The Los Angeles Lakers have transitioned into “it’s time to try new things” mode, losing eight of their last nine games and five straight. Injuries have also played a hand in disrupting the positive progress the team was showing as a collective, and head coach Luke Walton has been forced to mix up his starting lineup and rotations in various ways.
Somewhere in the shuffle of all that, the Lakers have lost the defensive identity that gave them life through much of the season.
“Obviously we've had some different lineups, trying some different things out. To me, [defense is] the number one thing we gotta fix. It's what we've been able to hang our hat on all year. We get after it on defense, we get stops, we get out and run...
“We have to get back to taking pride in being a defensive team first,” Walton said following the Lakers 121-106 loss to the LA Clippers.
The Lakers have been a top-10 defensive team through almost all of the season, but they’ve finally fallen out of the top-third of the league in that category. The Lakers are now ranked 12th, allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions.
“Kinda in a dry spell on the defensive end,” Ingram said as he reflected on the losing streak. “I think tonight and the past few games, guys and teams have hit us in the mouth, and I don't think we've done a good job of responding.”
It’s clear the Lakers’ defense has been on an ugly trend for the past several weeks. The Lakers went from a defensive powerhouse that was raising eyebrows back to the kind of hopeless defensive team we’ve seen in recent seasons. Taking a closer look at the Lakers’ defensive rating progressively through the season paints a very clear picture of just how long this slip has been happening:
This is a troubling trend the Lakers need to shake. Defense has been the bread and butter of what Walton has been preaching to the squad dating back to training camp, and the progress they showed early in the year has been washed away over the last month.
Ingram put the blame on himself following the loss to the Clippers, but he also pointed to the entire team getting away from the defensive identity they built earlier in the season.
“I think it started with me not being aggressive in that first half. I think on the defensive end, we just didn't compete on the defensive end. That's kind of been the story the last three games, on the defensive end where you see us at the beginning of the season attacking guys and being really really strong defensively,” Ingram said.
Coach Luke hasn’t liked how his team has responded to being punched in the mouth early by teams, noting that they’ve been letting teams get in a rhythm early in games lately. He also acknowledged that the absence of both Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball also has a major impact on what
“When [Lopez] went out it not only affected the starting center, it's also the starting four man because Brook provided the spacing for us that we needed, which allowed Larry, who's a very good defender — all-around team and individual defender — to make plays for us. But then we needed Kuz's shooting in there, so it's got a ripple effect obviously.
“And then Zo going down, Zo is pretty darn good on the defensive end. He rebounds, he anticipates, he gets steals, he gets deflections for us. It's a tough stretch and we're playing really good teams right now, but we will get through this, and we will be stronger when we do,” Walton said.
The Lakers have looked their best when they’re locked in defensively, but we haven’t seen that kind of consistent effort from the various lineups and rotations in what feels like weeks. The numbers show that the crisp rotations and decisions have slipped away from them, and the losses have become a consequence of the Lakers no longer playing like a defense-first squad.