LeBron James’ comments about the Lakers’ .500 record in the Bubble got the most attention, but it was Anthony Davis who put it most aptly. Whereas James remarked on “things you can’t control” off the floor, Davis was pretty plain in his analysis: The Lakers have much less margin for error because of their thinned-out Bubble roster.
“Especially now when we’re not making shots on a consistent basis, the chances are not in our favor when we (LeBron and Davis) aren’t playing well,” Davis said.
Maybe this was always true. Los Angeles, even with Avery Bradley (opt out) and Rajon Rondo (hand surgery), revolved around James and Davis. Having to rely on Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, who haven’t played much basketball over the last calendar year, is not ideal during a championship run, and their adjustment period is certainly part of the reason the Lakers are missing open shots. But overall in Orlando, the Lakers are shooting 27.5 percent on open shots — those with four or more feet between the shooter and the closest defender. That’s hard to overcome.
When the numbers are that skewed, most of it can be attributed to bad luck. The Lakers will regress back toward their fifth-ranked effective field goal percentage before long. And James, who is shooting 42 percent at the Wide World of Sports, will certainly get nearer to his standard level of efficiency for the playoffs.
It was also Davis who acknowledged the obvious in this regard:
AD: “We’re getting wide open shots.” Both he and LeBron said they expect them to start falling, and it’s better for this shooting slump to come in the seeding games after they’ve locked in No. 1, as opposed to the playoffs.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) August 6, 2020
That doesn’t mean the solution is just as obvious.
Take Wednesday night’s 19-point loss to Oklahoma City, in which Waiters played a devastating 26 minutes. On a simple fast break — the Lakers’ bread and butter this season — Waiters effectively waved off an open James in the corner and tossed up a lazy layup that grazed the blackboard before giving the Thunder an advantage going back the other way. The Lakers lost Waiters’ 26 minutes by nine points because of moments like these.
While the scoring guard has the same first step and handle he’s always had and can still get inside pretty easily, he hardly knows what to do with the ball once he’s there. That makes it all the more glaring that the ball is not in James’ or Davis’ hands. Other Lakers role players like Alex Caruso, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — heck, even JaVale McGee — know how to find and take their own shots in the rhythm of the offense. The ball doesn’t stick in their hands, because, again, they’re on the same team as two Hall of Famers.
It makes you realize how much the Lakers also miss Bradley. The team outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when Bradley played this season, and he was a key 3-and-D piece of their effective, nontraditional starting lineup. Without him, every lineup feels just a bit off.
Yet as Donny McHenry noted at Lakers Outsiders, Los Angeles is merely 19th on the season in three-point efficiency. This has been a weakness of the team all year, relative to the elite squads they’ll face in the postseason. And it’s not something we should trust Waiters or Smith — two guys who haven’t played in over a year — to fix.
The good news is there’s plenty to believe in going forward. Caruso, Caldwell-Pope and Green have all made fewer than a quarter of their threes in Orlando. Those are players you can definitely trust to nail open shots more consistently. They’ve all done it all season with this same core. It could just be a matter of getting their legs under them.
The recipe for James’ teams for over a decade has been simple: Play smart and when the ball is in your hands and no one is around, make the damn shot. There’s a reason guys like Deron Williams and Kyle Korver were on the court for Cleveland in the NBA Finals in their 30s. That reason is James. While shot-making is a relatively solvable problem, it’s also the top thing you have to do when you play with James.
What may be less solvable is whatever James was hinting at after the Lakers’ loss to Oklahoma City. Any guess is reasonable. It could be the strange routine of days in the Bubble, playing without veterans like Bradley and Rondo, or whatever it is Dwight Howard has been saying lately. James is a creature of habit, and this is unlike anything he’s faced.
That’s his problem to sort through, but in the meantime, we should listen to Davis. It would go a long way if the Lakers could just knock down open jumpers.