With an 8-0 start to the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers seemed like they might be poised for a run at history in Phil Jackson's last season. It wasn't just that they were winning, because let's face it, the competition didn't exactly consist of top notch talent, it was the way they were winning. Dominating offense and enough defense to build a big lead, the Lakers led the league in point differential even in spite of their tendency to pull up short of going for the jugular.
Two straight losses (following what would have been a loss to any team in the league not named Minnesota) and the dreams of any kind of large win total are out the window. Instead, we're left to hope that the Lakers can get out of their own way long enough to snag the best record in the league, and left with the realization that even that probably won't happen. There's no shame in losing in Denver, nor is there any shame in losing to one of the best outside shooting displays in the history of the game, but having watched the last three games, all I can think is this.
There's the Lakers I know and
love ... well, I definitely know them.
The big question mark surrounding this team is how in the hell the defense has fallen so far from last season's success. The Lakers currently have a Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 107.5, ranked 15th, and well below the league average of 106.3. Last season, they clocked in at 103.7, good for 4th, even including the late season "meltdown" which saw their defensive rating skyrocket amidst a run of poor form. A four-point swing isn't exactly the end of the world (though it is a very significant difference), but it's completely negating the gains the Lakers have made on the offensive end, where they've jumped from last year's 108.8 OR (good for 11th) to this year's 116.7 OR, far and away the best in the league even after last night's Suns explosion (they would have to do that two more times to be near the Lakers in terms of offensive efficiency). A huge drop in defensive efficiency shadows the huge increase in offensive efficiency? Is anybody foolish enough to believe this is a coincidence?
The major difference between last year's defense and this year's team, as pretty clearly highlighted by Phoenix's long range barrage, is the 3 pt defense. Last season, the Lakers were the best team in the league at defending the 3 pt line, only allowing 32.8% from downtown. This season, they are 8th worst, allowing 38.1% from three. Opponent's three point percentage has shown over time to be one of the least dependable statistics from one year to the next, so there is no guarantee the Lakers were ever going to come close to duplicating last year's amazing performance, but it's clear that closing out on three point shooters hasn't been nearly the focus of the defense that it was last year.
But that's hardly the only problem the Lakers are facing. The other area of the court that finds the Lakers severely lacking is the interior defense. With Andrew Bynum out, it's no surprise the Lakers are suffering a bit inside, but that fails to explain just how much fail the Lakers are providing within 10 feet. The at-rim numbers aren't noticeably different than in 2009-2010, but the Lakers were one of the best teams in the league at stopping shots within 10 feet last season, holding teams to 8 attempts per game, and 40% shooting. This season, they are giving up 16 attempts per game, and 48% shooting, pretty mind boggling differences from last year's team.
Who's to blame? Pau Gasol probably needs to bite the first bullet here. Whether he's conserving energy because of an increased share of the offense, or because he knows with AB out he'll play a lion's share of the minutes in the middle, I don't know, but Pau's defensive effort has certainly been lacking, even if his rebounding is as good as ever. Besides Pau, I don't know of one person who deserves more blame than anybody else, but the team defense is not nearly as cohesive as we might have expected considering that all the new additions to the system are theoretically better defensively than the guys they replaced.
So the only logical conclusion is that team effort is down across the board. Guys aren't closing out the three point line like they should, rotations are slow, awareness needs to get better, and a lot more effort is required in order for the defense to improve. But honestly, considering how well the offense is continuing to play, I don't know that the defense will improve much. The Lakers have been playing this cat-and-mouse game for the entirety of their most recent championship run. If the offense is clicking, the defense goes away. If the offense is off, the defense locks in. It's not a great strategy, and it's certainly not an admirable one, but it is as much a part of the Lakers identity as Jack Nicholson.
Besides, over the past two years, it HAS proven to be a championship winning strategy. Go figure.