The Los Angeles Lakers have been pretty bad on defense this year. The 112.4 points per 100 possessions that they’re allowing ranks just 23rd in the NBA after a pleasantly surprising showing in 2017-18, where they ranked 12th (107.2 defensive rating) with a mix of spirited youth and attentive veterans.
JaVale McGee is the only new arrival who’s done more good than harm, leading the NBA with 3.25 blocks in just 28.3 minutes per game. Blocks and steals are not necessarily indicative of quality defense, and McGee certainly has holes in his game on that end, but his ability to erase mistakes has been vital to an otherwise undersized team that’s vulnerable at the point of attack.
McGee switched onto LeBron James in the 2018 NBA Finals with some measure of success, but he’s built to run drop coverages when defending the pick and roll. He’ll allow guards to take pull-up jumpers and floaters, but shots at the rim are his domain, and he’ll use his length, athleticism, and intelligence (yes, intelligence!) to swat those away.
The downside to the drop coverages is that they’re vulnerable to three-point shooting, and the Dallas Mavericks did an especially good job of exploiting that during their fourth-quarter comeback on Wednesday. McGee’s simply too far away from the perimeter to contest pick and pop bigs or help when a Lakers guard gets caught on a screen. Drop coverages have become less popular amongst NBA coaches over the last five years as the league sets new records for three-point attempts every season, as have conventional big men who can’t do anything else in pick and roll defense. In McGee’s case, that coverage is still the best amongst imperfect options.
The Lakers have a defensive rating of 101.2 when McGee is in the game, which would be the third-stingiest defense in the NBA if they were able to maintain that level of performance throughout. LeBron James usually brings a top-ten offense with him wherever he goes, and the Lakers have been no exception, so their challenge now is to regain the levels of competency that they reached last season on the other end. They have a long way to go, but McGee’s rim protection provides them with a foundational piece to build upon.