If there’s been one positive constant during the Luke Walton era with the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s that the team has played with surprisingly good defensive ability and effort. Not a single person would have predicted the Lakers would’ve finished with a better-than-league-average defense last season, yet there they were with the 13th-best defensive rating in the league.
This season, the Lakers have their sights set on a higher goal, and they just might pull it off. You might want to sit down for this one, but the Lakers say they want to finish this season with a top-10 defense. Since Tyson Chandler showed up, they’re off to a great start towards that goal.
”We’ve made a lot of progress (on defense),” Walton said recently. “We’re more consistent, we understand our coverages more. We’re starting to understand our teammates more, the terminology, everything.
Walton said that making those improvements always takes time, but it takes something else, too.
“It also takes guys that are bought in and willing, because a lot of defense is effort. We have a group of guys that are committed to that end of the floor and they keep working on it. We talk in film and we show them film, and they’re active participants,” Walton said. “They want to be a top-10 defensive team.”
[Puts on tinfoil hat] Walton mentioning patience feels like a tremendous sideswipe of Magic Johnson. It’s absolutely not that, but just imagine if it was. Can we just agree to live in a world where it was? Cool.
Now, back to the topic at hand.
“We continue to work on it so we’re getting better at it,” Walton said. “I think bringing Tyson in has really helped with that too with the way he communicates and the way that he finishes off defensive possessions with rebounds.”
Mentioning Chandler is hugely important here. Since November 6, when the Lakers signed him, the Lakers have defended at a rate better than every team other than the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yes, you read that right. In the 13 games since Chandler signed, the Lakers have the league’s second-best defense.
That stretch has helped the Lakers jump up to seventh in terms of season-long defensive rating — they’re holding teams to 106.1 points per possessions — meaning that to this point, the Lakers are actually making good on what might have seemed like an insane goal at first glance.
Before Chandler showed up, the backbone of the defense had been JaVale McGee, and despite what many saw as a flawed roster, he says the Lakers have always had lofty goals.
”That’s been our thing since the beginning of the season, to be top-five in defense, top-10 in defense,” McGee explained. “I feel like we’re moving and progressing more and more.”
McGee said that the team has been emphasizing not giving up easy baskets in transition and chasing down every fast break, even if it seems like they won’t catch the ballhandler.
“We feel like if you get into transition (against us) you’re gonna have to work for every bucket,” McGee said.
As things currently stand, the Lakers have some room to grow in terms of transition defense. They rank 19th in transition points allowed per 100 possessions. Given the pace at which the Lakers want to play, they’ll have to improve in this regard.
We’ve heard from the team’s interior defenders, but if a team is really going to rank in the top-third of the league defensively, guys on the perimeter have to hold their own as well. Brandon Ingram is one of the team’s primary perimeter defenders, and he likes what he’s seen recently.
“When we’re rolling and playing defense the right way in our spots, I think it’s been really good. We’re able to get three stops in a row, six stops in a row and it creates our offense,” Ingram said. “We get a bounce to our step and it’s just a fun way to play.”
Chandler agreed with Ingram’s assessment, and echoed how important the team’s defense is.
”I think we’re doing a better job of rebounding, keeping (opponents) to one shot,” Chandler said. “If we do that, then we give our offense an opportunity to get out on the fast break, which is where we flourish.”
Look, defense is still the hardest aspect of the game to analyze. The stats have a long way to go to catch up to where offensive metrics are. If we’re going to analyze the team since Chandler signed and credit that acquisition in large part for the how the team has defended since, we should also mention that the Lakers are enjoying one of the weaker stretches of their schedule.
Still, teams have to take care of business regardless of who’s in front of them. As surprising as this might be, the Lakers have done so, and done it on the defensive end to boot. So as for reaching their goal of being a top-10 defense, so far, so good.