LOS ANGELES- A missed rotation on the weak-side. A lack of attention leading to a back cut. Over-helping allowing an opposing player an easy look. All of these errors have been on full display for the Los Angeles Lakers over the last several weeks, and the team chalks up their defensive struggles to one main factor.
"We lacked being vocal tonight on the defensive end, on some of our switches and defensive coverages,” said Lakers forward Brandon Ingram following the team’s 118-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns. "Everyone has to talk, and it's something we're not doing that really hurts us.
“We just left open guys for open shots and they knocked them down."
Ingram was talking about the Suns, however, he could have been summing up just about any Lakers opponent this season. The team did a better job on defense earlier in the year, but over their last 15 games they’ve been outscored by a league-worst 13.4 points per 100 possessions, mostly due to them hemorrhaging a similarly NBA-worst 113.4 points per 100 possessions.
Their struggles over the last few weeks have left the Lakers with the worst defensive rating in the league for the season, even after climbing out of the bottom ten earlier in the year. Still, defense has been a consistent issue for the team.
“We weren't playing defense earlier in the season, either,” said starting power forward Julius Randle. “We were just making a lot of shots.”
The Lakers’ bonfire of an offense has been extinguished with D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young on the bench with injuries. Russell has missed the Lakers’ last 11 games, and while his defensive metrics aren’t good, the 109.4 points per 100 possessions the Lakers’ score while he’s on the floor (which would be the fifth-best offense of any team in the NBA) craters to 99.8 when he’s on the bench (which would be tied for fifth-worst).
Scoring at that rate would leave the Lakers some margin for miscommunication, a peril of youth they can no longer afford.
“It’s not like we don’t have guys that are capable of playing defense. We have so many big, athletic guys who are interchangeable,” Randle said. “It’s not hard. We’ve shown flashes of it, we’ve just got to be more consistent with it."
Head coach Luke Walton rattled off examples of those inconsistencies following the loss to the Suns. There was the team leaving the Suns’ second-best three-point shooter, Jared Dudley, for a wide-open three. Ingram has been one of the Lakers’ best defenders this season, although even he fell prey to a rookie mistake when he went under a screen while guarding Phoenix’s third-best shooter, Brandon Knight.
"That's not on our scouting report, so we had to take him out,” Walton explained. “That's how you coach. You show film, you teach them in practice, and if they still don't do it, you take playing time away."
Walton and Randle thought the Lakers communication was better both on the floor and on the bench against Phoenix, with the injured Russell even jumping up throughout the game to bark and motion for his teammates to talk to each other defensively.
"Defense takes all five guys, or it takes one really loud voice,” Walton said. “We don't have one really loud voice, so we're going to need all five guys to be really locked in."
So far that hasn’t happened, and veteran forward Luol Deng thinks the older players on the Lakers are just as responsible as the young ones.
“I got to keep [communicating], the older guys got to keep doing it, and for these guys it will become a habit,” Deng said. “Some people might just have it, but as a team you develop it together. You start trusting each other, and once you start not talking, you start realizing that something ain't right. Right now we're quiet, which is the norm until we change that.”
Just like their slow starts, it’s something the Lakers will need to change if they want to have any hope of staying afloat in a crowded Western Conference playoff race. If they continue to give up so many defensive leaks, they’re going to sink back towards the bottom of the lottery.
“It's something as a team that we're working on,” Deng said. “I think the guys got to understand that to be a great team you really got to communicate, even sometimes if you're overdoing it. I think you just let everybody know that you got their back out there.”