Lakers’ early success due to improved 3-point shooting

In a 3-point shooting contest on the Lakers, who would win?

LeBron James had to consider the question for a moment.

“We got a lot of great, knock-down shooters,” he said. “Obviously if someone says ‘bet,’ then obviously you guys know, I’m going to take myself.

It wasn’t a terribly interesting question last season. This year, it would actually be compelling viewing for the third-ranked 3-point shooting team in the NBA (39.6%). Only the Clippers (43.6%) and Bucks (41.1%) have hit shot better percentages from deep so far.

“Everybody works. Everybody’s in the gym, I think that’s just the biggest explanation for it,” Kyle Kuzma said. “Can’t just be a good 3-point shooter and not be in the gym. Everybody comes in, they come in and work and shoot, they put the time in and take their, as we like to say, their daily vitamins.”

Last season, the Lakers were a below-average 3-point shooting team in the regular season, ranking 21st with a team mark just under 35%. Of everyone averaging at least one 3-point attempt per game, only Caldwell-Pope (38.5%) was shooting about 37%.

This year, the Lakers have seven players meeting that criteria. That includes the stars, with James (38.2%) and Davis (37.1%) each punching up their rates by at least three percentage points each. It includes major leaps from Alex Caruso (58.3%) and Kuzma (40%), who didn’t have to be guarded at the 3-point line last season because both were hitting at less than 34%. It also includes Marc Gasol (38.1%), who has not hit a lot of them, but whose spacing has forced defenses to spread all the way to the perimeter.

There’s a consensus that the Lakers’ scheme has been more efficient this year in part thanks to this spacing. Without a traditional center drawing the defense into the paint, the Lakers have been better able to drive, either in isolation or pick-and-roll, and those initial drives have created more opportunities for kick-outs.

“We have a lot of guys who can get in the paint, and we’re making the right decisions,” Davis said. “I think this year, Coach (Frank Vogel) put an emphasis on getting to the paint with our guards, Talen (Horton-Tucker), AC, Bron, (Dennis Schröder) – all these guys can get into the paint. And we’re finding our shooters and making the right plays.”

The shooters themselves, however, have looked better. Last season, the Lakers shot 37.7% on “wide open” 3-point attempts – with a defender more than six feet away – and just 33.3% on “open” threes – with a defender four to six feet away – according to NBA tracking data.

Those figures so far are much improved: 42.2% on “wide open” threes and 36.7% on “open” threes.

For the Lakers’ returning shooters, that reflects a lot of work on their mechanics. After offseason discussions about becoming a better 3-point shooter on the move, Kuzma has come in strong as one of the best off-the-bench marksmen on the team. Caldwell-Pope has worked on his balance for years, particularly with shooting coach Chris Matthews (known as Lethal Shooter) and finally seems to be hitting his stride in his third season alongside James in particular.

For a player who began his career as a pull-up shooter and primary scorer, the re-tooling of his game to spacer and off-ball cutter has been dramatic.

“You got to be balanced when you’re coming off of screens or pindowns, make sure your footwork is right as well,” Caldwell-Pope said. “And it’s all about just being in a good rhythm when you come off a screen. And just having that balance and being able to get a good lift on the ball and knock it down.”

Perhaps the most important part is confidence: Several players have mentioned their self-belief is at an all-time high. With a Lakers-Warriors game set for Monday, Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose offenses reworked the value of 3-point shooting league-wide, said he hadn’t yet dived into the Lakers’ film, but he knows firsthand how a championship can boost the shooting confidence of a team that already has talent.

“They’ve got a championship under their belt, and when you do that, you’re able to play with more confidence and a little swagger and maybe an ability to experiment a little bit,” Kerr said. “Recognize you can do that and you have a little more margin for error.”

That may explain some of the deep 3-point attempts and turnaround jumpers that James in particular has taken in recent games. He’s enjoying his best 3-point shooting season since 2012-13, when he averaged 40.6% for the Heat.

Whether it’s the putback dunk he dropped on the Pelicans on Friday night or the occasional long ball, he wants to keep defenses guessing.

“I feel real good with my shot right now, both from the free-throw line and also from the 3-point line, and I want to continue that,” he said. “Just continue to give the defenses different styles to my play.”

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