For the last two seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have finished the year with a top-three NBA defense, finishing first last season and third in 2020. Within that context, to call their production on that end to start the 2021-22 season a dumpster fire thus far is an unnecessary slight to dumpster fires.
No one should be surprised that this team took a step back defensively this year after overhauling almost the entire roster over the offseason and swapping out a cadre of versatile defenders for more gifted offensive players. But just how far the team has fallen has been almost staggering. Five games in, the Lakers are currently allowing 111.4 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-worst defense in the entire NBA.
Beyond Anthony Davis’ all-world defensive talents, the team was counting on head coach Frank Vogel to prevent this precipitous of a drop, to use what general manager Rob Pelinka dubbed “The Coach Vogel Effect” to scheme his way around their limitations. So far, however, that hope hasn’t paid off, albeit just five games in. That’s probably why Vogel called for a rare gameday film session on Friday, in which the team watched footage of their own defensive miscues for 30 minutes while Vogel took some of the blame, but also asked his roster for more.
“We’re trying to build our culture,” Vogel said when asked for his reasoning for the extra film work. “Our culture and our success has been centered around elite playmakers with 3-point shooting and lob spacing support, and elite defense. And the elite defense part is not there yet.
“I’ve asked them to raise their commitment,” Vogel continued, before shifting the onus to himself, as is his wont. “For me, I have to do a far better job bringing clarity to what we’re doing. There’s too much confusion. We have a scheme that’s in place, and our guys, they’re confused, and I’ve got to do a better job making sure that they understand their assignments.”
Vogel has never met a problem that he didn’t feel like he could solve with another defensive adjustment, or with more stopping power thrown onto the court. It’s what has gotten him this far, and he’s very good at it, clearly one of the best defensive coaches in the NBA today.
But on a roster full of at-best-limited defenders, it’s fair to start asking when Vogel is going to start coaching the team he has instead of the team he wants. The team is saying all the right things about being confident they can get better on defense — and to be fair, there is little room to go but up! — but at the same time, it just seems unlikely that extra film work is going to teach a 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony the value of boxing out, or turn back the clock 10 years on DeAndre Jordan’s knees.
Wouldn’t they be better off sacrificing some length that helps defensively to supercharge the offense by going as small as possible, playing Anthony Davis as their only center, and keeping maximum shooting on the floor at all times to maximize the effectiveness of all these offensive weapons, to try to nudge up from the 12th-most effective offense in the league towards the top five? Maybe, but it’s also unsurprising that doing so isn’t Vogel’s top preference, given his defensive predilections. Defense is what got him here. It’s what won him a title. He’s not going to abandon it after five bad games on that end. No one would be so halfhearted in their core beliefs about their profession.
And to be as fair as possible, Vogel has tried to make the offense better, installing an overhauled system in training camp. It’s not like he’s ignoring it entirely. And the eventual returns of more capable defensive players in Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn and Trevor Ariza (in addition to the impending re-debut of LeBron James) should also certainly help the defense improve. But still, can we really expect this roster of unproven or old defenders to embrace the same defensive identity as the team has had the last two seasons since Vogel took over?
“Some of those guys haven’t been in a great defensive system, which is what we have,” Vogel said when asked if there was a way to turn some of his more limited defenders into better contributors on that end. “So there’s a learning curve of what they have to do in our system, and then there’s an effort, intensity and physicality piece that they’ll be challenged to maximize.”
Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, a once-gifted defender who has not been a positive regular-season contributor on that end in years, echoed Vogel’s hopeful tone.
“We’ll get there. I just think there’s so many different personalities, and so many other old habits of other players that came into a system and are learning new things and new ways. When you’ve had a habit your entire career, it’s hard to break those habits overnight,” Rondo said. “That’s one thing I love about film, is that it doesn’t lie. It shows your flaws, it shows your bad habits, and it’s going to take time to rectify.
“But as long as guys have a great mindset and want to get better, and understand what it takes to win a championship, that’s what guys are going to do,” Rondo continued. “We’ve just got to learn how to protect each other on the court, our weaknesses, how to cover up those weaknesses and play to our strengths.”
Vogel added that the team is having errors of both defensive attention and inability so far, and that working on the former will be necessary to paper over the latter. He said that “commitment of effort, intensity and focus, and secondly learning our assignments within our system and our scheme” will be necessary to fix all of it.
“We’re like building a house. You build a house, or you put in an addition, you’ve got all these construction workers in your house and it’s a pain in the ass because there’s plastic and sawdust,” Vogel said. “It’s bad, but you keep saying to yourself ‘man, when this is done it’s going to be great.’ That’s where we’re at right now.
“It’s frustrating,” Vogel continued. “But I know where it’s going to get to, and we’re excited about that and just want to get there as quickly as possible. We’re in the money pit right now, where the construction guy keeps saying ‘hey, we’ll be done in two weeks.’ Over and over, just keeps saying ‘two weeks.’”
Channeling his inner independent contractor, Vogel also requested patience when asked how long it would take for the Lakers to fix their own hazard-ridden defensive construction zone.
“Two weeks,” Vogel deadpanned. “We’re gonna get there, but it’s gonna take work.”
Maybe the Lakers will indeed get there, or at least build a good enough defense that continuing and expected improvements on offense will be enough to counterbalance their newfound issues on the other end. But for right now, to extend Vogel’s own analogy, it’s fair to wonder about the wisdom of trying to use a bunch of parts that were picked out to fix the gaping hole in the roof to build a new guest room above the garage.