12-2 Los Angeles Lakers Dominating Despite Analytics-Era Sins

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterNovember 20, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, celebrates during the first half of an NBA basketball game as Anthony Davis looks on against the Charlotte Hornets in Los Angeles, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — In the world of video games, the term "meta" is commonly used as shorthand for the "most effective tactic available."

In the NBA, analytics have pushed the game toward the current meta, as best represented by James Harden and the Houston Rockets—a franchise dedicated to scoring with the three-point shot, free throws and layups and dunks.

With that style of play spreading throughout the league over recent years, teams have gone smaller with skilled players (notably shooters), supplanting taller ones who lack range.

Yet through the first 14 games, the Los Angeles Lakers (12-2) have the best record in the league as a counter-meta team. The key to that success is Anthony Davis.

"We're playing big because we have the luxury of having [Davis] at the power forward position," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "I feel like the way the league has transitioned, the center position is not going away. The non-dominant power forward, the position has really fallen off, and you can't have a non-shooting power forward in today's NBA if he's not dominant. But Anthony gives us the luxury of having that elite offensive player, defensive player, and then you still have two centers out there who can really help us hold the fort down on the defensive end."

In acquiring Davis over the summer, Vogel could have pushed for him to slide over to center, but instead the team re-signed JaVale McGee and brought in free agent DeMarcus Cousins. When Cousins hurt his knee before the season, the Lakers gave Dwight Howard a shot, and he's been tremendous off the bench.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 19, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
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"[McGee and Howard] being lob threats, providing the vertical spacing is every bit as important as having another shooter on the floor," Vogel said. "I mean, you have to guard those guys at the rim. So it's a little bit counterintuitive to today's NBA, but not by a lot."

By playing Davis primarily at power forward, the Lakers are protecting him from having to bang inside against the league's bigger, stronger players. The size has also helped the Lakers play a more physical brand of basketball defensively. Guards are empowered to play more aggressively on the perimeter knowing there's a formidable backline protecting the basket.

So, what does the counter-meta look like in numbers?

Per NBA.com, the Lakers are just 18th in three-point percentage (34.2) but more significantly 25th in attempts (29.6 per game). Conversely, the Rockets (11-3) aren't shooting especially well (21st at 34.1 percent), but it's not from a lack of trying. Houston is first by a lot in attempts at 46.4 per contest.

Similarly, the Rockets prioritize getting to the free-throw line. Harden is elite at creating contact, and his team takes 28.9 attempts per game, two more than the next contender. Meanwhile, the Lakers are 26th overall with 20.4 tries per night.

The Lakers are getting their points two at a time, with 66.8 percent of their attempts inside the arc (fifth overall). The Rockets are dead last at 49.4 percent.

Los Angeles may not have the highest-octane offense, which makes sense given the dearth of three-point makes, but the team's 109.6 rating is ninth overall and just a few points behind Houston's league-best 112.7.

Conversely, the Lakers are second in the league with a defensive rating of 100.5. Houston's defense has improved since the beginning of the season, but the Rockets are in the middle of the pack (15th) at 107.2.

While this version of the Lakers isn't playoff-tested (LeBron James arrived just a year ago, and Davis over the summer), the Rockets have yet to reach the NBA Finals playing their style of basketball.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Lakers are hoping their more balanced approach, prioritizing defense, will lead to a deep run. As a team, L.A. is leading the league with 7.8 blocks per night. Opponents are shooting just 42.7 percent from the field (sixth overall), while Houston is 14th at 45.2 percent.

The two disparate franchises won't meet until mid-January, but the regular-season head-to-head matchups are only somewhat relevant. The bigger-picture goal for both teams is playoff success.

The Lakers aren't trying to prove the Rockets are wrong; they're just playing the style of ball that fits their roster. So far through the first month of the season, both teams have been extremely successful.

While copying the Rockets has worked for some teams, others may struggle to emulate what the Lakers are doing this season given how uniquely powerful Davis and James are as individual elite talents.

In the meantime, the Lakers would like to hit more three-point attempts and get to the line more often. The Rockets would like to improve defensively. They play fundamentally different styles, and while the Lakers may look like they are a throwback to a different era of basketball, it's working.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

B/R writer Mirin Fader and B/R draft guru Jonathan Wasserman join The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss LaMelo Ball. Mirin talks about LaMelo the person, his growth as a basketball player, his time in Australia and his relationships with both his manager, Jermaine Jackson, and his father, LaVar. Wasserman weighs in on LaMelo's NBA prospects and predicted draft number, and what's caused him to become a possible top-five pick.



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