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The Lakers’ drastically improved defense is the key to their success

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Luke Walton’s demanding defensive commitment from his team is paying off already.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers are an even .500 after the first 10 games of the season, picking up their play drastically over the last two weeks. They’ve won three of their last four outings, looking like an actual professional basketball organization as the group jells at a rapid pace. It’s a stark contrast to previous seasons.

Much of the talk surrounding the team Lakers’ early-season performance has been about pace, but everything comes back to defense for head coach Luke Walton. Anyone who’s been listening to the message coming out of Los Angeles knows this, and Walton likes what he sees brewing from his squad so far.

“The winning part of it gives them confidence in the fact of what we're preaching, as far as defense gives you a chance to win every night. Whether we win that game or lose that game at the end of the night, when we're playing aggressive like that, and we're defending like that, and we're communicating like that, we're in the game, which is not easy at this level,” Walton said.

It hasn’t hurt that, on the other end of the rainbow of their defensive effort, the pot of gold is beginning to contain wins.

“It shows them first hand what that messaging is all about.”

The Lakers’ offense is still unrefined at its core, something Walton acknowledged following their win over the Memphis Grizzlies. The orders coming down from the coaching staff have been to turn defensive success into easy baskets in transition, something we’re starting to see more often as the Lakers continue finding their stride:

“To me the most impressive thing is the effort we're getting right now, every single time we play the game. Whether it was up in Portland in a tough environment, tonight [against Memphis] having a big lead, and then having to hold onto it for dear life.

“The fact that every night we're finding ways to compete, and bringing the energy level, and defending, 10 games in I wouldn't have thought honestly we were ready to start doing that. It's nice that we seem to be able to carry that on a little bit,” Walton said.

That there are numerous defensive sequences, every game, featuring the Lakers making good plays as unit is a night-and-day difference from previous years. It feels cohesive and tangible for the first time in a long time. This group has made significant strides together in its first 10 games, and should be even better when we’re looking at where things are once we reach the 20-game mark.

There are nuances that simply weren’t there in previous years, whether it’s individual defensive reads, or solid positioning from help defenders:

‘We're better defensively,” Walton said when asked to compare starting last season 10-10.

“Last year we were shooting the lights out to start the season. When you shoot the ball that well, I think there's a much better chance of hitting cold streaks, and then you get hit with some injuries like we did last year, we just didn't have the rest of the foundation set well enough to sustain that.”

The Lakers were shooting 35.2 percent as a team from outside through the first 20 games last season, and it was the hot hands of Nick Young (6.2 3PA, 41.4%), Lou Williams (4.7 3PA, 39.4%) and D’Angelo Russell (6.6 3PA, 37.2%) that had them sitting at .500 by the end of November.

Brook Lopez (4.5 3PA, 40%), Jordan Clarkson (2.8 3PA, 39.3%) and Brandon Ingram (1.8 3PA, 38.9%) are the Lakers’ current leaders from outside, connecting at similar success rates at much lower volumes.

The biggest difference certainly looks like defense when parsing the numbers, too. The Lakers were 27th in defensive rating despite their 10-10 start, allowing 107.4 points per 100 possessions. This season, they’re ranked seventh through 10 games, cutting that down to 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.

“Because of the group's willingness to buy-in and compete on defense, we're gonna be in every game. We might lose seven straight, but we're gonna have chances to win those games if we keep defending the way we did, which I think is the biggest difference between last year and this year,” Walton said.

Indeed, the Lakers leaning on the defensive principles they’ve been working on the last two months, even when down on the scoreboard, creates opportunities for them to start turning the tide:

It’s no coincidence that four of the six teams with a better defensive rating than the Lakers to start the season have a winning record, with the Boston Celtics league-best 94.7 points allowed per 100 possessions translating to an 8-2 start. It’s also no coincidence that, now that there are clear strides being made by the Lakers defensively, they look like an actual basketball team working toward a singular goal.

The best part? They’ve got 72 more games to build on a foundation that’s forming quickly right before our eyes.

*All stats via NBA.com, quotes transcribed via Lakers.com