LOS ANGELES — The Lakers gave up 128 points to the Denver Nuggets in their third straight loss on Sunday night, and when asked after the game what L.A. needs to work on without LeBron James, it took Anthony Davis less than a second to answer.
“With or without him, we suck defensively,” Davis said, publicly calling out himself and his teammates for their lack of rebounding, how many back cuts they’re allowing and just about everything else that goes into defense.
His frustration was on full display throughout the game as he protested numerous calls from the officials and gesticulated more wildly than is typical when he disagreed with a ruling. Finally after one call he didn’t like, Davis simply walked to the other end of the floor and put his jersey in his mouth to keep from saying anything, but did not choose to muzzle himself in the same way after the game when it was time to talk about what he was really irritated by.
“We lost our defensive edge,” Davis continued. “Our attention to details on the defensive end and our awareness just slipped the past couple games. We’re not aggressive on that [end] anymore. And that goes back to the road trip.”
Davis is right about when the Lakers’ defense started to slip. Over their last five games, the team is allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions, which is the 20th-ranked defense in the NBA over that timeframe, a bad marker for a team that won mostly on the strength of its defense to start the year.
And as one would expect, the defense has been even worse over the team’s current three-game losing streak, a period in which the Lakers have hemorrhaged 119.4 points per 100 possessions, meaning that over these three losses their defense has been more than 3 points per 100 possessions worse than the league-worst Washington Wizards have been on the season, according to NBA.com.
So in case anyone was wondering, yes, turning into a worse version of this year’s Wizards does make it harder to win games. And yes, it makes it accurate for Davis to say the Lakers “suck” defensively right now.
How can they fix it? Well, getting LeBron James back would be a start, even if the only game he’s missed so far was against Denver.
“Part of ‘Bron’s game that people don’t know is he’s very vocal,” said Lakers guard Alex Caruso, noting that it’s a hard feature of James’ game to pick up unless you’re on the court with him. “He’s such a cerebral player, anytime you lose a guy -- forget his physical talent, just a guy who thinks the game the way that he does -- it’s obviously a step back.”
But the Lakers’ issues go back further than James’ absence, which Caruso didn’t want to use as an excuse anyway.
“I think it’s up to us to fill that gap and fill that void whenever he’s not playing,” Caruso said.
And whether James is playing or not, the Lakers do have problems to fix on defense, some of which can be chalked up to the natural wear and tear of the season, and the waxing and waning focus that comes with that. Still, even if their offense starts to come around, they have to get back to doing what made them most successful during their historic start.
“We were winning games but we had a lot of slippage on the defensive end, so we’ve got to be able to correct that,” Davis said.
If the Lakers don’t, it will limit their ceiling, and surely lead to more frustration from a star player in Davis who prides himself on the defensive end. Usually it’s James who is the more candidly critical of the two stars, but on Sunday, fittingly — and perhaps not accidentally — it was Davis who attempted to light a fire under his team in the media in James’ absence. If it works, it would be one way of filling the vocal void left by James off the court in a way that might help make up for his absence on it.
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.