During the first two years of Frank Vogel’s coaching tenure, the Lakers reached the playoffs thanks in large part due to a stifling interior defense reminiscent of Vogel’s Indiana Pacers teams from the early 2010s. But after the Lakers again transformed their roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis this past summer, the team is 16th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.4 points per game, a precipitous drop from their top-three status the last two years.
And while it’s early and injuries have played a role, the Lakers’ dip also comes despite a fairly easy schedule so far, during which the Lakers have struggled against some teams who their talent should have overwhelmed, including handing the Oklahoma City Thunder their only two wins of the season.
Vogel’s defensive coaching acumen shined brightest when the Lakers, despite extended injury absences from James and Davis, finished as the NBA’s top defense last season. The new Lakers’ roster has a long way to go to reach anything close to that level, and will have to do so with James and Davis battling injuries once again.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily just one thing,” DeAndre Jordan said at the team’s Friday practice after the team blew a 19-point lead to the Thunder on Thursday. “But I do believe that we’re making strides. I think that we have seen great periods of defense for us in spurts. We put it together enough to win games, but we still have a long way to go. We still can get a lot better.
“We (the centers) are the last line of defense, and we see a lot of things before they develop, and we can call out things and help guys, but we also have great defenders on this team like Avery Bradley, Baze, we’ve got guys like Rondo who is extremely smart, Russ,” Jordan continued. “We’ve got to find a way to put it together.”
Jordan also pointed out that despite the veteran presences on the current Lakers squad, most of them are still figuring out how to play alongside each other, especially Jordan, who was a late addition to the roster.
“It’s not an excuse, because no team in the league has a lot of practice time to learn these things, (but) we’re kind of learning them and learning each other in games and in film sessions,” Jordan said. “Once we get more minutes with each other, I think you’ll see some progression there.”
Jordan himself has struggled mightily on defense, as he is clearly no longer the athletically dominant rim protector that he was in his prime with the Los Angeles Clippers. The current version of Jordan has been anchoring a starting lineup of himself, James, Davis, Russell Westbrook and Kent Bazemore that has been outscored by 16 points in 103 minutes on the court thus far this season.
That is by the worst margin among any lineup Vogel has trotted out thus far this season while he waits for role players like Talen-Horton Tucker and Kendrick Nunn to get healthy — which seemingly won’t be anytime soon.
In the meantime, either Vogel will have to keep shuffling his lineup (especially with James out for at least another week and Davis nursing a thumb sprain) or hope that Jordan or Dwight Howard can rediscover at least a glimpse of what made them such dominant defenders at their respective peaks. Because they’re going to need a lot more to go right than whatever small progress they feel they’ve made defensively so far if they’re going to stay afloat without (or with limited versions of) their two best players.