As I sat watching the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Denver Nuggets, I thought what I could possibly write about, at this point in a season that has long been over. There will be no playoffs, no MVP candidates (or any other type of award), nor anything remotely interesting about these Lakers. Trying to swallow whole the complete defensive collapse happening in Denver (not to mention the game before against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the game before that against the New Orleans Pelicans), Stu Lantz said something that caught my attention greatly, something that summed up this whole Laker season. It was just a passing comment on his part, a simple observation he had made during that current play in the fourth quarter, but it really explains this season as a whole. The Lakers gave up a pretty easy, driving bucket, and he said: "It looks like they are not on the same page".
For me, Lantz has nailed it on the head. Game number 62. Not on the same page (and we're talking defense here). How can a team not be on the same page after 62 games? How can a professional team, who gets paid to play basketball and gets paid to be on the same page, not know the rules of their defensive? When to rotate, how to approach the screen and roll, who's responsible to get back and stop the transition game? There has not been a new coach implemented with a new defensive strategy. Two new players, yes, but that does not change the defensive philosophy of a team. Blame it on the roster of borderline D-League players. Blame it on D'Antoni. Blame it on the injuries. Blame it on Dwight Howard even. We know the Lakers have been awful on defense this year. But what has happened the last three games is something much more disturbing.
The Lakers have found themselves all year in the basement of defensive proficiency among NBA teams; that is no surprise. As I have mentioned, there are a plethora of reasons for that fact; it cannot be pinned on one individual or reason. On the season, the Lakers are giving up, on average, 107.9 PPG. Only the Philadelphia 76ers giver up more points per game. I have been looking over the game by game statistics for this year, and the Lakers have never had a three-game stretch like they are currently going through. In three straight games, they have given up 132, 142, and 134 points. 408 points in 3 games. Really? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, those 408 points given-up match the most allowed points by any NBA team in that span of games over the past 23 seasons (Seattle Supersonics accomplished the feat in 2008). What happened to the Sonics that offseason? They were relocated to OKC. Will the Clippers attempt to take sole possession of Staples Center? Those oversized selfies hanging in the rafters do look nice, I guess.
In all seriousness, I believe that the troubles of the Lakers' defense is not because of their lack of talent on the defensive end. In basketball, the best defenses play defense as a team, as a single unit. Especially in the NBA today, where the players have become so athletic at every position, it is very difficult to guard one on one. The best defensive teams do not necessarily have all of the best defenders, but they play defense together. I think about the Chicago Bulls. Yes, Joakim Noah is an exceptional defender, Jimmy Butler is very good on the perimeter, and they have other decent defensive talent. But Tom Thibodeau has them playing team defense. They play defense as if their lives depended on it. They are the second best defending team in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors? Who is known as a defensive stopper on their team? I'll give you Andre Iguadala, he is fantastic guarding wing players. But after that? Nobody. They have the third highest defensive efficiency in the league. What about the San Antonio Spurs? Same story. Kawhi Leonard is a stopper. Duncan isn't the same anymore. Nobody else stands out on defensive. They are fourth in defensive efficiency. Pop has them playing team defense, and everybody on the team buys into it. It seems like my point is that these teams have one or two outstanding defenders, which makes them greater defensive teams than the Lakers. That is not the point. Would having any of these players mentioned on the Lakers turn them into a defensive-minded team? Absolutely not. Again, back to what Stu Lantz said, they are not on the same page.
Defense is a mentality and a culture. It is completely different in nature than offense. It requires trust. It requires focus. On defense, you do not know what the offense is going to do, generally. On offense, you know exactly what is going to happen, because your team is dictating it (the great defensive teams, by the way, can actually dictate offenses, which is another story). The Lakers, all season long, have not had that mentality or culture to be a great defensive team. The last three games tell me that any small amount of defensive culture that did exist, is gone for the time being. Deciding not to play defense is a slippery slope. Bad habits and laziness develop, which lead to a lost of trust, the essential ingredient to a great defense. At the end of the day, whatever the excuses or reasons, it all leads back to this. However it happens, the Lakers need to find (or create) that defensive hunger, or else their defense will continue to get worse and we will see the streak of 130+ point given up continue. No better time to start playing defense than now for the Los Angeles Lakers, with two games each against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs coming up. Maybe the marketing team can develop a "6th man campaign", similar to the 12th man for the Seattle Seahawks. That seemed to work out nicely.