The injury bug has followed the Los Angeles Lakers this season with almost as much consistency as Lawrence Frank appears wherever Kawhi Leonard might be. It’s felt as if anytime someone comes back from injury, another guy tweaks something, forcing some other adjustment to have to be made.
Most recently, the player who finds himself on the sidelines thanks to an injury has been Lonzo Ball, who has missed a couple weeks already with a sprained ankle and will probably miss more time. Kyle Kuzma and LeBron James think the Lakers have felt Ball’s absence heavily, specifically on the defensive side of the court.
After the Lakers gave up a whopping 143 points to the Philadelphia 76ers, both Kuzma and James brought up what Lonzo being out means for an ailing defense. LeBron says they still have to make it work, though (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“We have a huge piece still not with us, in Lonzo. That’s a huge piece of our team, so until then we have to continue to work throughout our film sessions, throughout our shootarounds.”
James is right to mention just how important Ball is to the Lakers’ defense. It’s not at all a stretch to call Lonzo one of the league’s best defenders at his position and, had he not gotten hurt, he was making a pretty strong case to make an all-defensive team.
Ball’s length, athleticism and instincts (especially off the ball) make him hugely impactful on that end, and seeing as his replacement in the lineup was Reggie Bullock (who was playing his first game for the Lakers), it makes sense that a hugely explosive Philly team was able to take advantage.
Kuzma echoed James’ sentiment:
“I think getting Zo back into the mix is definitely one thing (that will improve our defense). He’s had a hell of a season defensively and we kind of feed off of him. He’s picking up 94 feet, getting stops all over the floor and has great defensive instincts.
However, like James, he didn’t want to use Ball’s absence as an “excuse” for their poor defense:
“Regardless of having him or not, that’s not an excuse. It’s all about having effort and communication, and getting the new guys to get into it as well.”
Just how impactful has Ball’s absence been this year? Well, listen to our own Alex Regla for some context.
Ball, who has been out with an injury since Jan. 19th, has been sorely missed on both sides of the floor, but far more so on defense. On the season, the Lakers are allowing only 106 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the floor. With him sitting, the team is giving up 112.9.
Nuance can be difficult, but let’s try anyway. Both these things can be true: Lonzo is an extremely impactful defensive player who would immediately help the Lakers’ defense as soon as he’s healthy. That said, a single player is not the lone reason why a team would give up 143 points in regulation. The Lakers’ problems go much deeper than just Lonzo’s injury.
The Lakers have dealt with trade rumors to a greater extent than every other team in the league outside of maybe the New Orleans Pelicans. Before they played Philadelphia, Magic Johnson addressed the team about how best to move forward and, based on his comments about that meeting, probably wasn’t giving out hugs like he had previously planned to.
When the guy who just tried and failed to trade you comes in and says you have to man up and take care of business, that probably isn’t great for morale. We saw over the entirety of Byron Scott’s tenure with the Lakers that “man up” isn’t the world’s best battle cry, as those Lakers teams were regularly among the worst defensive teams in the NBA.
Defending requires buy-in. It demands sacrifice and trust against any team in the NBA, but especially one as dynamic as the 76ers are with Tobias Harris now on the roster. Players are going to be less willing to make that sacrifice if they don’t feel wanted by the organization who demands they buck up after a deadline as publicly embarrassing as last week was.
Lonzo could come back and change things. He probably will have a positive impact upon his return. But if the Lakers really want to regain the momentum they had before the injury bug kicked this season in the groin, they’ll have to find a way to buy back into the principles that made them such a surprisingly good defensive team in the first place.