The Los Angeles Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference and have played incredibly well on a nightly basis behind the efforts of LeBron James. James is a special player whose role on a team is difficult to define as he carries so many responsibilities on the Lakers. I think that the best way to describe LeBron James is that he is an amplifier. He makes every player around him better and more efficient, it has been a common trait for a James team to perform exceptionally when he is on the court and poorly when he is off the court. The typical roster construction for a James team is plenty of shooters, defensive specialists and a versatile big man, it means there are very few shot creators on the team who can keep the offence going when he sits. In the play-offs, this is less of an issue as LeBron will sit less and play more minutes.
It is possible that the Thunder will play the Lakers in the first round providing that Los Angeles choose to sit their stars towards the end of the season and prepare for the rest of the season. The match-up will be difficult for the Thunder as the Lakers have the size and skill to overwhelm Oklahoma City and take away the efficiency of the small ball lineup. However, there are avenues which the Thunder can exploit and use to give themselves a chance at winning the game. There is a perception that the Lakers have strengths over the Thunder which cannot be beaten but I do not believe that this is the reality. The length and size of the Lakers has made their team into a stingy defence but it means that they have immobile bigs who are not positionally fluid against smaller lineups.
Los Angeles have two MVP calibre players at their forward positions in the form of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LeBron James is one of the best players that the league has ever seen in terms of being able to do everything on the basketball at a really high level. Anthony Davis has long been regarded as a basketball prodigy, this status was confirmed in 2012 when he was picked for the USA Basketball Men's Team as a college freshman. It feels that Davis has shed the title of prodigy this season in Los Angeles, he is now legitimately regarded as an MVP in waiting. Davis is another player who can do everything but the one aspect of his play which is truly impressive is his ability to score the ball. Davis is efficient from all three levels who is difficult match-up for opposing big, you cannot hope to defend Davis with just one player, it requires a team effort. The other impressive thing to note is Davis’ footwork on the block. A lot of teams have strayed away from the post-up and have added a lot more pick and roll into their offensive diet. Davis is able to use his size, speed and knowledge of the post to move his defender around and get easy buckets.
Oklahoma City do not have a player who can match up with either James or Davis. The starting front-court for the Thunder do not possess enough speed or athleticism to keep up with James or Davis. Terrance Ferguson could feasibly defend LeBron James for the game without getting totally embarrassed but I would have concerns about Ferguson’s ability to keep James in front of him. LeBron is powerfully built like very few other players in the league, Ferguson is wiry and slight in his physique. The relative lack of size allows Ferguson to cover ground laterally quickly but it can mean that a player who knows how to use their physicality can bully their way past Ferguson. I like the idea of sticking Chris Paul onto LeBron James and seeing how that decision works out. In theory, putting a small guard on an athletic monster does not make sense but this does not account for Paul’s ability as a defender. Paul is so good at using his lower body strength to slow bigger players and generate little opportunities where he can snatch the ball. In practice, we have seen Chris Paul do really well against forwards like Kevin Durant as he takes away easy scoring opportunities and forces his opponent into more difficult looks.
Whether that works on James is a different story, we have seen teams like Toronto stick their best defender on LeBron and it does nothing. James will dig into his bag and pull out fadeaway jumpers from the mid-range that are totally impossible to guard. I remember vividly that Dwane Casey chose to use Kyle Lowry on LeBron during a play-off series a few years ago and James destroyed the match-up using the fadeaway. For Chris Paul to make a serious difference on LeBron, he needs to get into James’ legs and take away all forward movement.
Davis is a harder match-up to plan for given his mobility and ability to space the floor. Davis can torch slow-footed big men from deep and knock down looks. However, Anthony Davis is an inefficient shooter from deep, he only shoots 33% from deep and in a play-off series that can be really important. There is not eighty two games for a player’s shooting to average, a serious slump for two games can lose a team the series. I think that nullifying Davis has to start with taking away inside looks and making him reluctant to go inside for his scoring. Steven Adams has to be the natural match-up in this situation, his physicality and toughness is an unenviable match-up for opposing bigs. Adams is also a talented interior defender who knows how to stop other players in the post, the combination of his skill and willingness to create contact can make a player choose to stick outside and shoot jumpers. Oklahoma City will lose a lot if Davis starts knocking down deep shots but you have to take away the efficient shot with a player like Davis. You pick your poison and play the odds that Davis hits a slump.
The Lakers are a top-five defence in the league and a lot of their success in stifling teams comes from their rim protection. The combination of Davis, McGee and Howard makes the paint a fortress that is difficult to bypass for a lot of teams in the league. In some cases, regular season defence does not translate to the post-season, the schemes which worked in March do not work in April once a coaching staff has had time to sit down and pick apart the scheme. This an issue which affected Milwaukee last year, the Bucks do not cover the three-point tightly and the Raptors got hot from this area of the floor. Toronto won that series by exploiting the little weakness in Coach Bud’s system. Frank Vogel’s scheme translates more naturally to the post-season as it relies on length to stop inside scoring, we have seen this work for teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors in the past.
The weakness in deploying a rim protector like Howard or McGee is that neither player is particularly mobile. They will struggle to defend a smaller, faster player if they dragged out onto the perimeter. Defence is experience-based and it takes a long time to be able to defend in space effectively and seal off space against a player who can slip through the seams for easy scoring. If you look at Rudy Gobert, one of the premier rim protectors in the league, he really struggles when switched onto a guard. His lateral movement is not comfortable and he cannot contain the guard. The defensive instincts are not second nature, the big man in this situation does not know when to challenge shot or drop back to protect the rim. Howard and McGee have similar weaknesses that can be targeted by making their defence perimeter-oriented.
Oklahoma City will not be able to take advantage of their slow-footed, immobile play by simply getting a guard switched onto the big. The Lakers have enough length in the perimeter spots that they can fight over screens and allow the big man to drop back. Vogel’s scheme is designed to run a drop coverage and have the guard stick with their assignment. When a team does not switch defenders on a particular, there is a brief moment of separation where the Thunder can punish the Lakers. Oklahoma City need to maximise that moment by thinking quickly and being decisive with the ball. The decision may be a three-point attempt out of the spread pick and roll or it may be a short, sharp pass to a team-mate but the key aspect about the process is the speed.
As a team, the Lakers prioritise scoring inside due to the tendencies of their star players. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are best suited to score efficiently inside the painted area. It is one of the reasons why the Lakers are 23rd in the numbers of three attempted per game, only a small portion of their offence comes from outside. The only player who takes more than five threes a game is James who currently makes these looks at 34.7%. Moreover, the Lakers are not particularly efficient in terms of shooting from deep. The entire team averages 35.4% from deep which is marginally less efficient than the Thunder. This may seem like a minor item when you consider the talented marksman that the Lakers have on the roster but a few of these players have reputations that precede them.
Danny Green was a hyper-efficient trigger for the Raptors last season and he could not be left open during the regular season until he hit a cold streak in the post-season. When the post-season came about, Fred VanVleet emerged as a more consistent operator. Green is still a good shooter at 37.6% from three-point land but he is not an elite option. Kentavious Caldwell Pope has rebounded as a shooter to a 39.6% mark but he does not have a great play-off history, his last appearance came for the Detroit Pistons against LeBron James four years ago. The last shooter in this group would be Avery Bradley. Bradley is a versatile guard who is another player above the 37% mark but his lack of size could be a real issue in the play-offs, a bigger guard like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will be able to use his size to best Bradley.
The other key point to note is that the play-offs is a different story to the regular season. Consistent shooting becomes more important, the hot and cold streaks do not have time to average out over a seven game series. Providing that the Lakers’ group of shooters run cold for a game or two, Oklahoma City can look to maximise this opportunity by switching to a zone coverage for possessions at a time. The zone is not the answer to beating the Lakers long-term, it will be a little trick for Billy Donovan to use to throw off the Lakers for just enough time to gain an advantage in the game. Eventually, the physicality of James and Davis will break the zones as will shooters eventually warming up.
Oklahoma City can use a zone coverage to force the Lakers to take deep shots in favour of getting their preferred looks inside. It is difficult to drop an entry pass into the zone against a defence which is cohesive and communicates well. In effect, the Thunder stifle the inside and let the Lakers shoot from deep. You need shooting to break the zone and if the Lakers hit a cold streak, it could potentially win the Thunder a game or two against a talented Lakers side. The key for Oklahoma City when it comes to this specific defensive system is that the players have to remain disruptive against the opposing team, they need to take the Lakers out of their offensive rhythm.
Thanks for reading this scouting breakdown regarding the Los Angeles Lakers, we will have more breakdowns coming out soon about all of the other probable first-round opponents for the Thunder.