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The Los Angeles Lakers Can Defend Just Fine When They Want To

Seven games (and seven wins) into the 2010-2011 season, the Los Angeles Lakers have had a nice little run of success. They are atop the league with a 7-0 record (New Orleans is also undefeated but with one fewer game to their credit), and they have the highest point differential in the league, winning games by an average of 13.7 points. Their offense has been all the rage, and deservedly so. After another virtuoso performance last night, the Lakers are miles in front of the rest of the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 118.3 points per 100 possessions. The second-ranked team, the Atlanta Hawks, clock in with a 114.9 Offensive Rating, and third-place Phoenix is another large dropoff away at 111.5. Credit a team-first mentality across the entire roster (as evidenced in part by both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol earning a triple-double in the past week) and a massive uptick in three-point shooting that may or may not be a mirage. The ball movement alone is such a jaw-dropping improvement over last year's squad that I firmly believe, despite the small sample size, that the Lakers' offense has taken permanent residence among the league's elite.

So what about the defense?

Last year, a suffocating defense was the calling card of the Lakers' championship pedigree. They used a great D to make up for a mediocre offensive performance. This year's team has yet to reach that level on a consistent basis, and Phil Jackson would lead you to believe it's a cause for concern where there are few others. I remain unconvinced, and after a deep dig into the team's defensive numbers, it seems clear to me that last year's defensive juggernaut still exists, lying just under the surface.

First off, the Lakers aren't exactly performing poorly on the defensive end as is. They rank 10th in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 104.3, and that rating has been compiled against some of the better offensive teams in the league (Houston, Phoenix, Portland and Sacramento are all in the top eight). So even without interpretation or extrapolation, one could easily call the Lakers a solid defensive team. But are they elite?

If you know anything about the Lakers' mentality, you see the signs of an elite defense within the overall "above average" label. We all know the Lakers aren't about working any harder than they have to. It's true this season, it was true last season, and it's been true of just about every championship-quality version of this team since the late '90s. They just don't believe in all-out effort when it isn't needed. Hell, they don't believe in all-out effort when it is needed some of the time, and that has caused (and will cause) a few losses here and there.

So where am I seeing this "elite" defense? In the first quarter. The Lakers play far better D in the first quarter than in any other quarter of the game, and I don't think it's a coincidence.

Throwing out opening night against Houston (for obvious focus issues attributed to ring night), the Lakers have held four out of their six opponents at or below a point per possession in the first quarter, and three of the four well below 1.00 PPP. (FYI, the only difference between PPP discussed here and Offensive Rating" used earlier is a couple decimal places. If you want to stick with one system, just multiply PPP by 100.) The two games that don't fit in were both of the Lakers' road games, against the Suns and Kings, and in both cases the Lakers used a strong second quarter of defense to take control of the game.

   Q1  Q2  1st Half  Through  Q3 Q3 Q4 2nd Half  Game Opp. ORR Rank
v. Hou  1.32  1.16 1.24  1.11 0.83 1.04 0.94  1.09 4
@ PHX  1.08  0.96 1.02  1.08 1.21 1.29 1.24  1.13 3
v. GSW  0.67  0.89 0.79  0.89 1.08 0.79 0.94  0.86 12
v. MEM  1.00  1.05 1.02  1.09 1.20 1.12 1.16  1.09 23
@ SAC  1.50  0.83 1.15  1.11 1.04 0.92 0.98  1.08 8
v. TOR  0.80  1.46 1.14  1.07 0.91 1.04 0.98  1.06 16
v. PDX  0.61  1.00 0.80  0.96 1.27 1.23 1.25  1.03 7
 Average  1.00  1.05 1.02  1.04 1.08 1.06 1.07  1.05  

Look, even the disclaimers of small sample size need disclaimers of small sample size here. We're taking an already small sample, and looking at a small sample of that small sample, so the statistics do not make a particularly compelling case all by themselves. This could very easily just be statistical noise. But the stats are also right in line with what we've seen from this team over the past couple seasons: a strong initial effort builds a big lead, and then the team relaxes the defensive shackles a bit. The numerical difference between this year's team and last year's team is that, because of a vastly superior offense this go-round, slacking off defensively hurts the Lakers far less than it has in the past. 

When last year's squad let up defensively, the other team invariably got back in the game by going on a significant run. When this year's version takes their collective foot off the throttle defensively, it's usually the best an opponent can do to simply try to keep pace with the NBA's best offense.

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