For the first time since perhaps the 2009-2010 season, the Los Angeles Lakers are legitimate title contenders. LeBron James chose to come to LA for reasons that were perhaps larger than basketball, but he still chose the purple and gold and plays at an elite caliber, even as he approaches 35 years old.
The team traded high-level assets that they had been accumulating over the course of half a decade for a top-10 player in Anthony Davis. They are making smart free agency signings after striking out on Kawhi Leonard. For all intents and purposes, they are a team well built to make a deep playoff run.
However, so are about six other teams in the Western Conference, along with around three or four in the East that can make a huge splash in the postseason.
The last time that the NBA saw parity going into a season like this was after the first time that Michael Jordan retired. Over the course of a decade, it felt as if the same teams or players would make it to the finals every year and the storylines would be the same.
Now, the NBA enters unprecedented territory, something that will surely line the pockets of teams with ticket revenue and increased viewership.
How will the Lakers capitalize on a wide-open league? How can they attempt to shut the door on all other competition and reign supreme at the end of next season and host the Larry O’Brien trophy for the 17th time in franchise history?
Last season, the focus for the team was on playmakers and ball-handlers. This was a highly controversial strategy that ultimately did not pan out and led to James missing the playoffs for only the third time in his career and the first time since his second season. It’s unclear whether that strategy was put in place by general manager Rob Pelinka or former President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, but it did not work whatsoever. This season, Pelinka went with a new strategy, a more effective one, with his free agent acquisitions: effective long-range shooters.
Of the new players that the Lakers signed this off-season (Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels), only Cousins (27.4%) and Dudley (35.1%) shot below the league average of 35.5% for 3-point shooting in 2018-2019. Green (45.5%) and Cook (40.5%) both shot well above league average and Daniels (38.1%) did his part from behind the arc as well.
The league has been moving to a more spaced out offensive flow since Steph Curry broke out for the Warriors. The number of 3-pointers attempted per game on average has gone up from 21.5 in 2013-2014 to 32 in 2018-2019. The Lakers were 29th in 3-point percentage last season at 33.3%, edging out the Phoenix Suns by just 0.4%. That is abysmal for a team with LeBron James. Surrounding James with shooters who can create space for him to do his thing is necessary for a successful offense. Playmakers can create open looks, true, but you have to have players who are able to hit the shots for any of that to matter.
So that’s one step in the right direction for the Lakers to be successful this season. Pelinka deserves credit for how he’s handled the fallout of Leonard signing down the hall with the Clippers.
Another thing that the Lakers need to do is have good team chemistry. This is something that’s harder to measure and evaluate, but it’s one of the most important things that make a team successful. The Golden State Warriors before Kevin Durant signed and even in the first Durant year loved to play with one another and it showed in the win column. When discontent showed up between Durant and Draymond Green, the team began to show cracks. The Boston Celtics were a team built for success but fell short of their goal due in part to Kyrie Irving being unhappy with the situation he was in.
The Lakers chemistry and team morale were at an all-time low around the trade deadline last season when trade rumors for everyone not named LeBron on the team started to swirl in the very public discussions involving Davis. Mixed with a roster that was constantly changing from year to year, the team found it difficult to have anything resembling consistency.
Pelinka decided to re-sign Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee for this season. Although the play from some of those guys last season left more to be desired, perhaps those four were good locker room presences and can help the team on and off the court even without being super effective in their play.
One final way that the Lakers can separate themselves from the pack is by finally earning free points when they are available. Last season, the team shot 69.9% (nice) from the free-throw line, which was 29th in the league (okay, maybe not nice) ahead of only the Miami Heat.
No team can make every free-throw, but 75% shouldn’t be unattainable, and at 23.3 attempts per game last season, a 5% increase in made free throws could have potentially won a few more games.
Overall, the Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers and Warriors are all looking to make legitimate noise in the Western Conference this year. With so many teams being competitive, the need to win games in December-January becomes all the more important. The Lakers need to shoot better from behind the arc and from the charity stripe, as well as have a cohesive team spirit to have a shot at coming out on top in the Western Conference.
*all stats courtesy of stats.nba.com and basketball-reference.com
You can follow the author of this post (Kyle Hartwick) at @kylemarx13 on Twitter. Be sure to also follow Lakers Outsiders on Twitter and Instagram and like our Facebook page.