In describing the Los Angeles Lakers accomplishments on the defensive end last season, 83-79 is the only statement you need. In the last game of the season, on dead tired legs, the Lakers won a game in which they barely topped 80 points. They out-defensed one of the better defensive teams of the past 20 years.
That strong defensive performance didn't exactly materialize out of thin air, mind you. The Lakers performed plenty well on that end of the court all year long. Driven by the addition of Ron Artest, who's tenacity and hunger galvanized his teammates' effort, the Lakers spent most of the season at or near the top of the league in overall defense. It wasn't until that late season swoon that the Lakers began to look vulnerable on the defensive end, and throughout the year, it was the Lakers defense, and not the offense, that was leading the charge.
So what does the team do for an (2nd) encore? Only improve at most positions (and maintain status quo everywhere else). Every one of the Lakers 5 off-season acquisitions is a defensive upgrade over the player who has been replaced. Last year, the Lakers strong defense was purely a product of their strong starting 6 (LO included). Now? The 2nd unit isn't as strong defensively as the 1st unit, but it's like walking down a flight of steps instead of dropping off a cliff. Let's take a look, position by position, at how the Lakers stack up defensively.
Bad news first. The lead guard is far and away the Lakers weakest defensive position. Individually, calling Derek Fisher a sieve would be compliment. Instead, he's just 4 pieces of wood nailed together with a big hole where the screen should be. Never the quickest guy, Fisher has no hope of staying in front of the quicker guards in the league. Most of the time the Lakers looked poor defensively last year, it was because a lead guard was burning Fish. Steve Blake is an improvement, but he's not what you would call a strong individual defender.
So why am I not concerned? It could be because both of these guys are much better within a team system than they are when left on an island. They are both smart dudes who know where they should be in help situations. Fish may be as slow as molasses, but he's got great strength, which allows him to match up quite well with the lead guards who list strength as their primary attribute (see Williams, Deron, and Billups, Chauncey). It could be because Steve Blake should be an improvement over Jordan Farmar, who could never translate his above average athleticism into above average defense. What Blake lacks in Farmar's foot-speed, he more than makes up for with better defensive instincts and more consistent work rate. But the main reason I'm not worried about how bad the Lakers are defensively at the point guard position? Because it's the same situation the Lakers were in last year defensively, and that didn't stop them from putting together a top 3 defense. Generally speaking, when a point guard gets past his defender, he can wreak havoc with everyone else, easily finding an open shot or hit his teammate for an easy bucket. Last year, the lead guard could generally get past his man at will, but the wreaking of havoc was far less common place, because the Lakers have a strong defensive system, and tons of ability all over the rest of the court.
(Added Bonus: I might want anybody in the league to replace Derek Fisher when it comes to 1 v 1, but there is no defender in the league I'd rather have when it comes to 1 v 3.)
When you've got the Mamba, that's all that matters. Kobe Bryant is one of the best defenders in the league, and when he's not saving his energy for the other end of the court (an evil which is sometimes necessary), there isn't a 2 guard in this league who can do a better job of shutting down his man. Kobe's one defensive flaw is a tendency to roam, looking for steals and big plays, but year in and year out, as long as he can afford to give it his best effort, Kobe's defense is as good as it gets.
His backups provide a steep drop off. Both Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown have the tools to be strong defensive players, but neither one seems capable of using those tools correctly, for completely different reasons. The over simple way to think about it is that Sasha tries to hard while Shannon doesn't try hard enough. Vujacic just can not avoid getting called for cheap fouls while attempting to play the "pesky, annoying" defensive persona he's chosen for himself. Meanwhile, despite good speed and tremendous jumping ability, Brown's defensive instincts are about as poor as they come. The next screen he goes over instead of under will be the first, and he should have the words "Don't leave the shooter" tattooed to his hands so that he never forgets. Brown will likely get most of the time here, and he's just a couple simple lessons away from being a more than adequate defensive replacement.
If you are an opposing small forward looking forward to a game against the defending champs, you might as well call in sick, because you won't have much chance to succeed. The Lakers have the best defensive tandem at this position in the league. Ron Artest could nearly make that statement true by himself. Artest has long been known as one of the best defenders in the league, and is the only perimeter player to win the Defensive Player of the Year award since Gary Payton did it in 1995. He combines tremendous strength with the foot speed to stay with just about anybody, and he's got super quick hands to boot.
Backing him up is new addition Matt Barnes, and while Barnes' defensive reputation outlives his defensive performance, there is a reason why that reputation exists. He is certainly an above average defender for the position, and his versatility in being able to guard multiple positions will allow the coaching staff to have at least two superior perimeter defenders at all times if they see fit. 3rd and 4th string don't matter much, but just for kicks, Luke Walton seems like he should be a very limited defender, and he's certainly not strong in that area, but I'm always impressed with how his man rarely seems to be able to take advantage of him. Meanwhile, Devin Ebanks shouldn't see any non garbage time this season, but his defense won't be the reason for that. Ebanks is big, long, and quick, and has the look of a guy who could end up starting for a team in the NBA even if his offense never comes around, because his defense can be that good.
I'm combining these two positions because our personnel demands it. Pau Gasol is neither power forward or center. He is simply big #1, and he can play where-ever and against whom-ever is best for his playing partner. Pau is the ultimate example of knowing your limitations and performing to your peak. He's not a great shot blocker (just about every block he gets is more a result of someone throwing a shot into his hands/arms instead of actively seeking the block), he's not the strongest dude either. His one significant weakness is that a quick big man can attack him in one on one situations with success (as Amar'e Stoudemire did in the Western Conference Finals). That said, he's rarely out of position, he's very good at stepping over to block off the lane, and he's one of the best in the league at contesting (not blocking) shots without fouling. Despite his athletic limitations, you could do far worse as the anchor to your defense.
You could also do better, and when health allows it, the Lakers can, in the form of Andrew Bynum. Where Pau succeeds defensively by maximizing the effectiveness that he's capable of, Andrew Bynum has vast stores of defensive potential just waiting to be tapped. Big Drew is every bit the stereotypical center of the defense. Those long arms attached to a 7 foot frame that can get good explosion off the floor means that Drew is capable of big block numbers, and he alters even more shots than he actually prevents. He has also displayed the foot speed to adequately hedge on the pick and roll. Unfortunately, Drew still has much to learn on the defensive end of the ball. He has a penchant for picking up quick fouls, and his shot blocking ability is much lower than it should be, because he is still learning where to be positioned and how to take the best angles. His injuries have also reduced his athleticism (some of the loss is temporary, but not all of it, I fear) so he can no longer explode off the floor like the same version of himself circa 2008. If healthy, however, there is no doubt that the Lakers' best defensive alignments have him at the center of the defensive universe.
And then there's Lamar Odom. Lamar may be the most underrated defender in all the land. He's got all the tools you could ask for; great agility and foot-speed, strength, long arms. And he uses those tools to great effect. He doesn't do the types of things to get you notice or defensive acclaim, doesn't pile up blocks or pick up a bunch of steals. Instead, Lamar's defensive body of work contains all the little things that nobody talks about. He plays pick and roll defense better than anybody, and his help defense is simply spectacular. Kelly Dwyer once called Lamar the best help defender in the league. I have no idea whether he's right or not, but just being in that conversation tells you all you need to know about Lamar. He is by far the best interior defender on the Lakers.
Behind the big three, we have Theo Ratliff and Derrick Caracter cleaning up the garbage time and foul-induced spot duty. At opposite ends of the time line, Caracter still needs to learn all the lessons there are to be learned, while Ratliff knows all the lessons, but has a body that prevents him from utilizing them. Ratliff is certainly an improvement over the man he replaced, the lovable DJ Mbenga. Mbenga's effort on defense was always unquestioned, but Ratliff knows how to harness that effort without picking up fouls. He's well past his prime, but 37YOTR can definitely still hold the defensive fort far better than most for 10-12 minutes a night if needed.
Overall team defensive concept
The Lakers will likely alternate between the Strong Side Zone defense they've become known for and a more traditional man to man defense, depending both on their own and their opponents' personnel. Their defensive ideology is founded on a few simple principles: Force the opponents away from the middle of the floor, don't give up threes, and don't foul. The bigs usually do a great job of responding to a perimeter drive by simply getting as big as they can, which cuts down on their fouls a lot.
The SSZ has proven to be a strong ally over the past two seasons for the Lakers. It calls for the perimeter defenders to overplay their man to one side, forcing him to go towards either sideline. Then, once a strong side (the side with the ball) is created, the big man shades over from the weak side, leaving only one weak side defender who generally sits right on top of the lane. The Lakers have the length to prevent lobs over the top, so the only real way to beat the defense is to play a skip pass from the strong side to the weak side. When applied correctly against teams that aren't prepared for it, the SSZ can result in some truly impressive defensive displays, like the game last season in which the Lakers allowed the Utah Jazz just 6 4th quarter points.
Best defensive lineup
Kobe Bryant - Matt Barnes - Ron Artest - Lamar Odom - Andrew Bynum
Utilizing both Kobe Bryant's and Matt Barnes' defensive versatility, this lineup would have Kobe guarding the lead guard (as he's done to great effect against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo), and Barnes guarding the 2. This is a truly fearsome and formidable defensive lineup, with 3 guys who are among the best in the league, and two others who are above average defenders. The lineup lacks a bit of offensive balance, but it might not matter because the other team would find it difficult to score at all.
If you combine last year's performance with this year's personnel improvements, there is no reason not to expect the Los Angeles Lakers to compete for the best defense in the league this year. Most importantly, there should be far less difference between the defensively superior first unit and the 2nd unit. Last season, the 2nd unit's defense was so poor that they often allowed teams to reduce or remove all of the deficit inevitably created by the starters, but this year the 2nd unit is just another wave of defensive assault. With the Celtics relying on the defensively limited O'Neals, and Barnes' defection from Orlando, the Lakers should certainly have the best defense amongst the league's elite.