Last year, Luke Walton coached the Los Angeles Lakers to the 13th-best defensive efficiency in the NBA, a surprising development that seemed ripe for further growth moving forward given how many of the team’s young players were positive contributors to that defensive rise.
That has not born out so far this year, as through seven games, the Lakers have eighth-worst defense in the NBA, allowing 113.2 points per 100 possessions, a full six points worse per 100 possessions than the Lakers managed last year.
Offenses are up across the league, with 10 teams currently scoring more than 110 points per 100 possessions after only six did so last year, per NBA.com. That uptick partially explains the Lakers’ drop, but some of it is also on the team simply being worse on defense.
Part of the Lakers’ regression can be chalked up to the team losing two of the biggest contributors to the way they wanted to play defense (Julius Randle and Brook Lopez), but arguably bigger has been miscommunications between an overhauled roster that is just now getting used to playing together, something Lakers head coach Luke Walton alluded to after the team’s Wednesday practice (via the team’s official Twitter account):
“Part of growing a new team is learning strengths and weaknesses of each other. Part of it is we have to get better individually guarding our man, but it’s also understanding where we might be getting beat and anticipate being there to help guys out. But that comes with time.”
Walton is right about the Lakers probably needing more time if they are going to get better on defense. Seven games into a season featuring a totally remade roster is too soon to dig a grave for the team’s dreams of defensive efficiency.
Walton certainly doesn’t seem to be panicking, and he actually thinks the team’s defense can reach heights that even the most optimistic Lakers fans may not right now:
“We have a goal to be a top-10 defensive team, which looks like a far, far, far away goal right now. But the Denver game we put up a nice defensive number. San Antonio we put up a decent defensive number. And I haven’t looked at what it was in the three quarters (last night, but) take the first quarter out, I’m assuming our Minnesota game was good defensive game, so it’s there, we just need to do it (for) longer stretches and more consistently.”
To go through Walton’s points one at a time, against Denver, the Lakers posted a defensive rating of 107.5, which would rank 14th in the league this season. Against San Antonio that number improved 106.8, which would rank 13th.
The Lakers then allowed the Timberwolves to score at a rate that would equal 120 points per 100 possession in the first quarter, and then allowed a defensive rating of 114.3 the rest of the way, marks which would rank 25th and last in the league, respectively.
Those are obviously not the numbers of a top-10 defensive team, but they’re also (mostly) signs that the Lakers might be capable of more on that end than they’ve shown on aggregate for the season.
It should also be noted that by posting the league’s seventh-best offense (scoring 113 points per 100 possessions), the Lakers are only getting outscored by 0.3 points per 100 possessions, indicating they don’t necessarily have to be a top-10 defense to start winning some of these games. They just have to be better than the 23rd-best defense.
How can they make improvements? Lonzo Ball told reporters that the solution is pretty straightforward (via @Lakers on Twitter):
”It starts obviously individually. Stay in front of your man, but if you get beat knowing that your teammates got your back, knowing that we’re all going to go to the glass.”
Gang rebounding and being diligent about not leaking out before a rebound is secured were themes of the team’s practice on Wednesday, to the point that Walton told reporters that “if you see someone leaking out, that’s a mistake.”
Lakers guard Josh Hart agreed with his coach, and was critical of both himself and his teammates’ defense after practice (via the team’s Twitter account):
“We get stagnant on the offensive end and then on the defensive end we don’t have the attention to detail we need to win.”
Hart is right, as given how little the Lakers are losing by, it’s just these small mental errors keeping them from hitting their stride or having a record closer to .500, something Hart emphasized:
“You win games on defense, so if you focus on offense but not lockdown defense you’re going to lose. So you’ve got to be locked in. Point blank.”
He’s right. Not only will the Lakers not reach their lofty defensive goals if they don’t step things up and reengage on that end, but they’re also going to lose. A lot. Especially late, when stops matter more as they try to come back or hold leads.
All this is to say, the team’s issues are fixable, and it doesn’t require a coaching change or major roster overhaul. They just need to focus in a little more on defense, and all of a sudden a lot of the negativity hanging over the franchise is going to dissipate. It just remains to be seen if they can actually do it. We’ll get our next look when they take on the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.