It’s no secret the Lakers are struggling defensively this year, Saturday’s showcase against the Blazers the most recent lowlight. Even though the team still sits in a respectable 14th in the league in defensive rating, there are plenty of concerns still apparent, many of them highlighted against Portland.
As a team, the Blazers came into the night 23rd in offensive rating and yet exploded for 36 points in the first quarter, 42 in the third and 93 across the opening three periods as they won in a rout. After the game, head coach Frank Vogel revealed that the team had scaled back some of its defensive schemes after struggling to execute them to that point in the season.
“We’re struggling to contain quick, deep-shooting guards with this year’s personnel and the way we like to bring double teams,” Vogel said. “So we pulled back on it some and those guys took advantage of it. I mean, before we pulled back on it, we weren’t tough enough with our low man in our rotations and we weren’t containing with our guards in the trap well enough.
“So when neither one was happening, we pulled back into our base coverage and that’s risky against shooters like Dame and CJ, and they got going a little bit. And at that point we were down, and we just tried to junk the game up.”
Vogel’s reputation as an elite defensive coach is well-deserved, as seen firsthand by Lakers fans last season. Even after injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James left the Lakers with a calvary of role players, Vogel coached the team to the best defense in the league.
On paper, the formula is even better for the Lakers sans James early in the season but the results have been drastically different. A different set of role players around Davis and Westbrook has not produced positive results.
In defense of the players, it’s early in the season with a host of players unfamiliar with the scheme. And, as noted, the team does have the 14th-best defensive rating. But it’s a number fluctuated by good fortune so far.
Cleaning the Glass’ location effective field goal percentage measures how good a defense would be if opponents simply shot league average based a a team’s defensive shot profile. In essence, it removes any sort of luck — poor shooting nights, good shooting nights, etc. — out of the equation and measures how good a defense is then.
All that is to explain that the Lakers rank dead last in the league in location effective field goal percentage. The Lakers allow the third-highest percentage of non-corner 3-point attempts and the highest percentage of attempts at the rim. However, they rank in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage in both areas, sitting in 14th on the 3-point attempts and 17th at the rim.
Effectively, the Lakers have benefitted from good fortune defensively even despite their struggles. It’s a discouraging trend that indicates it could get even worse if there is a regression to the mean.
The Lakers made the conscious decision to sacrifice defense for offense this season. Injuries have largely prevented them from reaping the rewards on one end but still suffering the consequences on the other. But if the team is to be a competitor at any point this season, the defense will have to pick and do so drastically, otherwise it’s going to be another lost season.