The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2013-2014 season with a lot of things going in their favor. They have one of the most iconic play-making point guards in NBA history, one of the most iconic scorers in NBA history, and probably the most offensively skilled big man in the league today. They also have (supposedly) one of the brightest offensive minds in basketball manning the helm as head coach. It is a formidable collection of offensive talent. And yet, nobody seems to think the Lakers will be any good. Outside the friendly confines of Los Angeles, most experts and fans alike seem to think the Lakers are destined for the bottom rung of the Western Conference playoffs or worse. ESPN's summer forecast, for example, predicted the Lakers would be 12th in the Western Conference alone, one of the six or seven worst teams in the league. How can a team with so much offensive talent be expected to perform so poorly overall? The obvious answer is that basketball is a two way game, and for every positive aspect to consider in regards to the Lakers' offensive potential, there is an equal or larger negative aspect to consider in regards to the defense.
When considering how much the Lakers can achieve defensively in the upcoming season, you need to ask yourself just how much stock to put into the defensive performance of last year's team. There were many people who suggested that the Lakers would struggle defensively, and that their defense would keep them from reaching the heights expected of a team with so much talent. They thought this before the Lakers were beset by significant injuries across their roster, and before the Lakers fired a head coach known for his defensive prowess and hired one known for thinking defense doesn't matter very much. These naysayers were right; at least, they were correct in predicting poor defensive performance from the team. The question then becomes whether these people were right because the Lakers just did not have the personnel to be a good defensive team, or whether they were right because all the other conditions (the injuries, the chemistry) created a situation in which the team could not come together defensively. Why they were right matters a great deal in determining what you think about this year's team.
There can be no mistake; this year's Lakers will not be a good defensive team. Though that statement is an opinion, and therefore by definition incapable of being a fact, it is no less accurate. When pondering the possibilities of the Lakers' defense this season, you are working with a limited selection of possibilities. On the one extreme, you have mediocrity; middle of the pack, not great but not terrible, maybe slightly above average. That is the extreme. That is the absolute best the Lakers can hope to achieve. Mediocrity is their blue ribbon. Slightly above average is their gold medal. The other extreme is a bit more ... drastic. The negative extreme, in which all the things to pin hopes on turn out false and all the reasons why the Lakers appear to be a defensive struggle waiting to happen come true, is that the Lakers might have one of the worst defenses the NBA has ever seen.
The facts, applied without consideration of their circumstances, paint an incredibly ugly picture. Last year, the Lakers were the 20th ranked defense in the league by defensive efficiency. Two thirds of the league played defense better, on average, than the Lakers did. And the most significant personnel differences between this year's team and last year's team were the losses of the Lakers' two best defensive players, two players who, over the course of their careers, have been two of the best defensive players of this generation. Obviously, neither Dwight Howard or Metta World Peace were worthy of such praise last season; between recovering from back surgery and an apparent lack of desire, Dwight Howard was nowhere near the defensive destroyer we expected him to be, and Metta World Peace hasn't been a truly elite defender since, well, since he became Metta World Peace. Still, with defensive net ratings of -5.1 (for Howard) and -3.8 (for Metta), those two players were far and away the team's best defenders amongst the top ten players in the rotation.
Those players are gone now. Metta World Peace's replacements are Wesley Johnson and Nick Young. Wes is rangy, athletic, and a solid defender, but his offensive capability is woeful enough that he might not see much time unless he can find a rhythm on the offensive side of the ball. Nick Young is a lot quicker than Metta was, but his defensive instincts and performance have never been deemed strong. And that's the good news. Dwight Howard's replacement is Chris Kaman; Kaman is not the worst defensive anchor in the world, but he isn't even in the same stratosphere as Dwight Howard, even the version of Dwight the Lakers had. Making matters worse, what Kaman struggles with is the area in which the Lakers need the most help: pick and roll defense. The Lakers struggled to defend the pick and roll last year with Dwight playing major minutes, and Chris Kaman ranked 110th last year as a big man pick and roll defender.
Kaman won't be taking all of Dwight's minutes; in fact, the most direct replacement for Howard is actually Pau Gasol. However, Gasol isn't much better than Kaman at defending the pick and roll at this point. Neither player has the necessary mobility to have an effect on a quick guard coming around a screen without also opening a gaping hole in the defense for his own man to exploit. Gasol and Kaman make up two thirds of the presumptive big man rotation, and unless a fourth big muscles his way into that rotation, Mike D'Antoni will need to choose between giving 10-20 minutes per game to a lineup including both of his mobility-impaired big men, or else going (very) small with Wesley Johnson or Shawne Williams at the 4. Either way, any time Jordan Hill (the only big man with decent athleticism on the roster) is on the bench, the Lakers appear to be a very weak defensive team.
Actually, that is a perfect summation of where the Lakers defense stands heading into the season. Jordan Hill, a man who has never been a consistent starter during his four year career, a man who, statistically at least, has never made his team's defense better (last year, Jordan's net defensive rating was a +3.3), is being lauded as the hinge on which the Lakers' defense swings. Jordan definitely has the capability to be an effective and mobile defender, as Drew Garrison capably pointed out, but he has a lot to prove to even approach deserving the level of responsibility the Lakers seem ready to give him.
Stepping away from the big men, the rest of the roster is a mixed bag of defensive pieces and parts, although the bag is filled with far more bad than good. Nearly all of the holdovers from last year's team should be listed under the "bad" category. Steve Nash is not, and has never been, remotely decent as a defender. He tries as hard as he can, but he just does not have the athleticism necessary to play effective defense in the NBA. Any team that plays him is willingly sacrificing defensive capability because of the magic he provides on the other end of the floor. Steve Blake is a serviceable defender who makes up for a lack of athleticism with strong defensive instincts and a high degree of feistiness. Kobe Bryant still has (or had, we really don't know what we're getting with him athletically this year) the capability to be a good defender, but his defense last year was the worst of anybody on the team, and he will need to prove his commitment to that side of the ball before we give him any credit. Jodie Meeks rounds out the group as a completely invisible defensive presence. He's not bad enough to stand out as being awful, but he sure doesn't help a whole lot.
The new guys bring with them some level of hope because, at the very least, all the new Lakers not named Chris Kaman represent an increase in the athleticism and quickness that is necessary to play good defense. Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Shawne Williams are all in their twenties and have increased foot speed in comparison to the people who played their positions for the Lakers last year. That said, Wesley Johnson stands alone amongst the group as a player whose defense is definitely greater than the sum of his athleticism. In Farmar's previous time in L.A., he was always a poorer defender than he should have been, with bad defensive instincts preventing him from staying in front of his man, even if said man also couldn't stay in front of him (it is possible Farmar has improved defensively since then, I admit I haven't been keeping track). Nick Young has always been too focused on how to launch his next shot to give much thought to his defensive abilities. These players can improve the Lakers' athleticism, which should help the Lakers overall team defense (especially in transition), but only Johnson stands out as a particularly able defender, and as previously mentioned, his offense is bad enough that he might not be a net positive on the team, no matter how well he plays D.
So that's all the bad news, and it is A LOT of bad news. What is the good news? The good news is that last year's terrible defensive performance had enough mitigating circumstances so as to possibly not be particularly useful as a benchmark for this year's team. Between everybody's injuries and the obvious chemistry issues involving Dwight Howard, there is evidence that last year's defensive weakness was about more than just limited personnel. In that context, losing Dwight doesn't just mean losing the best defender on last year's poor defensive team. It also means losing one of the primary components in causing the Lakers to not play the right way together. The Lakers should have an increased spirit this season. Expectations are lower and everybody left will be looking to move on from the disaster of last season. Combine that with a (seemingly) renewed focus on defense in training camp, including the re-hire of Kurt Rambis (who basically created the strong side zone that Phil Jackson used so effectively during the last championship run) as a defensive assistant coach, and the Lakers are at least paying lip service to addressing what looks to be a major weakness on paper. Those elements alone might lead to an improved defensive performance.
Another possible positive factor, one that could be paramount if the Lakers are to actually improve defensively, could be an increased level of comfort on the offensive side of the ball. As Actuarially Sound pointed out on Monday, the Lakers were actually a solid defensive team last year on possessions in which they were able to get set. Where they were destroyed last season was in their inability to prevent points in transition. That destruction was two fold: The Lakers were one of the worst teams in the league in giving up points per transition opportunity, and they were also one of the worst teams in the league in providing transition opportunities through turnovers and a general inability to get back even after rebounds and made shots. In this respect, the Lakers really can expect to improve. For one thing, Dwight Howard and his three turnovers a game are gone. For another, one of the reasons the Lakers struggled with turnovers last season was due to their inconsistent offensive strategy; at the start of the season, Mike D'Antoni was trying to do a mid-season training camp to get his team adjusted to his system. By the end of the year, the Lakers were just giving the ball to Kobe and letting him orchestrate things as best he could. Add in the five game experiment with the Princeton offense prior to Mike Brown's firing, and the Lakers were running either three or four offenses last season. That leads to confusion, and confusion leads both to turnovers and to poor floor balance to assist in transition defense if something goes wrong.
This year, the Lakers will have no offensive excuses. Steve Nash is healthy, Mike D'Antoni has a full training camp, and his bench has gotten just enough of an upgrade athletically so as to be more capable of getting back on D. There should be less turnovers, and there should be less punishment for turnovers and missed shots. If the Lakers can make tangible improvements in their transition defense, they may end up a better defensive team than they were last year, even with the departure of Dwight Howard.
That is the best case scenario; improved offensive efficiency, team spirit and athleticism leading to an improved transition defense, counter balancing any losses to set defense caused by losing Dwight Howard. The worst case scenario is that last year's team was bad at defense because their players were bad at defense, and this year's team can be much, much worse. An injury to Jordan Hill, or the further significant decline of the many old players who still make up the bulk of the Lakers rotations in both the front and back courts, could easily cause the Lakers to fall further into the defensive abyss. One thing seems certain in regards to the Lakers defense; either last year was the nightmare, and this year we get to wake up and realize things aren't quite so grim as they appear, or else last year was real, and the nightmare is just beginning.