As of Tuesday, February 26th, 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are 29-31 and they’re in 11th place in the Western Conference (they’d be in the 8th seed in the East). They’re 12-19 on the road and they have a negative point differential on the season, -1.4. Much has been made about the Lakers’ underwhelming play this season, and fears that LeBron will miss the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was President are growing stronger with each loss to non-playoff teams. (In their last 4 games, the Lakers have lost to Atlanta, New Orleans, and Memphis, which is like if you or I lost three basketball games to a team made of our dead great-grandparents, one made entirely of immobile bonsai trees, and a team consisting of babies transfixed by color wheels.)
Why aren’t the Lakers playing better? Why are they losing to such crap teams? What’s wrong with LA??
People are blaming LeBron, they’re blaming the coach, Luke Walton, they’re blaming the young kids, they’re blaming the old vets, they’re blaming the front office, and they’re blaming leadership. “The players don’t fit!” “The coach can’t come up with good rotations!” “LeBron isn’t used to being on bad teams!” The real reason, or one of the biggest ones, that the Lakers don’t have a better record is obvious and has been staring us in the face all season.
Before I reveal it, though, let me point out that the Lakers have lost 8 games by 5 points or fewer this season, with six of those games being on the road:
10/22/18 - Loss to San Antonio at home, 143-142
Lakers make 18 of 26 total free throws, LeBron sinks 8 of 11 FT
10/27/18 - Loss at San Antonio, 110-106
Lakers are 11 of 18 FT, LBJ is 7 of 8 FT
11/25/18 - Loss to Orlando at home, 108-104
Lakers are 20 of 31 FT, LBJ is 6 of 11 FT
12/18/18 - Lakers lose at Brooklyn, 115-110
Lakers are 13 of 23 FT, LBJ is 8 of 13 FT
12/27/18 - Lakers lose at Sacramento, 117-116
Lakers are 16 of 23 FT [LeBron doesn’t play]
1/19/19 - Lakers lose at Houston, 138-134
Lakers are 24 of 30 FT [LBJ doesn’t play, and the Lakers are 10 of 37 from three, yeesh]
2/12/19 - Lakers lose at Atlanta, 117-113
Lakers are 17 of 25 FT, LBJ is 9 of 11 FT
2/25/19 - Lakers lose at Memphis, 110-105
Lakers are 15 of 20 FT, LBJ is 8 of 10 FT
Memphis, Atlanta and Orlando aren’t playoff teams. Rough to lose to them, even on the road. The fact that the Lakers stink from long range (3rd worst in the NBA) doesn’t help. In fact, the Lakers have a bottom 15 True Shooting percentage as a team.
Since the 1998-99 season, there have been only 31 teams who’ve shot a sub-70 FT% for the season. Usually, there’s only one or two teams per season that accomplish that feat. From the 2007-08 season through the 2009-10, no teams finished under 70 FT%. In 2016-17 and last season, 2017-18, no team finished with worse than a 70 FT%.
Poor free throw shooting doesn’t doom you, though. There have been three 1 seeds, four 2 seeds, three 3 seeds, and three 4 seeds out of those 31 teams with a sub-70 FT%. Several of those teams had Shaq and/or Kobe, there were several Dwight Howard Orlando teams, and LeBron even has a team on there (2006-07 Cavs). Most of those 31 teams were mediocre, at best, and a bunch were just downright dreadful (mid-2000s Portland, sigh, Brandon Roy, you were so good; and, the Philly Process teams were bad, of course).
The fact of the matter is that, historically, it’s pretty damn tough to be good and successful when you can’t make free throws, and it’s even harder these days because of the Threevolution: if you can’t make free throws, then you better be good at threes. And, man o man, are the Lakers not good at threes. They’re bottom 10 in the NBA in total three point attempts as a team, and they have the third worst three point percentage in the league, as we mentioned. Does that sound “New NBA” to you? Difficult to win games in today’s NBA when you’re not playing the New Way, rather you’re playing the Old Way, but poorly.
This was all foreseen last summer when the Lakers bafflingly signed JaVale McGee (59 FT% for his career), Rajon Rondo (career 60 FT%), Lance Stephenson (career 68 FT%), and then acquired Tyson Chandler (career 65 FT%). Let’s not even address the fact that those guys can’t shoot threes (although, to be fair, Rondo’s got a 40+ 3PT% this season), and neither can any of the young guns. The fact that they built a team that prefers to work inside but can’t take advantage of fouls is kind of tremendously terrifying. Other teams know LA can’t sink free shots, and can’t take outside shots, so they guard them differently. Like, how exactly are the Lakers supposed to win if the other team can just foul them without regard to the consequences?
There’s also the fact that the Lakers turn the ball over A TON (second-most TOs per game in the league), which compounds the issue. On the other hand, LeBron missed 18 games this season, and we have to assume that his presence would have won at least a few more of those games. If he’d played in all 18, the Lakers are probably comfortably in the playoffs, but we’d still be correct to question their FT shooting, and wonder whether that will be their fatal flaw in the postseason. If they don’t even make the playoffs, then shouldn’t everyone in the Lakers front office get fired? LeBron James can’t get fired: he’s been to EIGHT STRAIGHT FINALS. I know the NBA is hard, but you literally have LeBron James, you should be able to make the playoffs. It would be an historical abnormality for a player of LBJ’s talent to miss the playoffs. In his prime? GTFOH. How good could Magic and Pelinka be if this is the team they put around LeBron? And, don’t blame Luke Walton: he’s not out there missing free throws.
The Lakers have taken the 12th most free throws this season (1426) yet they are the ONLY team in the top 18 of total FTA to have made less than 1000 free throws. The next worst out of that group of 18 teams is the OKC Thunder: they have a team free throw percentage of 71.9. If the Lakers had a 71.9 FT% as a team, they’d have made 1025 total free throws this season rather than 984. That’s 41 more points.
The Lakers lost those 8 games mentioned above (final score within 5 points) by a combined total of 28 points. If they’d sunk some free throws and won even half of those 8 close games, the Lakers record would be 33-27, and they’d be in the 8th seed.
No matter how much the game changes, one of the oldest axioms in basketball remains true: you gotta make your free throws, especially on the road.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com, and Basketball-Reference.com. Thank you!