Lakers Defense 2009-10 to 2010-11

Last week I outlined how the Lakers could make a run at the record 72 wins by the Bulls. It is only appropriate to see ESPN's J.A. Adande (who use to write for the LA times and covered the Lakers for years) write a brief article in today's Daily Dime discussing the very same idea after last nights dismantling of a solid Portland team. The main take-away from Adande's piece is that the Lakers are functioning on offense in a very efficient manner that is reflective of the talent level and cohesiveness of a core that has been together for a few years now. A less subtle point is made regarding the Lakers defense. Adande states that the Lakers are "in the middle of the league when it comes to points allowed" and even echo's Phil Jackson's statements when asked to compare this current Lakers team with the 72 win Bulls, "Not the same defensively... we have a lot of offensive prowess." While this Lakers team may not be the same defensive juggernaut the 1995-96 Bulls were, their defense has actually been on par with last season's championship team that many will say won based on what it accomplished on the defensive end.

10 Most Efficient Offenses
Team Season Off. Eff.
LAL 2010-11 118.3
LAL 1986-87 115.6
CHI 1991-92 115.5
BOS 1987-88 115.4
PHO 2009-10 115.3
CHI 1995-96 115.2
ORL 1994-95 115.1
DAL 1986-87 114.9
ATL 2010-11 114.9
SEA 1994-95 114.8

In my previous post regarding what it would take for the Lakers to threaten the 72 win plateau the requirements were that the Lakers would need their offensive efficiency to return at least to the levels it was at in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons and their defensive efficiency to continue to improve slightly. Given what the Lakers have exhibited on offense so far I don't see them having any problems reaching the first requirement barring any significant injuries. In fact, this Lakers squad looks like they will likely finish with an even higher offensive efficiency than those two earlier Lakers teams and may even threaten to become the most efficient offensive team in history (see sidebar). Obviously it is very early in the season to be drawing conclusions but I think most people would agree that the offense should not be a problem.

It is the other side of the ball that people are discussing as the only flaw the Lakers have exhibited so far this season. The Lakers are giving up just over 100 points per game and are ranked 13th in the league in that statistic. The primary issue has been the Lakers inability to grab defensive rebounds where they currently rank 25th in the NBA allowing the opposition to get an offensive rebound on almost 29% of their attempts. At first glance it would appear that the Lakers are indeed just an average defensive team and that would be a significant drop off from last year's team which finished 4th in defensive efficiency. However, digging a little deeper into the numbers yields some very interesting results.

Currently the Lakers are giving up 3.4 more points per game but this is a little misleading due to pace. The Lakers are currently playing at a much faster pace than last year. The Lakers averaged 92.8 possessions per game last season but this season they have increased that number to 96.3. If we look at the defensive efficiency (points given up per 100 possessions) we see that the Lakers defense is only giving up 0.6 more points per 100 possessions. This translates into roughly 0.5 points per game. Obviously an increase, but a very marginal one at that.

So what is driving the 0.5 point increase in the defensive efficiency? The answer is the defensive rebounding problem that was previously alluded to. Before continuing, here is a table showing various Lakers defensive statistics on a per possession basis.

2009-10 0.330 0.685 0.481 0.068 0.207 0.328 0.174 0.232 0.750 0.077 0.054 0.151 0.119
2010-11 0.331 0.719 0.460 0.068 0.196 0.348 0.177 0.231 0.763 0.088 0.043 0.156 0.141

Let's dig into these numbers a little bit.

Two Point Field Goals- Looking at the two-point field goal information (2PM, 2PA, 2P%), the Lakers oppostion has increased the number of two point attempts per possession from 0.685 to 0.719. However the Lakers have held the opposition to a lower two-point field goal percentage this season (46.0% relative to 48.1% last year) and so the result has been the opposition making a similar number of two-point field goal attempts per possession as last season (0.331 relative to 0.330).

Three Point Field Goals - Three point field goals have been the opposite story as two-point field goals. The Lakers opposition has taken fewer of them per possession but made them at a slightly higher rate with the end result being no change in the number of three point attempts made by the opposition per possession.

Free Throws - The Lakers are giving up virtually the same number of free-throw attempts per possession as they did last year. The opposition has made a higher percentage this year though. I don't believe the Lakers are playing any worse when it comes to "free throw defense" so I am almost certain this is a result of small sample size more than anything else.

Steals - The Lakers have actually increased the number of steals per possession this season relative to last year. I think this has been a result of the Lakers wing players puting more pressure on the ball (Artest and Barnes) while the Lakers utilize their speed to jump passing lanes from the weakside (Kobe, Brown, and Odom).

Blocks - The Lakers have blocked slightly fewer shots per possession than last season. The reason for this is likely the absence of Andew Bynum, one of the better shot blockers in the league.

Turnovers - The Lakers have forced slightly more turnovers per possession than they did last season. I believe this corresponds to the increased number of steals from the pressure the wings have put on the perimeter ball handlers of the opposition.

Offensive Rebound Rate - This is the key statstic with regards to the change in Lakers defense relative to last year. Last year the opposition grabbed an offensive rebound on only 11.9% of the possessions but this year they are grabbing them at over 14%. It is because of this that the opposition has attempted more shots per possession than they did last year despite having more turnovers. Andrew Bynum being out of the line-up is certainly a contributing factor and when he returns this statistic will likely improve, however their is another reason that explains the difference and it is very simple:

The Lakers have been unlucky in the sense that they have basically played the best offensive rebounding teams in the league. Here are the Lakers opponents and where they currently rank in offensive rebounding in the league: Toronto (1st), Golden State (2nd), Portland (3rd), Phoenix (6th), Sacramento (7th), Houston (14th), and Memphis (16th). That's right, the Lakers have played 5 of the top 7 offensive rebounding teams and when you consider the Lakers are actually 4th themselves they really played 5 of the top 6 other teams in the league. It makes sense that the Lakers defensive rebounding numbers would take a slight hit going against the teams that excel in grabbing offensive rebounds. If I adjust the Lakers defensive rebounding percentage for the ability of the opposition to grab an offensive rebound the result is the Lakers defensive rebounding is virtually identical to last season's team.

So the three areas the Lakers defense is doing worse this season relative to last season is blocks, opponents free throw percentage, and defensive rebounding. The first one will likely be corrected when Bynum returns. The second will work itself out in the long run. And the third will improve when the Lakers face teams that are less skilled at grabbing their own missed shots. In the end, I don't see any areas of the defense where the Lakers have truly regressed. In fact, I believe they have actually improved in a few areas (2P FG% and Turnovers especially).

In summary, the Lakers defense is actually doing quite well and is performining very similarly to the defense that was ranked 4th in the league a season ago. With Bynum's return to help clog the lane and the continued pressure on the perimeter from the better wing defenders this Lakers team has real shot at being a better defensively than last year. If that happens and this Lakers offense continues to be efficient (even if not record breaking efficient) this Lakers team could post a net efficiency differential of over 12 points per 100 possessions and challenge the Bulls 72 wins. All this while no player is averaging over 37 minutes per game!