For better or for worse, the Lakers typically are not the team most commonly associated with following trends. But rather, are often the ones setting them.
Take last season for example, when in an unprecedented year the squad cemented their name in the history books as the first (and hopefully last) Bubble Champion. The how in which they accomplished this, however, was not exactly en vogue when glancing across the landscape of the league.
In an era largely defined by 3-point shooting and guard play, the Lakers instead chose the bully route. With an exhausting defense, LeBron James, who even at his advanced age could still bulldoze opposing defenders with the best of them, and a trio of big men spearheaded by Anthony Davis, the team simply overwhelmed their competition.
Amidst and hidden within their smash-mouth style of play though was subpar perimeter shooting. Without anyone on the roster widely considered as a "shooting specialist," the supporting cast struggled, but did provide just enough spacing and made shots to allow their dominating interior play to make up the math difference.
A formula they seemed to have been banked on once again this season, but between a mountain of injuries and their jumpers plunging from mediocre to miserable at the worst possible time, the foundation crumbled.
“Let’s just be real, shooting was a concern of ours," Jared Dudley told the media following the Lakers' first-round exit. "We’re not going to sugarcoat it. We shot the ball terribly. LeBron and AD need shooting and spacing, and IQ. Those are the two concerns we have and something we’ll address this offseason.”
Dudley's assessment, although bold, was also accurate. During their series with the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers' perimeter shooting utterly vanished. According to the league's tracking data, the team converted a woeful 29.9% of their 3-Point attempts and saw the Suns make 11 more triples overall en route to their win.
To make matters worse, the Lakers' misses ultimately came on quality looks, attempting 23 more "wide-open" (nearest defender at least six feet away) threes than the Suns. Despite this, they still ended up making four fewer and converted just 32.1% of their chances. Which was well below their season mark of 38% and from simply being average.
While Dudley certainly had a strong opinion on the matter, other members of the organization chose to downplay the poor shooting performance.
“I would like to say that I am leaning towards it being more fluky just because of the consistent body of work we had during the regular season," Alex Caruso said when asked what was potentially behind all the misses.
"We got open shots and open threes in the series but just didn't make them. Back-rim misses, in-and-outs, even at the rim, shots that we normally make we didn’t convert. So I really don’t know what to blame it on, what to point towards, sometimes the ball just doesn't go in the basket.”
The sheer variance from the team's regular-season numbers to the postseason (as the graph above demonstrates) does point to a degree of randomness. But on the aggregate, with their mostly below-average shooting spanning beyond the last few years, the sample has only grown and the percentages somehow getting worse. The blip is more accurately a trend.
“I don't know. Obviously, I can't speak for everyone...but you know, it was a tough series particularly for me shooting the ball, after having probably a career year shooting the three this year for me," Kyle Kuzma said when asked about the group's shooting struggles.
Although there was a collective letdown, the 25-year-old individually, was ice cold this postseason. In the six games, Kuzma made just four of his 23 attempts (17.4%) from behind the arc and made good on just one of his 13 wide-open chances. This on the heels of a strong regular-season outing for him.
"You know it’s just tough, ending the season that way after putting in a lot of work and being confident in that," Kuzma added. "It’s just unfortunate, maybe if we hit a few shots and we don’t have injuries, we’re not having this conversation right now. But that’s the name of the game and that’s what life dictated for us.”
The role of injuries, as Kuzma and others mentioned throughout exit interviews, is something that should not be overlooked.
Without one of Davis and James on the floor for long stretches of the series, this likely impacted the Lakers' game-plan of leveraging their innate gravity. And with only one-star player available consistently, and a hindered James unable to maximize his advantages when playing, Phoenix was able to aggressively crowd the paint without fear of the Lakers' outside shooters.
A mental, and physical trickle-down effect that ultimately sunk the team.
"I think that the success of our shooting is driven by those guys creating the space, and because the things we faced, with injuries, some of that space was altered,” Lakers' vice president of basketball operations, Rob Pelinka told reporters regarding the cold shooting.
For James particularly, and to Pelinka's point, there is no underestimating the value he has when it comes to his team's shot creation. Over the past five seasons, only Russell Westbrook has assisted on more 3-Point makes according to PBP stats, and over the past two years, the Lakers are shooting nearly 2% worse from behind the arc when he is off the floor.
While aspects like injuries and why missing that degree of spacing manipulation are valid, there is a danger in simply chalking up every issue as sheer bad luck. Deciphering what was, and was not, a product of injuries will be the biggest test this offseason for the front office.
The team's shooting for large parts was something that simply did not live up to standards. An area that's been an Achilles heel of the franchise for years as the Lakers have only once finished in the top ten in 3-Point% since the 2008-09 season. A data point that fans, players, and ownership would likely want to change heading into the offseason.
“We can never have enough shooting," Pelinka also relayed ahead of what should be a busy offseason, "so it’s something that’s always at the top of our mind when we’re building and constructing our roster."
There will be hurdles in improving this easily. The team will be tight when it comes to spending power in the summer, and given shooting continuing to be premium around the league, they will likely have to be creative in the caliber/type of shooters they target.
However, thanks to the likes of a hopefully healthy James and Davis on the roster, the club should still be an attractive destination for players looking for open shots. Whether or not they make them on the other hand, is another story.
Regardless of what the ultimate reason was for the Lakers' poor shooting in the playoffs and recent history, there is enough support to believe it is finally time the team makes a concentrated effort in bucking the trend.
If for nothing else, to create some much-needed wiggle room on the floor for the Lakers' star duo to operate more freely, and in simply being able to enjoy the ball finally go through the net.