportunity when the defense is still backpedaling up the floor and the offense has every advantage. In D’Antoni’s system, once the team gets the ball, it’s the job of the four off-ball players to pick a spot where there’s not a defender and run to it. If you’re a big man, your job has another facet: set a drag screen early for the ball-handler and then start trailing to the rim. This forces the defense to react before they’re ready. If they collapse on the rolling big man, the shooters on the perimeter are wide-open. If they play man-to-man, that giant guy trailing to the hoop with outstretched arms is almost certainly going to score or draw a foul. And if he gets double-teamed after the pass, he can pass out to a shooter, often the ball-handler who is now in a prime position to step into a three-pointer at the top of the key.

D’Antoni’s Suns teams were not the first to break 2,000 three-point attempts in a season nor were they the first to shoot 40% as a team from behind the line. But the Phoenix teams under D’Antoni’s leadership did lead the league in three-point percentage four straight years and average 110 points a game, the latter of which hadn’t been done in ten years (Orlando Magic, 1995).

A common look for D’Antoni since he left Phoenix in 2008.

Which brings us to the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers. As a team, they’ve attempted the third-most three-pointers this season (1027), right behind the New York Knicks (1119), and the Houston Rockets (1208). Unfortunately, they’re only making 35.3% of those attempts, just below league-average (35.6%). If they were averaging 39.0% (as D’Antoni’s Suns teams did), it comes out to an extra 2.7 points per game, which is huge. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, three-point inefficiency in LA was a predictable outcome. But maybe not for the expected reasons.

Sure, lots of players on the roster are shooting decently from long-range. Sure, the players shooting the most efficiently (Steve Blake and Steve Nash) are being underutilized (either because of injuries or on-court miscommunication). And sure, several players are having below-average seasons from behind the arc (Jodie Meeks career 40.6%/season 36.2% and Antawn Jamison career 34.5%/season 31.2%). But the problem isn’t personnel capability from the perimeter. The problem is that this roster isn’t executing the patented Mike D’Antoni system.

And why? Well, they’re slow. Like, really slow. In terms of pace only the Rockets are faster, but that’s because the Lakers are launching the ball early (because of poor execution) and turning the ball over often (because of poor execution), leading to extra possessions. The truth is that more often than not Nash is beating his own teammates up the floor, which means that by the time he’s done his job (read, penetrate, and collapse the defense) and is ready to pass to a shooter, those shooters are still settling in and planting their feet. The inevitable results are delayed passes, contested jumpers, and turnovers.

If only it were still 2002. . .

The million dollar question, of course, is whether this is a personnel issue or a coaching issue. I suggest the former. And it’s not that they’re not the kind of players D’Antoni likes having in his system, it’s that they’re exactly the kind of players D’Antoni likes having in his system – if the year were 2006. Bryant, Nash, World Peace, Gasol, Duhon, Blake, and Jamison are on the wrong side of 30 and they play the lion’s share of the minutes on this team. The Knicks as a team are a hair older (30.6 years to 30.3 years) but New York, unlike Los Angeles, only gives heavy minutes to two or three players past the dreaded age of 30. The Lakers, meanwhile, have almost an entire rotation with one foot in the grave.

Which makes relatively poor three-point shooting an important reason they’re losing. Because the root cause is their inability to do anything quickly and efficiently at any moment of any game, which leads to questions about age, which then reflects back on all the other problems the team is having: age explains their poor transition defense, their inability to make sharp rotations, and their tendency to lose games in the fourth quarter. The question of age has come up a few times this season but usually at the end of a list of other problems, thrown in because it’s common to talk about. In this case, though, the Lakers’ problems might actually be defined entirely by when they were born. Regardless of the offensive system, the ups and downs of the season, the coaching changes, and the injuries (which are certainly age-related), this team is old. And because of that, they’re not very good. At three-pointers or anything else.

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