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Lakers

Lakers quantify unselfishness as 300 passes per game

Brandon Ingram, Trevor Booker
Brandon Ingram of the Lakers is fouled by Trevor Booker of the Nets on Tuesday as Lakers Coach Luke Walton looks on.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Unselfishness might be an intangible trait, but it’s one Lakers Coach Luke Walton has learned to quantify.

After each game he coached for the Golden State Warriors, Walton and the rest of the staff got an email that included statistics that were very important to the team’s success.

Number of passes in the game. Number of assists. Hockey assists, the passes that lead to the credited assist.

As Walton has brought that focus on unselfishness to the Lakers, he’s also brought the interest in those numbers. One number in particular. The Lakers, like the Warriors, want to pass the ball at least 300 times per game. It’s a number passed down from Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, and one that’s been an effective predictor of how the Lakers will fare each night.

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“It’s easier in basketball to stand around when you’re tired and hope somebody else can score,” Walton said. “Or if you have the ball to just try to go one on one. It’s an easier way to play. That’s what we’re trying to get away from and we’ve done a good job of it for the most part. … [At Golden State] most nights when we got over 300 we had high assists and we won a lot of ballgames. Even here, the games that we’ve had so far over 300 passes have been some of our better games.”

It was not a hallmark of how the Lakers played last season. They averaged 281.7 passes per game and ranked third to last in the NBA in passes, according to NBA.com, on their way to a 17-65 season. Only the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder passed the ball less.

The habits that deter players from passing the ball are hard to break, so the Lakers’ progress has been incremental. Through 12 games, they average 285 passes per game, which ranks fifth from the bottom. The league average is 301.5 passes per game.

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But they have evidence it works.

So far this season, the Lakers have eclipsed 300 passes four times including in their upset victories over the Houston Rockets and Warriors. They are 3-1 in such games.

“It’s an easy number to hit,” guard Jordan Clarkson said. “Get in the paint, make plays for your teammates, get the guy the open shot, or get the guy who’s open the ball and they shoot it.”

Forward Julius Randle said the feel is more important than the numbers. He can tell on the court when the Lakers are passing the ball enough and when they aren’t.

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Four of their five losses have come when the Lakers made fewer than 300 passes, and consequently scored fewer than 100 points. The Lakers’ 125-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves was the game in which they passed the ball a season-low 252 times.

“I think it’s just common sense,” Randle said. “The team who’s going to move the ball and share the ball and trust each other, not just on the offensive end but on the defensive end, it’s a team who’s probably going to end up winning the game. We see success in that movement, it’s kind of become contagious.”

When they aren’t passing enough, the coaches talk more about the numbers and what they show.

Passing is in Walton’s blood. As a player, his best contribution to the Lakers was his passing ability. With it he created a 10-year NBA career in which he made himself an important part of two Lakers championship teams.

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He knows from experience what benefits unselfishness can reap.

“You have to respect the game of basketball,” Walton said. “… The way we want to see the game and the way I see the game being played and the right way is by being unselfish. It’s by sharing the ball. Making the next open pass.”

Etc.

Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. The award is the country’s highest civilian honor, given to those who have made “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to a White House statement. … The Lakers assigned second-round pick Ivica Zubac to their developmental league team, the D-Fenders. Zubac can be called back any time and will be available for the D-Fenders when they play Rio Grande Valley on Thursday.

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