When the Lakers acquired Dennis Schröder during the offseason, if there was any concern about his fit, it was on the defensive side of the ball, where the Lakers had previously made their bones by being a juggernaut, and an area where the German guard’s reputation was mixed. At best.
So far this season, those concerns have (at times) seemed to be overblown. The Lakers have the top-ranked defense in the league right now, strangling opponents to 104.6 points per 100 possessions. And after their recent win against the Pelicans, a game in which Schröder hounded New Orleans all over the court to swipe four steals as the Lakers completed a 35-point turnaround victory, both LeBron James and head coach Frank Vogel were effusive in their praise for Schröder.
“I mean, you saw the energy man. Right now, without fans in Staples Center — which we miss so much, man — having a defender like Dennis the Menace being able to pick up full court and get like two or three consecutive steals on possessions and get us right back out onto the break is big time on his part, man. He’s been doing it all year for us,” James said. “It just takes the opposing offense out of a lot of stuff they want to do... It just leads to a lot of energy for our ball club.”
“I think we were down 10, 12 points for a lot of that early part of the game,” Vogel added. “The fight that he showed, picking up full court, getting those two turnovers, really creating some havoc for their offense really positioned us to do what we did in the second half. It was a one-point game at halftime, could have been a 10-15 point differential, and I think Dennis was critical in that stretch.”
Despite those kind words, however, the numbers haven’t really borne out that Schröder is a plus on the defensive end. The Lakers are never better on defense — holding opponents to 100 points per 100 possessions — than they are when Schröder sits. For context, they are allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor. The only Laker with a worse defensive rating than that right now is Wesley Matthews (108.4).
The good news is that this may not be that big of a problem. Allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions would still be the third-best defense in the NBA, so it’s not like the Lakers are hemorrhaging points when Schröder plays. He has just taken them from “historically good” to “really good.”
For another thing, Schröder is literally — by the numbers — having a bigger offensive impact than LeBron. The Lakers are never worse offensively than when Schröder sits, scoring 104 points per 100 possessions, a number that skyrockets to 118.4 when he is in the game (numbers that are 105.8 and 115.6 for LeBron, respectively). That’s meant that despite whatever defensive hit they take, the Lakers are still 8.8 points per 100 possessions better overall when Schröder is on the floor than they are when he sits. Their most-used lineup — their regular starters, which include Schröder — has also been a huge net positive, outscoring opponents by 25.2 points per 100 possessions so far.
Similarly to Avery Bradley last year, there may also be a more intangible quality that Schröder gives the Lakers defensively. His intensity and effort on that end while picking up ballhandlers full court is clear, and as James and Vogel pointed out, that stuff can energize the units he plays with at times, or even the players on the bench. It may not be working out in Schröder’s favor statistically on defense, but if the team feels that it helps, after last year, it’s hard to argue with their analysis of the situation. Numbers aren’t everything, after all. There is deeper eye-test context here that calls the stats over a still-small sample size somewhat into question, and offers hope for some upwards regression.
So would the Lakers be well served to improve defensively when Schröder is playing? Absolutely. But if they do, that’s honestly just worse news for the NBA, not some cataclysmic potential issue they have to fix. They’re doing just fine with Schröder as things stand right now, even with his defensive drawbacks. They’ll have to continue to do so against better competition, yes, but he’s shown enough flashes of being a disruptive and irritating presence that there is reason to believe that this team will eventually figure out ways to paper over his weaknesses on that end and augment his strengths. And given where the metrics currently stand, there is basically nowhere to go but up.