After a disappointing 2020-21 season that saw the defending NBA champion Lakers lose to the Phoenix Suns in the first round after both of their superstars suffered injuries, general manager Rob Pelinka oversaw his third roster overhaul in three offseasons, trading for Russell Westbrook in a move that essentially maxed out the Lakers’ salary cap space before signing a lot of veterans — most of them well into their 30s — to fill out the rest of the roster.
It’s a move to go all-in on offense, using the physically imposing “bigger-faster-stronger” approach behind Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis in order to replicate what worked so well during the team’s 2019-20 NBA title run one year ago. However, having so many old legs can cause issues on the other side of the court.
So far in the preseason — yes, it is just preseason, so these concerns might be totally overblown — those issues have cropped up in a major way for the Lakers. L.A. is currently 0-4, with two games left before opening night, and is giving up an average of 121 points per game to opponents.
It is a striking contrast to what Lakers fans have grown accustomed to since head coach Frank Vogel took over before that 2019-20 season. Vogel, who already had a reputation as a defensive wizard from his time leading the Indiana Pacers, turned the Lakers into a suffocating force that even succeeded on defense when James and Davis were hurt last year.
But despite a roster that is not primed for such an approach, Pelinka is expecting Vogel to work his magic yet again.
“The good news is that we have seen this ‘Coach Vogel Effect’ defensively with last year’s group, and the year before where his system and his discipline, and his teaching, and his focus on that side of the ball translated into success,” Pelinka said during his annual preseason address to the media on Sept. 23.
“And of course part of that was personnel,” Pelinka continued. “But part of that is also system and teaching and accountability, and so we have a belief in this group, with some of the guys that were added like Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, I could go down the list, that there is going to be a massive commitment to defense and rebounding and those cornerstone elements that are key to winning at a high level.”
Vogel will already have to overcome injuries yet again, as Ariza is expected to be out until at least December after undergoing ankle surgery and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers’ youngest player and one who was expected to also be a major help on defense, will miss time due to surgery for a torn thumb ligament.
Of course, the Lakers have had to overcome injuries in prior seasons as well, and with a team as old as this one, Pelinka had to be anticipating some sort of setback on that front. Still, he only portrayed confidence about the team’s defensive ability back in September.
“I don’t have any concerns about us being a very, very strong team defensively,” Pelinka said. “I believe in the group’s commitment and effort, and Coach’s teaching at that end that I think we’ll be successful as a defensive ball club.”
It is also worth noting that as complimentary as Pelinka is of Vogel here, he still reportedly only gave Vogel a one-year extension this past offseason, leaving the job security of the first title-winning Lakers coach since Phil Jackson more up in the air than it probably should be. Replacing one lead assistant with prior head coaching experience (Jason Kidd) with another in David Fizdale — who also has more history with LeBron than Vogel did before the Lakers — doesn’t exactly seem to strengthen Vogel’s standing either. If Pelinka actually believes Vogel can make this roster elite defensively, that would seem to be the kind of coach you would value a bit more than Pelinka’s actions would seem to.
But Lakers fans will soon see whether Pelinka’s confident comments are misplaced. The Lakers open their schedule with three home games against playoff contenders — Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors, the defending Western Conference champion Suns and the upstart Memphis Grizzlies. Lakers-Warriors tips off on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m., at which point “The Coach Vogel Effect” will get its first real test of validity.