Before the Lakers took on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Trevor Ariza had to deliver a message to Anthony Davis. The 17-year veteran — who won a title with the 2009 Lakers — is be out for at least another month due to ankle surgery he underwent in training camp, and thus is unable to help the team defensively in the way he wants to. But he also knows that Davis can do more to fix the team’s defense, and wanted to push the much younger franchise centerpiece to do so.
So Ariza took Davis aside and delivered a few simple words: “We need you to get us going defensively.”
It was all Davis needed, and he soon delivered on that request, blocking three shots and helping the purple and gold hold the Cavaliers to just 16 fourth-quarter points as the team completed a come-from-behind, 113-101 win for their third victory of the season on Friday night, moving them to 3-3. But while that fourth quarter showed what the team is capable of at times on defense, that ability has only flashed itself sporadically (at best) this year. Even after that win, the Lakers have the fifth-worst defense in the entire NBA, hemorrhaging 111 points per 100 possessions.
There is a bunch of blame to go around for that, but Davis, among the preseason favorites for his first-ever Defensive Player of the Year award, says the finger-pointing should start with him.
“I take all blame on defense,” Davis said. “That’s kind of my biggest role on the team is to get everybody locked in defensively. If anybody has defensive questions, our bigs come to me, I’m talking to the guards about things, the coaches come to me for defensive purposes, so I take responsibility for that.
“It starts with me just setting the tone on the defensive end so these guys can feed off of it.”
Regardless of how one feels Davis has played on that end — his current Defensive Box Plus-Minus sits at -1.4, the worst of his career and only negative mark ever, for example — or the larger lineup context for some of his or the team’s struggles, the Lakers have certainly not been feeding off of much of anything on the defensive end, instead allowing their opponents to feast on a buffet of barbecued chicken-level defenders up and down the roster. It’s been frustrating for everyone involved, but especially head coach Frank Vogel, widely regarded as one of the best and most committed defensive tacticians in the NBA today.
Vogel took the rare step of calling for a gameday film session at Friday’s shootaround to implore his team to “raise their commitment” to defense while criticizing himself for not outlining their responsibilities well enough. Prior to tip-off against the Cavs, he talked about how he prided himself on adapting his defense to his personnel, and how was still evaluating the best ways to do that with this year’s roster. In the first half of that game, though, it was more of the same, and Vogel was “disappointed” in his team.
“I mean, there’s no other way to put it. We spent a lot of time trying to get that end of the floor better,” Vogel said. “To improve and build that cohesion.”
It didn’t happen, and Davis was just as irritated as his head coach.
“We’re just not talking, to be honest. And it’s messed up the guards, those guys are changing their feet and getting blow-by’d,” Davis said. “The bigs, we’re confused, or I wouldn’t say confused, but we’re not in our coverages where we need to be, up trapping the ball. We’re just not communicating.”
But at halftime, as Vogel walked into the locker room to address the team’s lackluster defensive effort in the first two quarters, he discovered a pleasant surprise: Rajon Rondo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were already showing defensive film to their teammates, trying to talk out what they could do better. When Vogel joined in, they poured over the clips he had asked his staff to pull as well. They collectively decided that the team’s big men needed to show higher at the level of screens, to pressure ballhandlers and make it easier for the players on the backside to read if they needed to rotate over and defend the rim.
“We had some great rim collisions in the fourth quarter. Finally. And that’s something we can build on,” Vogel said.
But like much of the progress the Lakers have made early on, this too came at the pace of a faucet drip. The Cavaliers started the third outscoring the Lakers 28-19 in the frame, leading to what Vogel described as “spirited timeouts” where everyone tried to figure out how to stop the bleeding. Eventually, the conclusion they landed on was simple: Enough is enough. It was time to really lock in.
“Our guys were just tired of how it looked,” Vogel said. “The coaching staff and the head coach were tired of how it looked, and we let them know about it. So guys are being challenged to be better, and I’m excited to see that they performed the way they did in the fourth.”
Vogel also credited the “contagious” energy of Avery Bradley off the bench, but Lakers star LeBron James said the response came from somewhere even earlier than any such subs or those contentious timeouts. He said the Lakers’ rally actually started in the team’s morning film session that Vogel called to try and get everyone on the same page.
“I think the film we watched from the OKC game in the second half, we was able to translate to tonight and hold this team to 42% shooting,” James said. “That’s fantastic.”
“We’re getting there,” added co-star Russell Westbrook. “We’re doing it. That’s all that matters is that we’re moving in the right direction.”
But James also knows there is a lot of work left for the Lakers to do to get to where they want to be defensively.
“It’s every day. It’s every day,” James repeated for emphasis while highlighting how many new players are on this team. “We’re working every day. Our film sessions are probably the most important, because we get an opportunity to watch it, and clip it, and watch it in slo-mo and say, ‘OK, if we would had did that better,’ or, ‘this is how we’re going to play this specific action, this is what gives us the best possible chance to get stop after stop after stop.’”
Westbrook says that doing so is the only way the team is going to win games.
“The best way for us to win the game is for us to get stops,” Westbrook said. “They had a 16-point fourth quarter, which shows what we’re capable of, and what we can do when we’re really locked in.”
“That’s the mindset we’ve got to have,” added Vogel. “That in winning time in the fourth quarter, we’ve got to be a lockdown defense.”
But can the Lakers, who famously traded out a ton of defensive players this offseason for more offensively focused (but defensively challenged) ones, really be a lockdown defense? Despite his clear dissatisfaction with where this team is, Davis made it clear during his postgame venting that he still thinks the Lakers can figure things out on that end of the floor.
“We can control our effort and energy, and that’s all it takes to play defense. And communication. And if we can do those three things on a consistent basis we can be a good defensive team,” Davis said.
Vogel, despite all the early hiccups, is also confident they’ll get there.
“Guys are working together,” Vogel said. “The group is motivated. It’s not happening on the defensive side as quickly as we want, but we’re working towards it.”
And — perhaps critically, considering how much pressure they are under — Davis still believes in what Vogel is asking them to do, and in addition to taking the blame for the defense, vouched for his coach’s approach, saying that it’s on the players to lock in and execute Vogel’s principles.
“Our scheme works. We just have to be committed to doing it,” Davis said. “That takes no energy and no effort to just commit to playing defense. It’s a mindset, like ‘OK, I’m going to play defense. And I’m going to do my job, and whatever my job is, if it leaves my guy open, I know the next guy is going to take the rotation to cover me, because I’m doing my job.’ And that’s a trust thing, and we showed it tonight in the fourth quarter, but we’ve got to do it from the start.”