For their first two seasons under Frank Vogel, the Lakers’ defining, dominant trait was a hellacious, gritty and physical defense that came at opponents in waves. Right from the start, Vogel’s plan to use quick, strong and focused point-of-attack defenders funneled drivers towards a wall of arms at the rim, and the team used those stops to score with selective speed in transition. It was a formula that — combined with enough star power offensively to prevail in close games — allowed the team to dominate en route to their 2020 title, and overcome injuries to finish with the best defense in the NBA in 2021.
That 2020 title team especially used the blueprint to such great success that video analyst Pete “Laker Film Room” Zayas coined a perfect descriptor for them on their run to the championship: The Bigger, Faster, Stronger Lakers. But a little over one calendar year — and two seasons — later, two offseasons worth of personnel overhauls have left this team’s roster looking entirely different, and it’s fair to say that none of those adjectives apply to these Lakers anymore.
But while this roster’s stylistic shift towards defensively challenged bucket-getters is fairly easy to see at this point, some of the last remaining defense-focused principles are quietly and understatedly pushing back against the dying of the light, calling for more effort and subtly critiquing this roster construction as the team languishes just barely outside of the bottom 10 in the NBA in defensive efficiency. One only has to pay attention, and do a little bit of reading between the lines, to see it.
The dirty little secret of the NBA’s pre and postgame media availabilities is that they often don’t provide much insight. Most of those involved stick to coachspeak and PR-friendly talking points, often not even really addressing the premise of the original query. A lot of answers fall in the vein of “both teams played hard” cliches.
But occasionally, a glimmer of truth can be found, and how Anthony Davis, Avery Bradley and Frank Vogel — all instrumental parts in building the team’s defensive culture two seasons ago — have let their feelings on the team’s struggling defense slip through, in quotes I will bold below, feels notable.
For example, after the team gave up 130 points and got killed on the glass against the Boston Celtics last week, Davis — in the middle of a frustrating season that has seen him have to try and plug more holes defensively than even his prodigious talents and wingspan can cover — made it clear that he thinks everyone involved needs to try harder.
“Effort is No. 1. Communication is No. 2, just talking,” Davis said, admitting that extremely basic principles of defense are still an issue for the Lakers, nearly a quarter of the way into the season. “Everybody needs to be doing their jobs. Bigs doing what we’re supposed to do on pick-and-roll coverages, guards doing what they’re supposed to do with guard-guard screens. Everyone just has to do their job and follow the game plan.
“We can be an elite defensive team. We have great defenders,” Davis continued. “But we have to be able to do it as a collective... We can be an elite defensive team if we want to but we’ve got to do a better job of bringing that energy and effort and communication.”
But while Davis may feel that the Lakers “have great defenders,” he has also subtly criticized the team’s scheme this year, at one point after one of the team’s two losses to the Thunder saying that Oklahoma City was “waiting on our coverages,” adding that the Thunder “knew what we were doing” defensively.
“I mean they knew what we were doing, kind of did that entire second half and their coach or Shai, whoever it was that made the adjustment to put their players in the right spot,” Davis said.
For his part, the man coming up with those schemes seems less sure than Davis about how many “great defenders” the Lakers still have at this point. Vogel is about as polite and calculated as can be in his media interviews, with the amount of times he’s openly criticized this team in his two-plus seasons so far likely not even filling up a single hand if one was counting such instances with their fingers.
So Vogel, on multiple occasions, specifically bringing up “personnel” as part of the team’s issues on the end of the floor he cares most about hardly feels like an accident.
The first instance came on Nov. 6, after the team was blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers on the road, when Vogel admitted “we’re struggling to contain quick, deep-shooting guards with this year’s personnel.” And after the team’s loss to the New York Knicks on Monday night, several weeks later, Vogel again used similar terms when describing how the team is trying to figure things out defensively.
“We’re evolving as a defense,” Vogel admitted. “Our coaching staff is trying to be really creative with the personnel that we have and trying to put them in positions to succeed. There are some details to our man-to-man defense that are taking time for our guys to pick up, and we’re having too many breakdowns, especially early in the game.”
Do those sound like the words of a man who believes in the defensive abilities of this roster, or was consulted much on the construction of it? Not really. And while there have been no concrete rumors that Vogel’s job is in jeopardy, it’s not hard to read his words as a chef feeling at the very least a little bit of heat, and shifting some of the ire over a crappy meal towards the people who assembled the ingredients.
Still, to be as fair as possible to Vogel, however, he did wrap up his critique on Tuesday with the best defense of his team’s own lackluster stopping power he could muster.
“But we’re also mixing in a ton of zone, and that sometimes can impact your focus and assignments in man-to-man if you’re switching back and forth,” Vogel said. “It’s just part of our evolution, and learning what we can do with this group on the defensive side of the ball. There are definitely too many guys getting loose (against us), but I thought defensively, especially in the second half, we competed our tails off... Most of their threes were tough shots. On a couple of them guys got loose, but most of them were tough shots.”
Vogel’s chosen starting shooting guard and defensive security blanket Avery Bradley has been given a spot in the first five in large part due to him being built in a lab to please Vogel’s eye test with the way he competes his tail off, despite the team being significantly worse defensively when he plays than they are when he sits.
But Bradley — who the team considered such an important part of Vogel’s initial defensive schemes that they established “The Avery Challenge,” a benchmark holding the team accountable for stopping teams at a rate equaling or surpassing the No. 1 defense in the NBA each game while Bradley was out with an injury during his first season with the team — seems to be more in agreement with Davis, that this is less about personnel, and more about some teammates who go unnamed needing to try harder.
“One thing I can say is that on the defensive end it’s about effort. Even if we make mistakes, we have to go out there and have that mindset and try to play as hard as we can every single possession,” Bradley said after the team’s loss to the Knicks. “AD is the anchor of our defense. It’s our job to go out there and make sure we’re talking, make sure we’re giving effort and try to make it contagious so that we can become a better defensive team.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but it has to be a want. From everybody. And once we’re able to have that mindset I think things will turn around for us.”
Will things turn around for the Lakers defensively? It’s not clear. Do the quotes above mean the locker room is tearing apart, or has reached some unfixable level of internal discord? Probably not. But what they do indicate is that there is a disconnect between the members of the organization that defense matters most to, and the unnamed subjects of their critiques about effort, communication and ability.
The problem is, it’s not clear that effort or execution is going to take this team much further defensively than where they are currently. it certainly couldn’t hurt, and we’ve seen how much better the team can look when they do lock in, but there is likely a definitive cap on the defensive ceiling of a roster with this many iffy-at-best defensive presences.
To his credit, Vogel is making adjustments. This team is switching more than maybe ever in his tenure, and “junking up” the game with the type of zone defense he’s never been that comfortable with. But needing a team that skews so veteran-heavy and is so full of players not known for their defense — and one that has been so banged up — to win with their defense on a night-to-night basis is a tough ask. Maybe he and the Lakers can figure it out, but while they do, it’s clear that the process has been a frustrating one for those within the organization that care about the defensive side of the floor most.