What’s Wrong With the Los Angeles Lakers?

Justin Ford / USA TODAY Sports

On July 9, 2018, LeBron James signed a four-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The best player in the world was officially a Laker.

We are 61 games into the 2018-19 NBA season and the Lakers are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

What happened?

Most people would point to the injury bug as the cause of the Lakers’ struggles, which is valid. LeBron has missed 18 games this season and L.A. is only 3 games back from the 8-seed. They would certainly be a top-8 team right now if LeBron wasn’t injured.

Still, the Lakers are clearly not built to be contenders even with LeBron on the floor. The problem is more than just unluckiness stemming from injuries.

Shooting Woes

LeBron James is arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport. He’ll thrive in any environment. However, the true recipe for success is surrounding LeBron with accomplished jump shooters.

It sounds silly because he’ll likely retire with the most points scored of any player in NBA history, but LeBron’s greatness isn’t because of his scoring ability — plenty of legends have scored at his level. LeBron is special because of his ability to bring out the best in his teammates.

Defenses have to key in on LeBron’s unstoppable drives to the basket which allows him to utilize his uncanny vision and passing ability. Just give him players who can knock down those open shots and you’re set.

On this play, LeBron gets a mismatch in the post against Courtney Lee. Enes Kanter has to come over to double-team LeBron, leaving Tristan Thompson open in the paint. Jarrett Jack promptly switches over to take on Thompson, but this left Kevin Love open in the corner. Of course, LeBron found him and he hit the easy shot.

The Cleveland Cavaliers made a living off of the catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Most LeBron-led teams do. Not the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers, though.

This data excludes LeBron’s own shooting numbers, so it represents the shooting ability of the rest of the team.

From 2015 to 2018, LeBron-led teams finished among the top-6 teams in C&S 3P% every year. 2014 was a down year, but the Heat still finished 14th — middle of the pack. The 2019 Lakers rank dead last, a full percentage point behind the second-worst New York Knicks.

The Lakers don’t have the perimeter shooters to take advantage of LeBron’s strengths.

Their shooting isn’t just horrid from beyond the arc, either.

The free throw line is sometimes referred to as “the charity strike” because one team is being rewarded easy points. Unfortunately, these shots are far from easy for the Los Angeles Lakers.

A league-average team hits 76.6% of their free throws. The Lakers are converting 68.8% of their shots from the charity strike. That’s the lowest percentage for a team since the Detroit Pistons in the 2015-16 season.

Yeah, that’s bad.

How Much Blame Does LeBron James Deserve?

There’s been a lot of blame going LeBron’s way for the Lakers’ current struggles, especially with the recent viral clips of him slacking off on defense.

Criticizing his occasional laziness on defense is fair, but going as far as to act as if he’s a defensive liability is irrational.

We’ll use DXeFG% (defensive expected effective field goal percentage) to prove this because it’s a better indicator of defensive success than shallow box score stats. LeBron is allowing an eFG% of 48.14%, -4.58% less than expected. That’s the 30th best in the league out of 315 qualifying players. LeBron James is far from an actual detriment on defense.

In reality, more blame should go to Magic Johnson and the Lakers’ front office for building an illogical team around LeBron. How many players have been mentioned as potential teammates with LeBron in Los Angeles? Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant are some of them. There’s a very good chance that none of these players ever suit up for the Lakers. Instead, Los Angeles opted to surround LeBron with a cast of shoddy shooters.

There’s the argument that this wasn’t supposed to be a contending season anyway. I’m not sure that it’s a great idea to waste a prime year of one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, especially when there doesn’t seem to be an easy plan for the future. If the Lakers don’t get any of those big free agents, then what?

The Los Angeles Lakers have a lot of problems. LeBron James isn’t one of them.

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