ANTHONY DAVIS SIZED up a 3-point shot from the top of the key. Before he could even begin his shooting motion, a jeer cut across the Crypto.com court from an aisle seat a few rows behind the basket.
“Stop shooting 3s!”
“AD! Take it to the hole!”
After another second-half possession that came up empty — Juan Toscano-Anderson launched one of the 36 errant 3s the Los Angeles Lakers hoisted in their home opener against the LA Clippers — the voice, again, paused his chat with an old pal to marvel at the miss.
“Where’d he play? GSW? He should be able to shoot.”
Lamar Odom wasn’t wrong.
Hardly considered a sniper in his day, Odom’s career 31.2% clip from 3 would make him a go-to guy from beyond the arc on this season’s Lakers team.
What Odom observed from Section 114 has become painfully obvious from both inside and outside the organization.
The Lakers couldn’t connect from the outside last season — ranking 22nd in 3-point percentage. And they didn’t fix the problem in the offseason, failing to bring in the type of top-tier shooters who have traditionally helped LeBron James‘ game thrive.
After the Lakers went 10-for-40 from 3 in a 14-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on opening night, James stated as much.
“I mean, to be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting,” James said. “And that’s just what the truth of the matter is. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”
His blunt take was interpreted by many to be directed at the Lakers’ front office to upgrade the shooting that surrounds him.
But it wasn’t like the Lakers were denying their marksmanship makeup.
“I think in terms of shooting,” Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said on media day, “that’s a needed skill. Some of that can come from the outside, by additional roster moves or roster moves throughout the season.”
THE FIRST FOUR games of the season were historically bad. L.A. shot 33-for-148 from 3 through its 0-4 start. That 22.3% mark was the worst by any team to attempt at least 125 3-pointers in any four-game span in NBA history.
There are plenty of culprits. Through the first nine games of the season, two of the Lakers’ starters — Troy Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV — were shooting under 33% from 3. And the three other starters — James, Davis and Patrick Beverley — were shooting sub-25%.
Not to mention Russell Westbrook, who shot 1-for-12 in three games as a starter, before finding a better rhythm in his first five games off the bench (10-for-22).
It’s a perplexing team composition to see for those who’ve had championship success by providing shooting around James in the past.
The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers averaged nearly as many 3s per game in the playoffs as the heralded Splash Brothers-led Warriors (12.3 compared to 12.8 for Golden State) and shot them at a better clip (40.6% compared to 39.3%). The Cavs were even better in the 2017 postseason when they lost to Golden State in the Finals, making 14.2 3s per game while shooting 42% from deep.
Channing Frye, now an NBA analyst with Turner Sports, was one of those designated gunners, shooting a ridiculous 56.5% from 3 in the 2016 playoffs and 51.3% in 2017.
“Our job on that 2016 team was to make sure those fools did not get double-teamed,” Frye told ESPN, affectionately referring to the Cavs’ primary playmakers in James and Kyrie Irving. “And we had the opportunity. We got the green light to shoot 50,000 3s. It was awesome.”
Without the pressure-release valve that shooters create by keeping the defense attached to the perimeter, Frye sees James — now a 20-year veteran and turning 38 next month — forced to play a stressful brand of basketball.
“Right now, LeBron is thinking for everyone instead of just being LeBron,” Frye said. “And it’s just like, damn. You just want to see him be able to just — I don’t want to say relax, not relax — but to be sort of one-dimensional. Do you need him as point guard? Do you need him as off guard? Where do you need him? And he does that.
“Not like, ‘Hey, LeBron … we just need you to do a little bit of everything.'”
From 2013-14 to 2020-21, James’ teammates shot 38.2% on 3s off his passes, according to Second Spectrum data. Through the Lakers’ first nine games this season, his teammates shot 34.9% on 3s from his feeds but only 27.5% on wide-open 3s directly from a James pass. It’s hard to believe his passes suddenly stopped meeting his mantra of being “on time, on target.” This year’s Lakers so far are just … off.
Sometime in the first quarter during the Lakers’ Oct. 26 road loss to the Denver Nuggets, while L.A. was busy bricking seven of its first nine attempts from deep en route to an 8-for-30 night, ex-Laker Kyle Kuzma chimed in on Twitter with a not-so-subtle jab.
Get hard shooting under bright lights!
— kuz (@kylekuzma) October 27, 2022
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who teamed up with James to win a title with the Lakers in 2020, said that the more shooting you put around the four-time MVP then, the less he looks for his own 3-point shot. Not that James hasn’t improved from the outside as his career has progressed, but even with him making a personal-best 2.9 triples per game last season on a respectable 35.9% clip, he shot 79.6% on shots at the rim.
And James ended up taking 448 shots beyond the arc versus 397 shots around the iron last season.
“The spacing was great,” Caldwell-Pope told ESPN before the Oct. 26 Lakers-Nuggets game about his time with James in L.A. “The spacing gives driving lanes for Bron and AD, where Bron didn’t like to shoot as much 3s. So it gives him driving lanes, and when he does see the help, he’s a tremendous passer and he would find us.”
Like Frye, Caldwell-Pope said he hopes James is set up to be the best version of himself as he goes through the twilight of his career.
“Just watching the games, it just looks like there’s no basketball over there,” Caldwell-Pope said. “It’s just playing pickup. It’s hard to watch sometimes. So from me to him, just get the team together, and I just want to see that spark in him again. I don’t think I see that spark in Bron. So, hopefully, he can get it back.”
PELINKA ENGAGED IN several trade conversations during the offseason in an attempt to acquire players with elite range to complement James. A Kyrie Irving deal was discussed with the Brooklyn Nets, with Joe Harris included in one iteration; L.A. and Indiana went back and forth about a deal that would have brought 40% career 3-point shooter Buddy Hield and center Myles Turner to the purple and gold; the Lakers and Utah Jazz put together multiple proposals that could have landed L.A. shooting from the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley.
The conversations fizzled and L.A. pivoted, opting to enter the season with its core in place and give Darvin Ham a chance to coach the group how he pitched during the interview process: a defense and transition-based mode of attack — fast, free and physical — as Ham calls it.
Without a trade, the Lakers worked around the margins. A couple of weeks before training camp, it invited a small group of free agents — including Dwayne Bacon, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Muhammad, John Jenkins, Isaiah Thomas and Miye Oni — to scrimmage and potentially earn a training camp spot.
Matt Ryan, who played one game with the Boston Celtics last season after toiling away as a food delivery driver and cemetery worker hoping for his shot at the big time, ended up standing out.
The 25-year-old forward earned a camp invite. “It was guard-heavy one day and then a bunch of the guys played the next day,” Ryan told ESPN. “That’s when I played my best, when the guys on the team were there, and I think they probably recognized that.”
In the preseason, he earned a partially guaranteed deal to be on the opening-day roster thanks in large part to a 20-point outburst on 6-for-9 shooting from 3 in a victory over Golden State — the Lakers’ only win of the preseason.
“Bringing me and seeing the roster, it was fairly obvious that one of the big needs was shooting,” Ryan said. “So if I can go in and make a good impression with my shooting, then I had a shot. And I did that during the free agent week and again during training camp, and made some shots during the preseason. I’m very fortunate they kept me around.”
And the Lakers were fortunate to have him against the New Orleans Pelicans a couple of weeks into the season. Ryan caught a cross-court inbounds pass with 1.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter, maneuvered his feet behind the arc while avoiding the out-of-bounds line and swished a game-tying 3 to beat the buzzer and send it to overtime.
“So, I don’t want to sound cocky at all, but like I was able to get my feet down and get a shot off,” Ryan said when asked to rate the degree of difficulty on the shot. “For any shooter, that’s all you can ask for.”
As inspiring as Ryan’s story is, L.A. leaning on a guy with only five minutes of playing time in his NBA career prior to this year to solve its shooting dilemma was telling.
Ham identifies himself as an optimist, but some of his declarations for the 3-point potential of his team straddle the line between determination and delusion. Davis shot 18.6% from 3 in 2021-22, and Ham has repeatedly said he wants the big man to attempt the most 3s in a season he ever has this year. The Lakers had that anemic start as a team from the outside, and Ham’s solution was wanting the team to keep shooting 40 3-pointers a game. Center Damian Jones had just 43 3-point attempts in his six-year career coming into this season, but Ham even gave Jones the green light from distance during the preseason. “I have all the trust in the world in it,” Ham said of Jones’ jump shot. “If I have Robin Lopez making 3s [when he coached him with the Milwaukee Bucks], I’m sure I can make Damian Jones make 3s.”
When the Lakers finally broke through with their first win of the season on Oct. 30 against the Nuggets, unsurprisingly, it coincided with their best 3-point-shooting performance — by far.
L.A. went 13-for-30 from deep (43.3%) and their rally from down eight late in the third quarter to taking control through the start of the fourth was completely fueled by the 3-ball. During the Lakers’ 20-2 run, Walker and Ryan connected on two triples apiece, marking the first time all season L.A. managed to make four 3s in a row — a remarkable accomplishment for a team that already had a stretch of 18 straight missed 3s in the early part of the schedule.
Afterward, Davis revealed that this time he was the one imploring a Lakers player not to let it fly from 3.
“Lonnie hit the pull-up 3 on the right wing across from their bench,” Davis said. “I actually went to him and I said, ‘Even though you made it, it’s an iffy shot.’ I didn’t want us to fall in love with it to where we’re shooting bad shots.”
— ESPN Stats & Info contributed research for this article.