EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Through two days of training camp with the Los Angeles Lakers, the portions of scrimmaging the media has been allowed to witness has featured more misses than makes.
But while some have clowned the team’s offense on social media for those clanks — and one particularly horrific lob(?) attempt from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — one thing that’s also been on display is some “tenacious” defense from Avery Bradley, LeBron James stepping in to take a charge on Alex Caruso, head coach Frank Vogel stopping a scrimmage to tell the team to get back in transition faster and an overall vibe that suggests defense is going to be a focus this year.
Dwight Howard has been at the center of some special defenses himself, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times and making the All-Defensive Team five times for his efforts , so it might be worth listening when he says he’s seen enough to think this Lakers defense can be special.
”I think we could be the best defensive team in the league,” Howard said after the team’s second practice of training camp on Sunday.
So does that mean the Lakers actually can have the best defense in the NBA? It’s hard to predict. Given how much roster turnover this summer saw, and the fact that they have an entirely new coaching staff, last year’s metrics for the Lakers would seem to be fairly meaningless.
They did add some pieces that would seem to help a defense, though, trading for one of the best defenders in the league in Anthony Davis and hiring a defensive-minded head coach like Vogel. The Lakers also retained JaVale McGee and Alex Caruso, two of their better defenders from last year, and signed Bradley (who is impressing so far) and Danny Green, the latter of whom just helped the Toronto Raptors win the franchise’s first-ever title in part due to his defensive tenacity. Jared Dudley has helped defenses in the past, and Danny Green has his moments.
LeBron is a bit of a wildcard here, because he can obviously help a defense when he’s locked in, he just doesn’t do so as often at age 34, justifiably opting to pick his spots given the huge workload he carries. He said he’s willing to let Davis push him on that end this year, but we’ll see how that goes.
Meanwhile, Rondo hasn’t been a helpful defender in years, and the rest of the roster is questionable on that end at best.
Howard himself is another potential X-Factor, one of the several, high-ceiling, low-floor, lottery-ticket additions the Lakers made out of the mindset that if they don’t all go boom, the season is a bust anyway. To that end, Vogel has liked what he’s seen from Howard on defense so far, praising the way he’s communicating to keep his teams’ defenders on a string during camp.
“Multiple Defensive Players of Year (awards) doesn’t just happen with physical athleticism,” Vogel said. “No great defender is a quiet defender.”
Dwight yelling out defensive coverages, screening off ball while rolling hard to the rim is all you can ask. https://t.co/1huJ9ks4OR— UnwrittenRules (@UnwrittenRul3s) September 30, 2019
Howard says that Vogel talked to him about that type of communication beforehand, but both he and his coach also agreed that it’s something he’s always done.
“I’ve just got to be physical, every single possession. Look, these guys know that I’m going to be behind them, they can trust me back there, especially on defense,” Howard said.
“It’s the best players in the world, people are going to score, but you want to make the offense make mistakes, and that’s what we’re trying to get accustomed to doing together.”
A defense is only as good as its weakest link, and the Lakers have quite a few of those. There are legitimate questions about how good this team can be on that end, especially given how big-heavy their roster leans in an ever-smaller modern NBA. This defense may resemble a puzzle built out of pieces from different boxes, and it will either overcome the odds to form a pretty picture or fall apart.
We won’t know which way things will go for a while, and building a solid defense takes time, but Howard and Vogel were both in agreement that if the Lakers come at things with the right mindset and build the right habits, they can give themselves a chance to hit the upper limits of their potential.
“Every possession has to matter, and every time we step on the court we have to try to get better on defense. We’ve just got to communicate,” Howard said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
The Lakers have the rest of training camp to learn to do so, and if they can, maybe they can have as good of a defense as Howard and Vogel think is possible, too.
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.