To start the season, the Los Angeles Lakers won games by clamping down on teams and scoring enough to take care of business. As the year has progressed, though, their identity has shifted to more of a balanced — if not outright more explosive offensively — attack. But when they have to, they are more than capable of suffocating opponents on the defensive half of the court, something LeBron James seems to take pride in.
James was asked about the team’s defense after the Lakers beat the Spurs in San Antonio and he had some pretty high praise for what his team is capable of on that side of the ball (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“We’re a defensive-minded team. That’s where we want to make our mark, that’s where we want to be the best in the league. Be able to just strangle teams in the fourth quarter... Honestly, we want to strangle them for 48 minutes, but teams are going to make runs, teams are going to make plays and we’ve got to be consistent with our game plan, and we did that tonight, especially in the fourth.”
48 minutes is obviously a bit of a stretch, and expecting the Lakers to play that kind of defense in any of their 82 games this regular season for that kind of extended period of time is not just illogical, but probably completely impractical. What makes more sense is playing solid defense for most of the game and then flipping the switch for a run here and there that takes control of the game — as was the approach Monday night.
On top of the practicality of a more realistic approach to playing defense consistently, the Lakers are a very different team right now than they were at the beginning of the year. With Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma (two of the team’s worst defenders) now back from injury and playing heavy minutes, of course the defense was going to slip. The question is just whether their impact on offense would outstrip what the team loses defensively with them out there.
Injuries have also taken a toll on what the Lakers are capable of defensively. Avery Bradley will be reevaluated Friday to see how the fracture in his right leg is healing, and Alex Caruso missed a game with a strained calf muscle. Bradley and Caruso are two of the team’s best defenders, and the defense slipped as much as you’d expect while they were either out altogether or even merely limited by their maladies.
What’s going to be interesting to see is what kind of identity the Lakers ultimately take up once everyone is relatively healthy. On one hand, a defensive identity is going to be more consistently reliable as the Lakers can control the energy they put into games on that end. On the other, a defense-first identity means they’ll have to play a lot harder than maybe it makes sense for them to now that they know they have to remain fresh well beyond the end of the regular season.
In all likelihood, the defense will probably come to rest at around top-10 in the NBA with the offense catching up over the course of the season, and when it comes time for the Lakers to go on a run, they can always generate that momentum by locking down their opponent.
Even while the defense has slipped, the Lakers have continued to win games, which is really the entire point here. Some nights, their shots will fall at a rate where they can lighten up on the other end of the court. On others, and depending on the type of opponent they’re up against, it’ll take longer stretches of the suffocating defense they’re capable of to walk away with wins.
So long as the Lakers can win either way, they’ll remain one of the NBA’s most dangerous teams.