The Lakers were a lot of things last season: Strong-willed, strong defensively, championship caliber, just to name a few. They weren't, however, unusually elegant offensively. Scoring was often a struggle, and too often they were left dependent on Kobe Bryant to throw on his cape and play superhero. They improved some down the stretch and into the playoffs as players grew a little healthier and obviously won again in the end, but did it with an offense ranked 11th in efficiency (points per 100 trips) and 17th in effective field goal percentage (FG% adjusted for 3-pointers). Both figures were very low relative to past champions.
Through 16 games this season, fair to say they've solved that problem.
The Lakers are, by leaps and bounds, the most dominant offensive team in the NBA, averaging 112.6 points per 100 possessions through Friday's games, nearly five points more than San Antonio (numbers via Basketball-Reference.com). To put it in perspective, the gap between the Lakers and Spurs is bigger than the one between the Spurs and Toronto, currently ranked 16th. For the gaudiness of their efficiency figure, the Lakers can in part thank a relatively easy schedule, though only once -- in the super sloppy home win over Minnesota -- have they not outpaced their opposition's season standard for points against per trip.
The most obvious reason is 3-point shooting. Even after Friday's 4-for-15 showing against Utah, the Lakers still enter Sunday's game against the Pacers hitting 42.4 percent from downtown, good for second in the league, on 20.9 attempts per game. Last season, on 19 long-distance hoists a night the Lakers hit only 34.1 percent of the time. Moreover, the triples this season have been well distributed. Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Steve Blake, and Derek Fisher are all over, in some cases well over, 45 percent from downtown.
Understanding how this gooses an offense isn't exactly rocket science.
A second factor is also helping fuel the offensive explosion: pace. At 90 possessions, Friday's game was the slowest the Lakers have played all season, but they still average 94.9 a game, good for sixth in the league and about two more than last season's figure. It's also more in line with L.A.'s speed during the '08-'09 (94.3) and '07-'08 (95.6) seasons, in each of which the Lakers finished third in offensive efficiency and were generally seen as so good on that end of the floor A) their defensive prowess was totally undersold and B) many still assumed they were points-generating monsters last year, too.
While the Lakers are certainly capable of running the floor, and have to great effect this year, they're not considered a fast-break team. Sitting courtside at Staples one night, a scout once illustrated how adept the Lakers are at entering their offense quickly, without waste or delay, generating good looks near the top of the shot clock. Not surprisingly, the Lakers have boosted their early offense this season. Via 82Games.com, the Lakers are shooting in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock 40 percent of the time (vs. 37 percent last year), and in the last four seconds, when looks tend to be forced, in 10 percent vs. 13 a year ago.
(Though it's worth noting L.A.'s eFG at 21 seconds and beyond in the shot clock, thanks in large part to the aforementioned 3-point shooting, is a ridiculous .581. Those looking for unsustainable numbers will square on the late clock success of Odom, Fisher, Ron Artest, and Brown, and the team as a whole. As we learned in Utah, the Lakers aren't always going to bury open jumpers.)
"It comes with being a talented team, and people that think the game," Matt Barnes said. "We've got a lot of talent, but we've got a lot of smart basketball players here, too."
They don't have to go fast to win, but they can, and when they execute a fast-paced game correctly, the Lakers can control the flow even against other up-and-down teams like Golden State. They can, to use the Woodenism, be quick without hurrying. After obliterating the Warriors at Staples last week, piling up a small mountain of early points, Phil Jackson explained the difference between "good fast" and "bad fast."
“We had a good pace on the floor. We ran the floor well. There wasn’t a fast break, but we got into that flow where the ball moved a couple of times then Pau [Gasol] was maybe going down the middle of the lane, or [Artest] had a mismatch and guys were able to find him on the swing of the ball and he got a layup underneath," he said. "Those are the type of things that are advantageous in playing a higher paced game, but yet you’re not just running and shooting, one, two pass type of thing. I think it’s very important we play a pace we can sustain. We’re not a helter-skelter team, but we can play this fast pace.”
Sometimes fast doesn't look that way, a great example coming from Friday's game in Utah. In the first quarter, off an Al Jeffersonmiss inside, Gasol grabbed the board, and without bringing the ball down flipped the ball on the outlet to Kobe, who worked his way up the floor, heading straight to the right elbow, where he turned his back to the basket. All of this as the Jazz were still getting back on defense. A few dribbles brought defenders, already on their heels, and Kobe flipped underneath to Lamar Odom for the easy bucket.
The shot finally came about mid-way through the clock and won't go down as a fast-break basket, but the action creating it came almost instantly.
The ability to manipulate tempo is one of many things making the Lakers a tough team to scheme against. "They can beat you different ways," said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau after Chicago lost to the Lakers on Tuesday night. "They can beat you in transition, they’re a great execution team, they can get you in the halfcourt, they’re a great ball-movement team, they’re a great player-movement team. And at the end of the day, they have Gasol in the post and Kobe off the dribble, which is an offense onto itself."
Perhaps most importantly, by NBA standards it's a very ego-free offense. "But the way they move the ball, they’re all unselfish. They’re going to hit the open man," Thibodeau said.
The speed game doesn't always work perfectly, but opens more possibilities and puts the opposition on its heels while playing to many of the team's strengths. To name a few, it takes advantage of Odom's status as high level rebounder/ball handler, Kobe's ability to get the ball off the glass, up the floor, or in the post, and an array of good passers and scorers, and the team's general intelligence and offensive activity. The faster the Lakers get up the floor, whether they're trying to score on the break or not, the less time the other guys have to find their assignments. If there's a mismatch somewhere, odds are the Lakers will find it.
Over time, the team's ultra-hot 3-point shooting will cool. Fisher entered Salt Lake City shooting 55 percent from downtown, and left at 51.5, just as an illustration. But as long as they continue generating clean looks with good passing and inside-out play, as it was in Utah, they'll hit more than enough to continue high level execution offensively.
What should continue serving as a weapon is the team's willingness to make things happen quickly.