Can the Los Angeles Lakers Figure out Their Offense Before the Playoffs?

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LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second quarter during an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP)

Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers‘ strengths include a roster featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a top-flight defense and a clinched No. 1 seed in the West, so their weaknesses aren’t always obvious or particularly concerning.

But after sputtering to a 105-86 loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, failing to hold a lead for the first time all season, the Lakers’ shortcomings—principally shooting and secondary playmaking—were both obvious and concerning.

Los Angeles set its season low in scoring, shot 35.2 percent from the field and clanked away even less accurately from deep, making just five of its 37 three-point attempts. The frigid shooting somehow made its way to the foul line, where the Lakers were 19-of-29.

Coming into Wednesday’s tilt, L.A.’s 100.6 offensive rating in the bubble was the worst in the league. The 84.3 points per 100 possessions it managed against OKC aren’t going to help that last-place ranking.

Excuses for the Lakers’ anemic offense abound, starting with the predictable letdown in intensity following Monday’s 116-108 win over the Utah Jazz, which clinched the conference’s top seed. Outside of conditioning and some lineup tinkering, L.A. didn’t have much to gain from its meeting with the Thunder, and its incentives to give full effort will be similarly wanting until the postseason begins.

Don’t discount the impact of that looser-than-usual rotation. Head coach Frank Vogel is using these seeding games to experiment, a reasonable move with JR Smith and Dion Waiters joining up late, Avery Bradley at home, Rajon Rondo injured and Markieff Morris having played just eight games with the team prior to the hiatus. Now is the time to tinker, especially with no seeding implications to worry about.

It’s troubling, though, that no amount of experimentation is likely to unearth the extra knockdown shooter or reliable playmaker L.A. needs. Waiters and Smith are known heat-check chuckers; either could win the Lakers a playoff game with a hot streak, but neither profiles as dependable. Dependability is what Los Angeles needs—and has needed on offense all year.

The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage on looks deemed “open” (defender within four-to-six feet) during the pre-bubble portion of the season. On wide-open threes, they ranked 15th. It’s tempting after games like Wednesday’s to trust those shots will eventually fall. But they haven’t fallen consistently all season, so faith in regression to the mean seems misplaced.

This team isn’t going to brick i