How The Lakers Turned Themselves Into An Elite Offense

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Key Highlights

  • Since making Rui Hachimura a full-time starter on Feb. 3, the Los Angeles Lakers are 20-10 with the NBA’s third-ranked offense
  • Over that span, Hachimura is averaging 16.2 points on 65.9 percent true shooting (.574/.444/.698 split)
  • When Hachimura shares the floor with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles has a plus-6.5 net rating and 122.0 offensive rating

During LeBron James’ first five seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, never was their identity shaped by a combustible offense.

When they won the title in 2019-20, their swarming, physical, rangy top-five defense was complemented by a 10th-ranked offense. When they sprinted into the playoffs last year, they led the league in defensive rating and were 15th in offensive rating over their 18-8 closing stretch. In 2018-19, 2020-21 and 2021-22, they never crept above 22nd in offensive rating.

This year, although just 13th in offensive rating, that tune has changed. After floundering to a 25-25 record through 50 games — 20th in offensive rating and 18th in net rating (minus-0.2) — Los Angeles elected to replace Taurean Prince with Rui Hachimura in the starting lineup. Since then, the Lakers are 20-10 (45-35 overall), owning the NBA’s third-best offense and 10th-ranked net rating (plus-4.4).

They’ve transformed from a club treading the waters of mediocrity as a listless Play-In cameo to a group — while still stuck in ninth like they were two months ago — touting legitimate playoff aspirations behind a sweet-shooting, bully ball attack.

Why Is The Lakers’ Offense Thriving?

The biggest difference between Hachimura and Prince is the versatility of Hachimura’s play-finishing as a complement to the offensive bedrocks in James and Anthony Davis. Prince is netting 39.3 percent of his triples, but he’s such a rocky decision-maker off the bounce, lacking the interior chops and ability to commandingly punish harsh closeouts like Hachimura.

Since James and Davis partnered 4.5 years ago, defenses have continually loaded up to slow them, whether it be extra bodies in the post, aggressive strong-side help in pick-and-rolls, or flocking to the ball on the break. Over the past few seasons, Los Angeles hasn’t rostered enough shooting or off-ball scorers to capitalize on all the attention its stars elicit — despite their ability to pretty seamlessly beat double-teams as playmakers. Hachimura embeds that shooting and off-ball scoring dynamic.

Similar to Prince, he’s an efficient, willing floor-spacer, shooting a career-high 42.2 percent beyond the arc on career-high volume (.341 three-point rate). Yet he also recognizes how to leverage his size all across the court, shooting 76 percent at the rim (94th percentile among forwards). As a full-time starter (30 games), he’s averaging 16.2 points on 65.9 percent true shooting.

Whether it be flashing to the middle, cutting along the baseline as ball-screen release valve, spraying home triples, attacking closeouts or exploiting mismatches with deep seals or face-up buckets, he’s an adept outlet alongside the Lakers’ stars. Most defenses send help from the weakside. That’s where he’s often positioned, which leaves him primed to find pockets of space and flourish.

With James a burly 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and Davis at 6-foot-10, 255 pounds, it’s rare for opponents to sport a tertiary wing defender to neutralize the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Hachimura. Somebody is always the odd man out, left to guard Hachimura and pray for the best. When those three share the hardwood, Los Angeles’ offensive rating is 122.0.

His blend of finishing and outside shooting encapsulate the Lakers’ wide-ranging offensive excellence. During this 30-game slate, they’re third in rim frequency and first in rim efficiency (76.2 percent). The Boston Celtics are second in the latter category at 71.9 percent. Meanwhile, they Lakers are drilling 40.1 percent of their long balls, second only to the Celtics’ 40.3 percent.

Joined by James (41.2 percent) and D’Angelo Russell (41.7 percent), Hachimura is one of three Los Angeles starters shooting better than 41 percent from long range. Reaves is burying 36.3 percent of his attempts and is quite the intrepid gunner who draws respect. Off the bench, Spencer Dinwiddie (39.1 percent) and the aforementioned Prince (39.3 percent) bring more profitable shooting.

Among the Lakers’ top-seven rotation players, only Davis (28 percent) isn’t an outside threat this season. Their priority is to feast in the paint, but they’re proficient from deep, too. It’s a dichotomy this offense has missed lately, finishing bottom 10 in three-point efficiency and rate from 2019-20 through 2022-23.

The core of this offense prospers together because of their duality. Any of James, Davis, Reaves and Russell can operate in tandem as the screener or ball-handler. Reaves and James share particularly savvy chemistry, but all four are equipped for success. Los Angeles loves calling inverted actions with Reaves or Russell diving to the rim, either on slips or when defenses bring two to the ball against James and Davis.

The size and passing acumen of those jumbo initiators, as well as the guards’ keen sense of space and timing, fuel fruitful results. Defenses are constantly forced into rotation and the Lakers take advantage with weakside shooting or movement in response to those rotations. If defenses are late to help, the guards will simply score on their own.

When James prefers to function inside — given he’s perhaps the greatest downhill threat in NBA history — Reaves’ intersection of pull-up shooting and ball-screen craft offer space for that. Quietly, they anchor one of the league’s more potent, multifaceted two-man tangos.

Another staple: Russell’s propensity for slipping flare screens (usually on the weakside of a post-up) while Davis or James commandeers possessions.

It’s not the foundation of the offense, but it seems to let the Lakers steal a few buckets almost every game and underscores Russell’s off-ball prowess — cognizant as to how he can lather up the offense without spamming pick-and-rolls or bombing spot-up threes.

Sifting through the depths of James’ and Hachimura’s arsenals won’t sprout endless overlaps. Yet they broadly present common challenges for the opposition as freight-train forwards who stretch the floor and brandish heady off-ball instincts. At center, Davis’ patient rolls, premier finishing and sprawling lob radius enable him to retain value outside of mid-post touches. Neither he nor James must be ball dominant for the offense to thrive.

The entirety of the Lakers’ frontcourt are devastating off-ball threats. All of them are shooting 73 percent or higher at the basket. Two of them are shooting above 40 percent from deep. Two of them tilt the defense as advantage creators. That’s a rare composition. It’s propelling their offense to grand heights never experienced during James’ tenure in the City of Angels.

Nobody generates more points per possession on cuts than Los Angeles (1.40), the product of a sharp ball-screen scheme and an offense built through mid-post touches in which defenses rarely adhere to single coverage. Linger too long in help or send a double and someone donning purple and gold will pounce.

Regardless of how innovative or creative any playbook is, connectivity is a prerequisite for maximal offensive output. The Lakers have established  it. They know what they intend to run and smoothly flow into sets. Every player on the floor is aware of their role and executes said role to amplify the efforts of one another.

In prior years, stagnation and hopes of James’ and Davis’ brilliance as bail-out bucket-getters routinely defined possessions.

The spacing was sticky. Reliable shooting was water in a desert. Driving lanes appeared and evaporated instantly. Trips down felt like a laborious grind to generate anything resembling positive offense. Those instances don’t define this squad anymore, instead succeeded by a cohesive starting lineup with malleable offensive talent at every position.

Los Angeles may still be caught in ninth, but it’s discovered the optimal version of itself and will enter the postseason aiming to showcase that identity against anyone. It’s an identity that begins with the stars, runs through the guards, and is completed by Hachimura, a 26-year-old forward reveling in the finest season of his career.