The 2018 NBA playoffs tipped off on Saturday and once again, the Los Angeles Lakers will be watching all of the action from home. It’s been five years since the Lakers last playoff appearance and they haven’t come close since. Not until this year, at least.
The Lakers finished the season with 35 wins, good enough for the No. 11 seed in the Western Conference, the highest they’ve finished since their last postseason appearance in 2013. However, their record, while impressive given the roster makeup, doesn’t reflect how good they were this season, especially on the defensive end.
Coming into the season, the Lakers were ranked dead last in defensive rating (110.6) by almost every metric including opponent field goal percentage (48.3), opponent fast break points (16.2) and team percentage point differential (2.2), per stats.nba.com. This season, they finished in the top half of the league in defensive rating (105.6) despite averaging a league-high opponent points in the paint (49) and allowing the fourth most opponent second-chance points (13.5).
While their rapid defensive improvement can and should be partially attributed to some of their acquisitions in the offseason like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez, no one deserves more credit for the leaps Los Angeles made defensively than Lonzo Ball.
Using ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, Ball finished the season ranked No. 3 overall among point guards with a positive score of plus-2.25, ahead of acclaimed defensive stalwarts like Jrue Holiday, Ricky Rubio and Marcus Smart. Granted, Ball played in only 52 games this season, but when he was on the floor he showed all the ways he could impact a game on the defensive end.
Ball finished his rookie season with averages of 10.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game. According to basketball-reference.com, only three rookies in NBA history have averaged at least 5 assists, 5 defensive rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game: Ball, Ben Simmons and Magic Johnson.
While Ball and Simmons are just getting their NBA careers started, they could do worse than being historically tied to arguably the greatest point guard to ever lace them up.
However, unlike Ball and Simmons, Ball was not physically imposing his rookie season. Even though he has nice length for the point guard position (6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan), no one was going to struggle to push through Ball’s 190-lb. frame and he found that out right away.
So instead of trying to bang bodies with guys that were much more physically mature than him at this stage of his career, Ball used every inch of his lanky frame to his advantage and made life hard on opposing guards, bigs, and sometimes both.
Ball’s 43 blocks in less than 60 games are the most blocks by any rookie during that span since Vince Carter in 1999, per basketball-reference.com. Carter went on to become one of two guards in NBA history to average 1.5 blocks per game in the regular season. The other was Michael Jordan.
Ball’s display of defensive prowess raises both his floor and his ceiling exponentially. While he figures out how to get his shot to fall with some consistency, he can still affect the game on both ends of the floor, something few players can do with success. Had he not been as dominant as he was on the defensive end, his shortcomings on offense would have been magnified to the thousandth degree.
Ball will hope to show more on the more glamorous end of the floor next season and if his jump shot starts to fall on a regular basis, expect him to be in the conversation for one of the best two-way guards in the NBA sooner rather than later.