The Whiteboard: Are the Lakers or 76ers in more trouble?

The Whiteboard: Are the Lakers or 76ers in more trouble?

The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers both went winless in the first week of the NBA season. Which team is in deeper trouble?

The Lakers have been effective on defense, allowing just 103.4 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark in the league. Their offense has just been an absolute disaster.

You’ve probably seen plenty of the ugly 3-point shooting numbers — 25-of-118 (21.2 percent) through three games. Russell Westbrook has been an obvious flashpoint, in part because of his other offensive struggles, but he’s only 1-of-12 from beyond the arc and far from the only Laker struggling.

LeBron James has attempted 27 3s through three games, by far the most on the team. He’s been respectable on pull-ups but just 2-of-11 on catch-and-shoot 3s. Patrick Beverley made 38.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season but has started just 2-of-10. Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker and Kendrick Nunn are all reasonable, if non-elite, outside shooting threats and they’ve hit a combined 6-of-28 catch-and-shoot attempts so far.

But perhaps the most telling stat is this — the Lakers have been attempting 27.7 open or wide-open 3-pointers per game (no defender within four feet of the shooter), tied with the Pacers for the fifth-most in the league. But they’ve made just 19.1 percent, worst in the league and nearly seven percentage points below the next worst team.

As Mat Issa pointed out last week, the Lakers are getting open 3-pointers because their spacing has improved and defenses have been happy to give their shaky shooters room to fire away. But the historically atrocious percentages we’ve seen so far have as much to do with bad luck as they do with shooting skill.

There is no way the Lakers shoot this badly all season long, there is going to be progression to the mean even if they finish in the bottom five in 3-point percentage for the season. They still need to solve their Russell Westbrook problem but, with the way their defense is playing right now, that progression to the mean could be enough to push them out of the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

The Lakers and 76ers are dealing with very different kinds of problems

The 76ers, on the other hand, don’t have quite as clear a set of problems as the Lakers, which makes projecting potential solutions a bit more challenging. Unlike the Lakers, Philadelphia has been bad on both sides of the ball — 24th in both offensive and defensive efficiency at the end of the first week. James Harden has had a pair of fantastic games but an absolute stinker as well, same with Embiid. Harden, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are all averaging more than 20 points per game but Embiid is doing it on what would be the lowest true shooting percentage of his career, by a wide margin, and Maxey has started the season just 5-of-16 from beyond the arc, after hitting 42.7 percent of his 3s a season ago.

As Seth Partnow has pointed out, the 76ers have been extremely dependent on Harden’s creation to start the season, with opportunities shrinking dramatically for Maxey and Tobias Harris.

The 76ers rank in the bottom third of the league in shot quality and are leaning far more on the ability of Joel Embiid and James Harden to make tough shots, rather than their ability to create easy ones for their teammates. For example, Harden dominated the ball in the fourth quarter against the Bucks, scoring 16 points with a pair of assists. However, five of his seven makes in the quarter were contested mid-range pull-ups.

He kept the 76ers in the game but he also reduced their offense to its simplest and easiest-to-defend structure. Harden has led some teams through monstrous regular seasons with that formula, but it’s also been a recipe for postseason collapse and it’s probably not making the best use of a roster that has far more complementary offensive talent than any unit he played with in Houston.

The reports of plantar fasciitis for Embiid are troubling, especially paired with how labored his movement has looked in their first few games. Even if the 76ers smooth out their offensive problems their championship aspirations still rest heavily on their ability to be a strong defense. They have some defensive depth but elite team defense really needs a healthy, engaged and active Embiid in the middle of the floor.

In comparing these two teams, the 76ers have a lot more to work with and probably still finish the season closer to a title than the Lakers do. But their problems might be a lot more complex and take longer to sort out.

— Ian Levy

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