There are defensive-minded coaches, and then there is whatever the hell Frank Vogel is. And because nearly every coach in the history of professional sports preaches the importance of defense with cliches, to hit Vogel with the “defensive-minded” moniker he’s so frequently been tagged with since accepting the job of Los Angeles Lakers head coach really does feel like a disservice to a man so maniacally committed to keeping his opponent from scoring that he’ll stop a scrimmage in training camp to give his players a lecture on how to defend a free-throw shooter.
Yes, you read that right. Not how to keep a player off the free-throw line. Not how to distract them from the bench. Vogel paused a scrimmage on the third day of training camp to explain to Avery Bradley — who was on the team that had just fouled JaVale McGee and currently standing to the seven-footer’s left at the free throw line — that he should get his arm up while McGee was attempting his ensuing free-throw.
”Without stepping into the lane, I want you to try to block his shot,” Vogel implored Bradley, waving his arm for emphasis before gesturing to the rest of the defensive team to raise and move their arms as well. “Try to change his shot. Try to guard the free-throw, without coming into the lane.”
Was this just a practice thing? Do the Lakers actually intend to try to do that in games? Is that even legal? How often would it even work on NBA-level free-throw shooters, who already have to overcome raucous fans and the pressure of everyone they’ve ever met watching closely on T.V. when they step to the line? A couple times a year? Maybe?
We don’t know the answer to those questions, but the fact that Vogel even has us asking them shows the commitment to stopping buckets he’s brought to the Lakers, a team that is already feeling the imprint of its new head coach just a few weeks into the official start of his reign.
It’s not clear how good the Lakers can actually be on defense, but if they’re bad, it won’t be for lack of planning, strategizing and philosophizing not to be.
Perhaps the first and most public example of the Lakers’ new, rough-and-tumble defensive culture came on Media Day, with Jared Dudley sitting on the Spectrum Sportsnet broadcast desk, openly explaining on television how he was planning for the league to dock him part of his paycheck if anyone touched his team’s two superstars in a way he didn’t like.
“Any flagrant foul on LeBron James, just give me the $20,000 fine. It’s on, straight up. Anyone touches Anthony Davis or LeBron James, that’s part of my job here. I’ve made my money, they can make my minimum,” Dudley said.
When those comments are brought up to him again a week later, Dudley just says that setting a physical tone is part of his job on this roster.
“When it comes to those two individuals, two guys that are the face of the franchise, we need them healthy, we need them available,” Dudley told Silver Screen and Roll. “If I feel like it crosses a certain line, then there has to be something of a stand that you have to take for your teammates.”
And it’s not just the team’s interest of protecting their two stars that’s leading the Lakers to set a physical tone. It’s something Vogel seems to think is integral to a team making its presence felt defensively, a philosophy this overhauled and increasingly veteran roster has been willing to embrace with examples beyond just Dudley sending a warning through the airwaves.
There was the first practice, which saw LeBron James draw a charge on Alex Caruso during a training camp scrimmage. For context, James drew seven charges all of last season, which to be fair would have ranked second on the Lakers.
It was just one play, but it seemed to be an apt display of leadership by example. James telling his teammates and the assembled media with his actions that this is the way we play defense now. Nothing easy.
Serving as further evidence of the Lakers’ new tone from that same practice was Vogel admitting afterwards that Dwight Howard “probably overdid it a bit” in terms of how physical he was with his own teammates, although Vogel hardly sounded upset about it.
“He was knocking guys around. Look, you’ve got to deal with that,” Vogel said.
Vogel has been trying to instill that mindset to the team with things like gang rebounding drills where two smaller players have to fight off a bigger one on the glass, and emphasizing that they need to make their opponents not just see arms in their way, but feel the physical toll of trying to score or rebound against the Lakers.
“He wants them to make sure that they know they’re playing us, and we leave a presence,” Caruso said.
Or, as Vogel put it on day one: “You’re coming to play [the Lakers], you’re going to get hit… You’re going to get smashed in the mouth.”
But beyond displays of toughness, or trying to invent new ways to make free-throw shooters worse, there have been a couple of schematic things that the Lakers want to do on defense that have revealed themselves over the course of training camp.
In one early practice, Vogel stopped a scrimmage to critique the team for spending time in transition blaming each other for a turnover rather than getting back, calling it a bad habit leftover from summer pickup runs. He wants the Lakers to get back as rapidly as possible and not give up easy buckets.
There are also the other obvious things that almost every team does now, like trying to force opponents into the mid-range area rather than giving up layups or threes. The Lakers want to do this by creating a symbiotic partnership between the endless groups of arms they’re placing at the rim, and the pestering wing defense they want to use to badger ball handlers into taking the tough shots L.A. wants them to.
Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard are possibly the greatest group of rim protectors ever assembled on a single roster, and the Lakers want to funnel everything into those bigs in the paint, and Vogel has said they also want to limit switching their big men onto guards as much as possible.
While the latter might be a sensible choice given that McGee and Howard are closer to traditional plodders than small-ball fives, it’s also a decision that bucks modern, increasingly switch-happy trends in today’s NBA.
How do the Lakers plan to do avoid switching, then? It’s not entirely clear just yet. In their first preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, they basically didn’t have McGee or Howard guard Omari Spellman out near the 3-point line and used some drop coverages, among other strategies. How sustainable that approach is, or how much they’ll change it to avoid switches against different opponents is an open question as of right now, and will be one of the swing factors in how good they can be defensively.
Another thing thing Vogel wants his big men to do, and has stopped scrimmages to preach the importance of, is that old holdover from his successful Indiana Pacers defense — verticality. Even without mentioning it by name, the principle of a big man holding their arms up and jumping straight upwards to not be the initiator of contact is part of the universal basketball language at this point, and it’s something Vogel has visibly and verbally demonstrated he wants from his bigs.
Vogel has also acknowledged that the league isn’t the same as it was in his Pacers breakthrough, and that it isn’t easy to keep a rim protector stationed right at the bucket for 48 minutes like he used to in Roy Hibbert’s heyday. Still, the Lakers’ system is designed with the idea of maximizing their centers’ time in the paint, and letting their wing defenders play more aggressively as a result, knowing that they have a bit of a safety net should their aggressive chases of ball handlers not bear fruit.
That empowerment has borne itself out in camp so far, most notably with Avery Bradley, who from the way teammates and coaches describe him seems to have been emboldened to play defense like some sort of werewolf on bath salts. But it’s not just him. Even Davis, already a Defensive Player of the Year candidate heading into the season, says that the extra rim protection has allowed him to take his defense up a notch.
“We try to tell anybody guarding the ball, just be aggressive, because you have guys behind you who are going to protect you,” Davis said. “That’s the goal for me as well. If I’m guarding the ball, I know that I have guys behind me who can block shots and alter the offensive player’s shot. It gives everybody the ability to be Avery Bradley.”
Now, the elephant in the room here is that none of the type of defensive culture Vogel seeks will be possible without buy-in from the Lakers’ two stars. And while no one doubts Davis’ defensive aptitude or commitment to that end of the floor, plenty have questioned LeBron James’ over the last several years, and especially last season. Those critics actually include Davis (sort of), who earlier this offseason said he wanted to push James — no, not physically, that can be left to Kyle Kuzma — to make an All-Defensive team this year.
Whether that level of defense is actually possible for James night in and night out at 34 years old is an open question, but perhaps more important than James actually being able to do it is that he’s at least showing signs of being bought in to trying.
James has said he loves the idea of Davis pushing him to be better defensively, and he echoed Vogel when I asked him what has stood out about the defense so far at a recent practice.
”Well, that’s going to be our DNA. Coach Vogel has stressed that, the coaching staff has stressed that, and that’s what we want to do,” James said. “That’s going to be our mark.”
James is also backing that up with his actions so far, according to Dudley.
“A lot of defense has to do with your energy level, so someone like LeBron has had to save his energy so much for offense, but now we have Anthony Davis. We have better scoring on this team than last year, so he can be able to shift and balance his energy in the right way to help both offensively and defensively,” Dudley told Silver Screen and Roll.
“In scrimmages, he’s being really assertive. His man isn’t scoring. He’s not being lackadaisical with back door (cuts), he’s assertive because you have guys like Anthony Davis calling and directing, and making it a lot easier on everybody.”
We’ll see if that lasts, but so far, things seem to be heading in the right direction as far as James is concerned.
So the real question left is simple: How good can all of this really leave the Lakers on defense?
Dudley says he thinks they can be in the top five or top seven in the league by the end of the year. Howard aimed his sights higher, saying he thinks the Lakers can be the best defense in the NBA. Vogel agrees... with a caveat.
“There’s no doubt we can be. But it’s going to be on me to keep them drilled and prepared with the game plans, and it’s going to be on them to commit and continue the care factor through 82 games,” Vogel said.
Can Vogel do his part of that? He’s coached good defenses before, as his Pacers teams never ranked lower than 12th in defensive efficiency during Vogel’s tenure there, according to NBA.com. His Orlando Magic teams fared less well, but even with that, the BBall Index’s metrics painted Vogel as having the best defensive optimization rating in their database “among all coaches with 2+ seasons coached since the 2013-14 season, with tanking years for all coaches excluded.”
Anyone claiming to know for sure whether Vogel can carry that success forward with the Lakers is lying, but just a little over a week into camp, he does seem to have the Lakers on the right track, and is surely scheming up more ways for the team to erase every possible opportunity for points from their opponents. Maybe they’ll be as creative as trying to impact free throws, and maybe they won’t, but nothing about the defense-obsessed coach suggests he’ll stop turning over every possible stone in pursuit of every strategy to make his team as stingy as possible.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.