All offseason, training camp and preseason, Luke Walton stressed that the Los Angeles Lakers would derive their identity off of their defense. Every coach says this heading into the season, but last year, the Lakers backed that message up. This year so far? Not so much.
Before the Lakers took on the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night, Walton apparently shared his displeasure with the defense, and it might have fueled the team to their first win of the season (via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN):
After an angry Luke Walton held nothing back on his team’s poor defense at the morning team meeting, the Los Angeles Lakers responded to their coach and rode a dominant second quarter to their first victory of the season.
”We could feel his anger,” Lance Stephenson told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin of Walton’s disposition during the morning meeting at the team hotel. “We had to get that W.”
Walton said on Spectrum Sportsnet after the victory that he wasn’t happy with the way the Lakers started on defense, but he thought eventually they got the message:
“To start the game our defense was soft again,” Walton said. “We’ve got to start games with the same mentality we started that second quarter with.”
The Lakers currently rank 27th of 30 NBA teams in defensive rating (how many points they allow per 100 possessions). Teams are shooting an incredible 39 percent from three against them, and for context, only Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram were able to either exceed or meet that rate last season. It’s early, but the Lakers haven’t been able to stop a nosebleed.
Analysis at this point in the season has to take into account the effect small samples will have, but anyone watching should have been able to notice the team’s shortcomings on the defensive end of the court.
Still, there’s reason to be optimistic it might come around a bit — though I wouldn’t bank on them being as good as they were last year.
First and foremost, the team seems to have noticed the dire need for a backup center who can walk and chew gum at the same time. Johnathan Williams has been a godsend, something rarely said about two-way, undrafted rookies. But we’ll take it. His emergence has shored up some of the center rotation issues for the time being.
Secondly, the more time this team spends together, the better they should be able to understand the defensive principles Walton wants them to follow. Unfortunately, they’ve already had a couple guys miss time due to suspension, but Rajon Rondo comes back after their game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, and Brandon Ingram only has two games of his suspension left to serve.
Speaking of Rondo, the sooner Lonzo Ball supplants him as the team’s starting point guard, the better for the defense. Ball is simply a better defensive player right now than Rondo, and the longer he’s on the court, the better for the Lakers on that end.
The final factor that we should keep an eye on is the half-court offense. The Lakers look great when they can get out and run, but when they can’t, things get ugly, quickly. Long rebounds or turnovers in the half court puts an already bad defense in an even worse spot. So if any improvement made in this aspect of the game will work wonders on the other end as well.
It’s hard to predict to what extend the defense might come around, but I wouldn’t imagine the Lakers will be one of the five worst defenses when this season wraps up. Given how explosive the offense seems to be (especially after stops), any improvement on defense greatly elevates what we can hope to see from the team in general.
The next step is playing well on defense against teams not located in Phoenix. The Lakers will get their next shot at doing so when they take on the Nuggets at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.