LOS ANGELES — There are many reasons why the Los Angeles Lakers own arguably the worst offense in the NBA. Their talent level is as low as any team in the Western Conference, and for a majority of this season, their playing style was antiquated and infected with hero ball.
The rock stuck in Kobe Bryant's hands on almost every play, and entire possessions died on far too many one-on-one adventures (often from Julius Randle).
No team isolates more frequently than the Lakers, and no team is less effective in isolation situations, per Synergy Sports. That's clearly nothing to be proud of, particularly in today's NBA, where passing, cutting (only the New Orleans Pelicans and Detroit Pistons have fewer shots from cuts) and unselfish play are prerequisites to sustainable success.
Before Wednesday night's blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, that team was the only one averaging fewer passes per game. To boot, only the Philadelphia 76ers average fewer secondary assists, and only the Toronto Raptors average fewer potential assists, according to SportVU. (The only way to survive with such an uncharitable style is by honing two All-Star talents in their prime—like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan—which the Lakers most certainly do not have.)
But there are reasons to be optimistic.
One week into December, the Lakers moved Randle and D'Angelo Russell to the bench, with the idea that a pass-first point guard running the second-unit would help foster more overall ball movement.
Embedding Larry Nance Jr.—a hoppy, low-maintenance forward—with the starting lineup also figured to help. Now we're nine games into the change, and for those who care to look, positive developments are slowly starting to show.
None of this is lost on head coach Byron Scott, who said before Wednesday night's loss to the Thunder that the need for more ball movement was what motivated him to shake up his starting lineup in the first place.
"The biggest thing, why we love Larry Nance so much is he doesn't necessarily need the ball," Scott said. "We don't run plays for him; he just plays off his energy and his hustle. And when he has shots, like the last game especially against Denver, he took those shots, and I just talked to him today about doing that again; when you get open shots, you gotta take them.
"He has a nice enough stroke, and he can make them on a consistent basis, and then the defense will start to respect him a little bit more from that standpoint. But he moves the ball. That's the one thing about Larry. He moves the ball; he doesn't take a lot of shots...so that's one of the main reasons that we changed the starting lineup, so we could get more ball movement. And so far, it's worked."
From opening day until December 6, the Lakers averaged 271.1 passes per game. Since Scott switched up the rotation, they're up to 292—still seventh-worst in the league but obviously trending in the right direction.
On three of Los Angeles' four top five-man units, over 60 percent of its made field goals are assisted, which would rank right up around the top 10 near the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers, per NBA.com. Its potential assists have gone from 36.7 per game to 40.1.
Despite the solemn fact that Los Angeles' offensive rating has yet to climb from the bottom three, none of this is a coincidence. The Lakers don't look anything like the San Antonio Spurs, but they also look much better than they did three weeks ago. And the controversial decision to demote two valuable assets is starting to pay off.
"I think the culture's changing," Lakers assistant coach Larry Lewis told Bleacher Report. "We're moving the ball better now. We're better off the ball and better looking at how things are set up in our system more rather than going one-on-one. So to date, it looks like we're a nice old team because we've played like that for the first couple months of the season, but in actuality, we are changing and growing...and I think in the next few weeks to a month, [ball movement] will be more evident than ever before this season."
While their offense still doesn't flow as smoothly as it probably can or hopefully will, the Lakers now resemble a semi-competent NBA offense. They reverse the ball, run multiple pick-and-rolls in the same possession, attack gaps and, every once in a while, force defenses to rotate.
This play ends in a contested above-the-break three pointer, but the mere fact that Jordan Clarkson swings the ball without hesitation is a positive sign.
Even if this team habitually made the extra pass, tirelessly hunted open shots and grew allergic to stagnation, the ceiling would still sit pretty low. There's only so much that can be done with this roster—an inexperienced and awkward cast that's tattered with uncorrectable flaws—and that should always stick in the back of any critic's mind.
The Lakers still dribble a ton, lack urgency, attempt the most pull-up jumpers in the league and watch their sets collapse after the defense takes away their primary objective. Bryant is starting to trust his coworkers more but is still prone to jacking up borderline farcical attempts that don't force any rotations from the other team.
But it's always a good idea to play basketball the way it's meant be played, with five guys who seamlessly feed off one another and function as an allied force instead of a fractured collection of scattered wreckage.
This season isn't salvageable. A playoff berth is not realistic. But caking in smart habits is a good idea for the impressionable youngsters. It's happening a lot slower than it probably should, but better late than never.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.