The Los Angeles Lakers have not been great in transition this season.
For any fan, analyst, or front office executive, this NBA season will pose a unique evaluative challenge. How do you factor in the psychological effects of players playing in cavernous stadiums or of being confined to their hotel rooms on the road? How will COVID protocols impact teams and players already playing a compressed schedule?
For the Los Angeles Lakers, knowing that the Lakers understandably have not gone full throttle yet makes evaluating their season all the more difficult. In their past few games, it seemed as if some players were treating each game as a 36-minute fitness session and a 12-minute game of real basketball.
However, that does not mean there is nothing we can glean from these games. Vogel is still trying to institute a playstyle and a philosophy that he believes will set the course for another championship. As evinced by Anthony Davis’ frustration following the loss to the Spurs in his post-game press conference, players are not so keen to treat this season as a 72-game long preseason.
And while comparing this season from the last, one stat particularly jumps out. Last season, the Lakers were lethal in transition. Every game, Anthony Davis seemed to get a couple of easy buckets from long outlet passes by LeBron James or Rajon Rondo. They used their length and athleticism to swarm offenses, generate steals and blocks, and ran.
This season, they are running almost as frequently but less effectively. Last season, the Lakers were in transition on 16.1% of their possessions per Cleaning the Glass (all other stats referenced in this article are also provided by Cleaning the Glass). This season, that number is down to 15.2%, a drop but not a significant one.
The significant drop comes in how efficient the Lakers have been on those transition opportunities. Cleaning the Glass measures a team’s efficiency in transition by measuring a team’s scores per 100 transition plays. Last season, the Lakers were second in the league, scoring 129.8 points per 100 plays. This season, they are 26th, only registering 113 points per 100 plays.
So, why are the Lakers struggling to score in transition?
One possible reason might be that they are not generating as many steals. Last season, 61.9% of their transition opportunities came off steals. This season, only 48.2% of their transition opportunities are generated off of live-ball turnovers.
Teams across the board are generally more efficient in transition when they are running after steals than off of live rebounds, perhaps because it is easier to generate a numbers advantage.
Roster turnover explains some of the drop-off in transition opportunities off of steals. As much criticism as Danny Green received for his hot-and-cold shooting, he was an elite defender with a 2.1 steal percentage — a mark that placed him in the 93rd percentile among all wings.
For comparison, Wesley Matthews only has a steal percentage of 0.8 this season, meaning he has only gotten 0.8 steals for every 100 defensive possessions.
There might also be other contributing factors. It should also be noted that Alex Caruso, who also has a knack for generating steals, has only played in half of their games thus far. Moreover, the team does not seem as engaged this season defensively as they were last season, a point that Anthony Davis hammered in his press conference after the Spurs loss.
Speaking of roster turnover, their decision to replace Rajon Rondo with Dennis Schröder might also be having a knock-on effect on their transition offense. Schröder’s scoring ability might have added a newfound dynamism to the Lakers’ offense, but he is not the playmaker that Rondo is.
Rondo could launch the full-court moonball to Anthony Davis in a LeBron-esque fashion. Schröder cannot, and even once nearly broke Davis’ back trying to do so. Rondo’s basketball acumen shined through when he could exploit the gaps widened by a compromised defense in transition.
Vogel has expressed hope that they can weaponize Schröder’s speed in transition like he weaponized Rondo’s strength as a playmaker. So far, Vogel’s vision has yet to materialize on the court.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teams seemed to have keyed into the Lakers’ desire to push the pace. The Lakers have done a very good job of preventing teams from getting offensive rebounds. For the season, opponents have only rebounded 22.1% of their missed shots, making the Lakers the third-best defensive rebounding team this season.
And while such a stat might denote their strength on the defensive glass, it might also suggest that teams are forsaking offensive rebounds for protecting themselves against transition opportunities. More players crash the offensive glass, the easier it is for the Lakers to push the pace against an unsettled defense.
The Lakers have strived to keep their offensive identity from last season, built upon pushing the pace in transition, intact. However, even though they are running the ball in transition as nearly as often as they did last season, they have failed to capitalize on those opportunities as efficiently as they did before.
Perhaps their numbers in transition will improve as the season progresses, and this article will become archaic. Both Anthony Davis and LeBron James seem to be pacing themselves, and as important as the likes of Green and Rondo contributed to the Lakers’ success in transition, Davis and James were the main characters.
But for now, it is something to keep an eye on in a season that otherwise is going smoothly or the Lakers.