Los Angeles Lakers, NBA

The Lakers are LeBron’s team, but not yet a ‘LeBron Team’

The Los Angeles Lakers are very much LeBron James’ team. As usual, LeBron is his team’s best player and the centrifugal force around which everything they do revolves. He leads the team in minutes, points, and rebounds per game, and sits just 0.3 assists per game behind Rajon Rondo for the team lead as well.

Even while playing more power forward this season than at almost any other point in his career, his production has remained almost eerily consistent. On a per-game, per-minute, and per-possession basis, LeBron has been pretty much the same guy this year that he’s always been.

via Basketball-Reference

Also, like in previous seasons, LeBron’s team has struggled badly in the games he’s missed. Prior to his injury during the Lakers’ Christmas Day destruction of the Warriors, LA was 20-14, playing at an approximately 49-win pace. During the month’s worth of games LeBron has missed with his groin injury, the Lakers are just 6-10. That’s a 31-win pace. (The difference in the team’s per-possession scoring differential during those two stints paints a slightly different picture, but LeBron’s mere presence on a team has often been enough to guarantee it will out-perform its point differential due to his excellence in close and late situations. It’s not a surprise that the Lakers’ record with him on the floor is better than it “should” be.)

Even LeBron’s on-court role is just about the same as it has always been, which again is not a surprise. LeBron is essentially a franchise and an offense unto himself, and while the Lakers have played a few possessions faster than any of LeBron’s previous teams ever have, they have essentially defaulted to the LeBron offense in the half-court more often than not. And that means he has been at the controls at the top of the key, near the elbows, or on the block, almost all the time.

Taking a look at the Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, we can even see that LeBron is touching the ball almost exactly as often this season as he has during the player tracking era (108.5 touches per 100 possessions this season vs. an average of 111.5 over the previous five seasons), driving to the rim almost exactly as often this season as he has during the player tracking era (16.0 drives per 100 possessions vs. 15.4 drives per 100 possessions), and creating a shot for his teammates on almost exactly the same percentage of his passes this season as he has during the player tracking era (41.4 percent vs. 39 percent).

The results of his control over the offense, though, have not been the same. Even with LeBron on the floor, LA’s offensive rating this year is just 107.7 points per 100 possessions, a figure which, at the time he was injured, ranked just 20th in the NBA. That’s far worse than the marks his teams posted when he was on the floor over the previous five seasons: 113.1 (2nd), 115.9 (1st), 113.5 (1st), 113.1 (1st), and 111.9 (1st). That’s the equivalent of the best or second-best offense in the league every single year for the past five years. And again, this year the Lakers’ offense was the equivalent of the 20th-best offense in the NBA when he was on the floor.

So, what gives?

Well, perhaps this should come as no surprise given the shot’s ever-increasing importance in the league; but the difference boils almost entirely down to the fact that LeBron is creating far fewer 3s than in previous seasons, and his teammates are doing a worse job than ever of knocking down the 3s that LeBron has created. Actually, “far worse” doesn’t even really come close to describing it. The chart below shows the percentage of teammate shots created by LeBron that were 3-pointers, and the conversion rate of his teammates on those shots, during the player tracking era. See if you can notice the very obvious difference.

via NBA.com (Note: all figures are as of LeBron’s injury on December 25)

So … that’s insane. After his teammates shot damned near 40 percent on LeBron-created 3s during his time in Cleveland, the young Lakers are clanging 3s off the rim and the backboard at a downright absurd rate. And it’s worth noting, they are actually getting higher-quality looks than LeBron’s teams have in previous seasons.

Consider the following chart, which shows the distribution of 3-point shots by LeBron’s team as categorized by Second Spectrum: very tight coverage (0-2 feet of space from the closest defender), tight (2-4 feet), open (4-6 feet), and wide open (6+ feet).

via NBA.com (Note: all figures are as of LeBron’s injury on December 25)

You’ll notice that the Lakers have almost never been tightly covered on their 3s this season, with those attempts making up just 7.1 percent of 3-point attempts. The previous low share of tightly or very tightly-guarded 3-point attempts for a LeBron team during the tracking era was 10.8 percent — more than 50 percent higher than what it is this year.

And this may shock you, but this year’s Lakers have simply been dreadful at converting those open or wide-open attempts. Again, a chart:

via NBA.com (Note: all figures are as of LeBron’s injury on December 25)

There have been some previous LeBron teams that struggled to shoot “open” 3s (4-6 feet of space), but they largely made up for it by converting “wide open” 3s (6+ feet of space) at an elite level. That simply has not been the case with this year’s Lakers, who have been merely average on those attempts.

The biggest offenders are three of the Lakers’ four young core players: Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. (Brandon Ingram has taken only 12 shots from beyond the arc off passes from LeBron. He’s 2-of-12 on those attempts.) Ball is 22-of-72 on LeBron-created 3s. That’s 30.6 percent. Hart is 12-of-37. That’s 32.4 percent. And Kuzma is 28-of-84. That’s 33.3 percent. Combined, that trio has knocked down only 32.1 percent of their 3s created by LeBron, who creates better looks from 3 than almost anybody in the league — as evidenced by, well, almost all of his prior teammates. (Klutch client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is practically scorching at 35.7 percent.)

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Perhaps that’s why LeBron is openly angling for new teammates, reportedly pushing (behind the scenes) for a new coach, and doing pretty much everything else he tends to do when his team isn’t playing as well as he wants it to be. You might remember the 2014-15 Cavaliers toiling around .500 until they traded for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert prior to the deadline. Smith and Shumpert fit snugly next to LeBron and began sniping away on all the open 3s he created. The Cavs then went to the Finals for four straight years with the “LeBron and shooters” construction that everyone wondered why on earth the Lakers did not pursue this past offseason. They have three more years with James under contract and should move quickly in that direction in the future, once they acquire whichever superstar will spend the next few years as his sidekick.

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