LOS ANGELES — Before the Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night, head coach Frank Vogel took a question about how competitive his team has been and used it as an opportunity to gush about how special he thinks this team is defensively.
“It’s the most competitive, talented defensive roster I’ve ever coached,” Vogel said. “The depth that we have, the perimeter defense that we have. The IQ with LeBron (James) quarterbacking everything in the game and pregame, and helping with establishing the plans and everything. We have a high ceiling on that end of the floor.”
Let’s rewind for a second: The most competitive and talented defensive roster Vogel has ever coached? This, from the man who helmed the incredibly stout Indiana Pacers defenses that gave the LeBron-era Miami Heat so many issues in the playoffs? Really?
There are actually a few numbers that support Vogel’s conclusion (at least when viewed a certain way). Right now, the Lakers are allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA. If the season ended today, that would be worse than every single Pacers defensive rating that Vogel coached except for in his first season, when Indiana held opponents to 105 points per 100 possessions.
But the season doesn’t end today, and the Lakers should be getting Avery Bradley — a major contributor to their early defensive success — back soon. When Bradley went down 11 games into the season, the Lakers were holding opponents to 99.5 points per 100 possessions, which is right near the two best defenses Vogel has ever coached (by the numbers, anyway) — the 2012-13 and 2013-14 Pacers, both of whom lost to James’ Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Those two teams ranked first in defensive rating in the regular season those years, allowing 99 and 98.9 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
So it’s possible the Lakers aren’t — strictly the numbers — actually Vogel’s best defensive team, even at their peak. But context also makes such a declaration a little less simple. This isn’t a perfect way to contextualize things, but bear with me. Today, the 15th-ranked offense in the NBA (the Brooklyn Nets) is scoring 109 points per 100 possessions. During the 2012-13 and 2013-14 campaigns, the 15th-best offenses in the league scored 104.5 and 105.4 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
Again, this is not a foolproof way to analyze this, but those numbers paint the picture that the Lakers appear to be going up against better offenses than those Indiana teams did on average, and — when healthy — are still holding teams to around the metrics of Vogel’s best defenses with the Pacers. That might explain some of the reason for his optimism about this team, but his high hopes also might have something to do with the pieces he has to work with in Los Angeles.
In Indiana, Vogel’s defenses were built around versatile wing defenders in Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill; strong, rangy wings who could force offensive players towards the middle, where Roy Hibbert and his trendsetting use of verticality were waiting to make things hellish for players at the rim.
But as good as those teams were defensively, they may not have had quite as much versatility of these Lakers. As our own Alex Regla noted on Monday, the Lakers’ gigantic frontcourt of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee makes them the only team in the NBA to have three players in the top-20 in blocks so far this season, and they’ve racked up a league-leading 171 rejections as a team. Davis’ versatility is particularly special, allowing him to guard players on the perimeter and swat their shots in the paint.
They also have James quarterbacking everything as a defensive genius, and their own wing cadre of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green and Bradley running shooters off the line and sending them towards the endless tangle of arms waiting to swallow or affect any shots attempted near the rim.
”KCP and Alex have separated themselves from the group in that regard. We’ve got a lot of two-way players on our team, but those two guys in particular have excelled on the defensive end with their speed, length and athleticism,” Vogel said.
There is enough talent and versatility here that it’s at least possible to envision this defense — when combined with the offensive transcendence of James and Davis — being much more successful than Vogel’s Pacers outfits. And when coupled with the human brain’s tendency towards recency bias, Vogel’s commitment to effusively praising his players in the media whenever possible and just how special this team has looked on defense when everything is clicking, it’s easy to understand why Vogel said what he said.
Somewhat ironically, the Lakers allowed their second-worst defensive rating of the year against the Timberwolves (allowing Minnesota to score at a rate that would have equaled 120.2 points per 100 possessions) after Vogel offered them such high praise. But while he may have jinxed them a bit with his kind words, the team did at least make up for it on the other end, where they put up their best offensive rating of the season (137.9). It was a dichotomy that Vogel appeared to be amused by after the game.
“We’ve got confidence to get it done on both ends. I yelled at them for giving up 125 points tonight. I don’t think anybody really heard me,” Vogel said in a tone that implied he was kidding, but very much also not kidding at the same time. “We’ve got to do better than that on that end of the floor.”
Then he seemed to have an epiphany.
“Or if we score 142 (points) we don’t. We just got to score one more point than our opponent, right?” Vogel said, chuckling before heading back to his office, almost assuredly to go scheme up some ways for the Lakers to defend well enough to make it possible for them to actually back up his grand pregame proclamation about their potential.
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.