The Los Angeles Lakers' strengths include a roster featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a top-flight defense and a clinched No. 1 seed in the West, so their weaknesses aren't always obvious or particularly concerning.
But after sputtering to a 105-86 loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, failing to hold a lead for the first time all season, the Lakers' shortcomings—principally shooting and secondary playmaking—were both obvious and concerning.
Los Angeles set its season low in scoring, shot 35.2 percent from the field and clanked away even less accurately from deep, making just five of its 37 three-point attempts. The frigid shooting somehow made its way to the foul line, where the Lakers were 19-of-29.
Coming into Wednesday's tilt, L.A.'s 100.6 offensive rating in the bubble was the worst in the league. The 84.3 points per 100 possessions it managed against OKC aren't going to help that last-place ranking.
Excuses for the Lakers' anemic offense abound, starting with the predictable letdown in intensity following Monday's 116-108 win over the Utah Jazz, which clinched the conference's top seed. Outside of conditioning and some lineup tinkering, L.A. didn't have much to gain from its meeting with the Thunder, and its incentives to give full effort will be similarly wanting until the postseason begins.
Don't discount the impact of that looser-than-usual rotation. Head coach Frank Vogel is using these seeding games to experiment, a reasonable move with JR Smith and Dion Waiters joining up late, Avery Bradley at home, Rajon Rondo injured and Markieff Morris having played just eight games with the team prior to the hiatus. Now is the time to tinker, especially with no seeding implications to worry about.
It's troubling, though, that no amount of experimentation is likely to unearth the extra knockdown shooter or reliable playmaker L.A. needs. Waiters and Smith are known heat-check chuckers; either could win the Lakers a playoff game with a hot streak, but neither profiles as dependable. Dependability is what Los Angeles needs—and has needed on offense all year.
The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage on looks deemed "open" (defender within four-to-six feet) during the pre-bubble portion of the season. On wide-open threes, they ranked 15th. It's tempting after games like Wednesday's to trust those shots will eventually fall. But they haven't fallen consistently all season, so faith in regression to the mean seems misplaced.
This team isn't going to brick its way to 5-of-37 from deep very often, but the Lakers' lack of trustworthy shooters and the poor performances of their more accurate ones (Danny Green hit a pair against OKC but was 2-of-13 from distance in his previous three games) is a problem with staying power.
As has been the case for the better part of two decades, LeBron James can paper over his team's flaws. During the pre-bubble year, the Lakers posted a 113.3 offensive rating with James on the floor. With him out of the game, L.A. managed just 105.2 points per 100 possession.
Try not to be stunned to learn that as James goes, so goes his team. That's only been the case for 17 years, and we've seen LeBron haul teams with much larger warts to the Finals. When shots aren't falling, there's always stuff like this:
That said, Los Angeles' offensive collapses without James, who finished Wednesday's game with 19 points on 7-of-19 shooting, highlight the glaring absence of a quality point guard.
Alex Caruso is a walking meme, a world-class defensive pest and a deserving fan favorite, and he can credibly advance the ball over half court. But that doesn't make him a point guard—certainly not one capable of running a breakeven offense without James on the floor.
Anthony Davis scored just nine points on Wednesday, though to be fair, the Lakers offense has performed well throughout the year when he's played without James. Still, he's a finisher not necessarily gifted in engineering setups for the Lakers' array of dependent scoring threats.
Waiters, only on board for his offense, has the will to create (mostly for himself) but lacks the judgment to effectively balance aggression and discretion.
The Lakers' scoring woes are real, but maybe they seem more pronounced because we're not used to seeing them from a team featuring James. Defense was the missing ingredient for LeBron's most recent four-year stretch with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those teams made the Finals each year with almost no stopping power. This Lakers squad has plenty.
L.A. ranks third in defensive efficiency for the year, and even in Wednesday's mostly meaningless game against the Thunder, it played with commitment and purpose, holding OKC to 105 points. With even half-decent offense, the Lakers easily could have won.
How do they meet that modest "half-decent" standard going forward? How do they find solutions by the second round of the playoffs, when they figure to get their first real test? That's trickier.
More emphasis on upping the pace and hunting transition offense could help. In conjunction with cutting back on their foul frequency, which sent OKC to the line for 36 attempts on Wednesday, the Lakers can find ways to keep the game flowing. They rank fifth in transition frequency and first in points per play this season. When they're on the run, they're more dangerous than any other team.
Unfortunately, better competition and more rigorous efforts to push teams out of their comfort zones define the playoffs. Opponents will know keeping the Lakers confined to half-court offense as often as possible is the key to beating them. It's no secret L.A. ranks 18th in half-court scoring efficiency; any coach with a pulse will have "get back on D" near the top of the pregame whiteboard.
Viewed that way, it's possible the Lakers' scoring struggles could get even worse as opponents dial up the playoff scouting and fixate narrowly on their flaws.
It should go without saying that at 51-16 and secure at No. 1, the Lakers have found workarounds for their scoring issues all season. But that clinched playoff seed means the team's full attention must now turn to preparing itself for postseason play. Wednesday's disappointing result made it plain there are some problems on offense, most of which lack clear solutions.
Much of the Lakers' work is done, but they're far from a finished product.