Like any new homeowner, one of Darvin Ham’s first tasks as Lakers head coach was to inspect every nook and cranny of his purple and gold surroundings in assessing where changes needed to be made.
Cosmetic touch ups aside, the most urgent area of his attention was found within the franchise’s creaky foundation.
The reality is there were myriad factors that led to the Lakers’ disappointing 33-49 record last season. But the mold that was the Lakers’ lethargy spread throughout the year and infected each contributor — that was birthed from the makeup of the roster itself.
Composed of predominantly veteran talent—their average age of 30 was the oldest in the league—the team proved to be inherently more susceptible to injury, and was routinely unable to hang on an athletic level with spryer opposition.
The approach, as their final win-loss tally could attest, simply did not work.
While the roster is yet to be finalized, the combination of last season’s shoddy results and Ham’s fresh coaching philosophy have led to a complete rebuild of the depth-chart from the ground up this summer.
Despite each one bringing a different set of skills to the table, there is a clear through-line between the team’s five free-agent signings thus far: they are all both young and athletic.
With an average of just 25, the new Lakers will be tasked with giving the club with a much-needed transfusion of fresh blood to liven up what was quickly becoming a stale style of basketball.
The first order of business in accomplishing this according to both players and coaches is to run — a lot.
“I think the biggest thing is just for us to be able to play fast. That’s the biggest thing that we’ve been talking about,” Troy Brown Jr. — who is still just 22 years old — told reporters during his introductory press conference.
He continued, stressing how he can help his new team maintain a high tempo of play, “Just being able for me to get rebounds and outlet or being able to push the ball and then just spreading the floor and giving guys space. So I think all that kind of runs together and that’s definitely been talked about a lot.”
Aspects like pace, speed and floor manipulation in transition have proven to be major points of emphasis during the initial round of press conferences for those joining the franchise. This widely stated modus operandi likely serves as a direct reaction to the previous regime’s play.
According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers ranked 29th in terms of average speed (4.25 mph) on offense last season. They also traveled the third fewest miles on that end, and were tied for dead last in overall average speed (4.01 mph).
In contrast, their free-agent additions’ average speed on offense last season was 4.52 mph (for context, this was the exact number the Phoenix Suns posted which ranked 10th last year) and their overall average speed was 4.18 mph.
This shift in athleticism is something the team hopes could pay dividends in multiple areas, including help make Ham’s 4-out 1-in offense hum.
“It starts with guys sprinting to the corners offensively,” Ham stated when discussing how he plans to optimize his new system.
“Once we get a stop, we’re sprinting to the corners, flattening the defense. If there’s an overloaded side — meaning three guys on the weak side — that middle guy is slashing to the rim. We want to put immediate threats on the corner threes and an immediate threat at the rim.”
Ham’s description of where his players need to go, and the immediacy at which they have to get there, is an example of how the inclusion of more speed could directly correlate to better floor spacing in particular.
“Sprinting” to the corners naturally puts a defense on their heels, and collapsing the middle leaves the opposition having to pick their poison in which direction their help needs to scramble toward. A proposition that gets dicier when the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis are involved.
This attention to detail when it comes to early and half-court offense, not only should optimize LeBron James, Davis, and (potentially) Russell Westbrook’s gravity, but also, help keep them fresh through 82 games, according to Ham.
“We’re not just throwing the ball at LeBron, throwing it at Russ. ‘Here AD, take it,’” Ham detailed when assessing what impact the team’s free-agent signings will have.
“Providing that space, providing that speed, getting stops on the defensive end, turning those into easy transition buckets or open looks and early offense I think will pay big dividends in terms of keeping our team healthy, keeping our team united and together, and lightening the load so we get stronger as the season gets longer.”
Opening up, and more importantly, diversifying the Lakers’ offense will be a welcome sight after the stagnation that occurred last year.
According to the league’s Synergy data, the Lakers posted the third-highest isolation frequency last season (10 per contest), and ranked in the mere 58th percentile in terms of efficiency.
Outside of a dependence on one-on-one basketball, the team’s other scoring chances and general approach also lacked direction and fluidity.
The Lakers were tied for ninth in terms of longest time per possession, and 16th in dribbles per touch as they were often found pounding the air out of the ball in hopes of an opening presenting itself. Something they need to refrain from this go-around if they want to improve their 23rd ranked offensive rating.
It is often unwise and dangerous to lean too far into one direction when it comes to roster building. Fast and young versus slow and experienced, being just one example. The Lakers learned this firsthand, and appear to be attempting to soup up their engine after falling below the speed limit last season.
The inclusion of younger and quicker players will not magically unlock the offense or lead to overnight success, but it is a step in the right direction if Ham’s philosophy and the front office’s shift in direction is to be trusted.
Although there are likely still moves to be made before we can make out the full picture of what the roster’s identity will be, the Lakers’ offseason approach thus far seems to have them primed to let their (young) legs do the heavy lifting.
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