What did the Western Conference do to anger the basketball gods?
There are legitimate cases to be made for almost every team still competing for a playoff spot to make the finals, which hasn’t happened since checks note... ever??
Memphis, the current two-seed, is unsurprisingly one of those teams, but the other might be the Lakers, who just reached .500 for the first time in over a year.
Yep, they are definitely to be feared.
Jokes aside, both teams do have valid reasons to be optimistic about a long postseason run, even if neither will be considered the West favorites.
Let’s start in La La Land and discuss the Lakers.
The scariest play-in team ever?
Since the February 9th deadline, L.A. has the 3rd-best record in the West at 13-7 with the 8th-best overall net rating (+3.8). Their 115.0 offensive rating is still subpar (18th) over that span, but their 111.1 defensive rating is 1.3 points better than number two-ranked Milwaukee, which is a bigger difference than Milwaukee and number nine-ranked Toronto.
It’s also important to note that LeBron has played in just 5 of those 20 games, and when he’s suited up, the Lakers actually have an offensive rating of 119.7, which would rank 6th since the deadline.
It’s a minuscule sample size, to be sure, but something worth noting regardless.
If L.A. wants to make any postseason noise, though, it must come from their defense. I was surprised to learn that they were actually 19th in defensive rating (115.6) up until the deadline, even with AD having somewhat of a resurgent season.
Trading Westbrook and bringing in Jarred Vanderbilt definitely helps, but that can’t tell the whole story considering D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley aren’t exactly defensive stalwarts, either. Such a drastic turnaround is often due to opponent three-point shooting, but that isn’t the case here, either: opposing teams made 35.1% of their long-range attempts before the deadline (5th lowest) and 33.7% (3rd lowest) after, so there hasn’t been a sudden shift in that area.
The biggest difference between L.A.’s pre and post-deadline defensive splits, then, is that opponents have gone from averaging 18.8 putback plays per 100 missed field goals (20th) against the Lakers to just 16.6 (8th). That might not seem like much, but those are two fewer high-percentage chances that opponents aren’t getting anymore.
Even when they do get opportunities for putbacks, L.A. has also done a much better job of contesting such attempts: opponents have gone from averaging 119 points (27th) per 100 missed shots to just 93.1 (2nd). Most of the credit should be given to Vanderbilt, who’s great at boxing out and causes all kinds of havoc around the rim, even if he doesn’t always get credited for the rebound. In a lot of ways, he’s the antithesis of Westbrook, who’s put up historic raw rebounding numbers but many of those don’t actually contribute significantly to winning.
Almost all of the Lakers’ other defensive numbers have improved since the deadline even without a huge shift in play. As basic as it sounds, the team has simply played harder, and it’s evident that they’re just a lot more connected.
Take the following play for instance. At first, it seems like the Bulls have the matchup advantage given that their two best scores (DeRozan and Lavine) are being guarded by below-average perimeter defenders in D’lo and
White Mamba 2.0 Austin Reaves. Even as DeRozan spins by D’lo, L.A. communicates perfectly to ensure that their rotation’s in sync — AD is there to block the shot while Vanderbilt and LeBron provide help on the baseline since they know that Caruso and Pat Bev aren’t knockdown shooters.
AD starts it off w/ good defense and it leads to a transition AR bucket/And-1.#Lakers #LALakers #Lakeshowpic.twitter.com/3chn6dqrQ9— Whamshki (@whamshki) March 30, 2023
So ultimately, other than their improved defensive rebounding, the biggest change in L.A.’s two-way play has been their increased effort level. Everyone’s well aware of the chemistry issues that Westbrook presented the Lakers, and by trading him away, they not only found pieces that better fit the roster, but also created a connected group that doesn’t take plays off.
Assuming the good vibes are here to stay, there’s no reason why L.A. can’t be an average offensive team while maintaining an elite defense. They won’t continue to have a 111.1 defensive rating since opponents have been somewhat unlucky in terms of shotmaking (they’re expected to have an eFG% of 55% since the deadline but have actually shot just 52.4%), but they’ll still remain near the top of the league even with a small dropoff.
Considering everything, the Lakers are honestly able to beat any West team in a playoff series, but it’s unlikely they accomplish much more than that. LeBron and AD just aren’t durable enough to get through an entire postseason run healthy, and even with an elite defense, their offense just isn’t good enough to win more than two series max (and even that would be shocking).
But hey, the current team has come a long way since their 2-10 start, which is still something to be thankful for.
Can the Grizzlies focus on basketball and make a run?
By now, we know what the Grizzlies are when they’re whole: an elite defensive team with a good offense on paper. That distinction needs to be made because while they’re 9th in offensive rating (116.4) on the season, everyone knows that Memphis is overly reliant on scoring in transition, which is a weakness that Golden State exploited last year.
The Grizzlies have essentially played the same since Ja’s return, but given that he’s their only elite creator in the halfcourt, I’m more curious as to how the team performed during his absence.
Over a 9-game span, Memphis went 6-3 with a +3.8 net rating (8th), a 117.8 offensive rating (14th), and a 114.0 defensive rating (10th). Shockingly, their half-court offensive rating during that time (100.7, 15th) is actually better than their season average (96.8, 22nd), which is largely due to a scoring explosion from Jaren Jackson Jr.
In those 9 games, JJJ averaged 22.7 points 6.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists on 51.1/35.6/75.4 splits. The most encouraging takeaway here is that his scoring didn’t come on the back of unsustainable shooting, considering that his percentages on the season are 50.3/34.0/77.9.
In fact, none of his underlying stats changed much other than an increase in usage from 21.7% to 25.8%. To me, this suggests that JJJ was always capable of producing at this level, but was rarely given the opportunity to do so. Like a number of big men (*cough cough* Deandre Ayton), it seems like JJJ just needs to get consistent touches (especially at the start of games) for him to keep up his aggression, which Memphis should prioritize moving forward.
JJJ was dominant in the Grizzlies W— NBA (@NBA) March 23, 2023
37 PTS (season-high)
The first 35+ point, 10+ rebound game of his career pic.twitter.com/JBgjBjugbV
If the Grizzlies can do this, they can absolutely have at least an average half-court offense, which, paired with their elite transition play, would make them much harder to stop even when things slow down in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, we can’t finish this section without mentioning Steven Adams’ injury. The Aussie was having one of the greatest offensive-rebounding seasons of all time prior to getting hurt, and his absence will have an enormous impact on the Grizzlies. Consider this: among players who’ve logged at least 1000 minutes, Adams ranked first in offensive rebounding percentage at 17.5%, which is a full 1.3% more than 2nd place Mitchell Robinson and 2.3% more than 3rd place Clint Capela.
With Adams on the court this year, Memphis has a +10.4 net rating (96th percentile), 120.1 offensive rating (90th), and a 109.7 defensive rating (92nd), but those numbers drop to +3.0 (71st), 114.6 (48th), and 111.6 (82nd), respectively, when. he’s off. Unsurprisingly, the biggest difference is the Grizzlies' offensive rebounding percentage, which goes from a whopping 36.8% (99th) all the way down to a meager 25.9% (39th).
This has had huge ramifications on the Grizzlies’ second-chance opportunities, as they go from averaging 25.1 putbacks (98th) per 100 missed attempts to just 18 (49th). In other words, they’re missing out on 7 entire putback opportunities when Adams isn’t in the game, which, paired with JJJ’s breakout, might’ve vaulted the Grizzlies’ half-court offense into another stratosphere.
Currently, Adams’ status for the postseason is still unknown. If he’s able to come back and be 100%, I’d be tempted to slot Memphis into the second tier of West contenders alongside Golden State. Without him, though, I think the Grizzlies are likely only able to win one round.
The biggest difference between L.A. and Memphis, then, is that the latter has the potential of making the finals if everything breaks right. Of course, that’s a huge if which is unlikely to happen, and I think a more realistic ceiling for the Grizzlies is making it to the West Finals, while the Lakers should be happy if they advance to the second round.
This week, please check out this PtR roundtable on what we should expect from the Spurs for the rest of the season! Boy, I can’t believe there’s only a week remaining, and I hope everyone’s looking forward to the playoffs.
As always, thanks for reading!
All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.