As his team gathered for just their seventh practice since the regular season started, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel decided to change things up. To break up the monotony of an expedited regular season made even more dreary and isolated by the NBA’s stringent-but-necessary COVID protocols, he took his team outside to work out in the beautiful Los Angeles sun across the street from their practice facility. And after watching Dennis Schröder and the rest of his team chop their feet through some football drills, Vogel was asked about how his starting point guard has used his speed to attack screens, but he wanted to focus on what Schröder has done on the other end of the court.
“His impact has been felt more on the defensive end than even the offensive end,” Vogel said. “His speed is a problem for opposing teams. It’s a problem for guys like Kemba Walker and Trae Young when they’re trying to get into the lane, when they’re trying to beat him off the bounce.”
Sometimes a basketball team just needs a jolt of energy. In that case, Schröder’s intensity is like a sentient version of the effect of taking practice outside to change things up and infuse some newfound enthusiasm. He’s just always moving with an infectious energy, and it’s probably the only type of spread the Lakers want this season. While Vogel was talking about the Lakers’ prior two wins, but he could have just as easily been talking about Schröder’s effort in their victory against the Denver Nuggets, when Schröder’s double-diving hustle got Vogel so fired up that he ran onto the floor to help the 27-year-old off the ground:
FLAT OUT INCREDIBLE!! That’s TUFF DENNIS THE MENACE! https://t.co/nQUUkTYuXr— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 5, 2021
Schröder’s hustle was one of the few signs of life for the Lakers’ defense in their first two quarters on Thursday, and in addition to Vogel lighting the team up for their lack of effort at halftime, it was one of the things Anthony Davis credited for them turning a dispiriting effort into a blowout, 114-93 win in the second half.
“He’s making big plays for us. He’s picking up 94 feet. He’s everywhere. His hands are on the ball,” Davis said. “He’s doing everything for us.”
So far, the numbers haven’t reflected that level of impact. They actually show the complete opposite. The Lakers are never worse defensively — allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions — than they are when Schröder plays, and never better than when he sits (96.4) according to NBA.com. That trend mostly held against the Nuggets, but those numbers also ignore a little bit of context.
For one thing, Schröder is often replaced by Alex Caruso, whose defensive on/off ratings (97.1 and and 106.3, respectively) are the exact inverse of Schröder’s in that — among rotation players — the team is never better when he is on the floor and never worse than when he sits. Considering that Caruso is one of the best guard defenders in the NBA, it’s hard to penalize Schröder too much for that.
To some degree, this could also be an instance of what I’ll dub “The Avery Bradley Effect.” All last year, the Lakers raved about Bradley’s defense and the boost it gave them, even though prior to the NBA shutdown, they were only marginally improved defensively with Bradley on the floor. Unlike Schröder, the Lakers were better with Bradley on the floor, but the difference was basically negligible (a defensive rating 104 on vs. 105.2 off).
Still, the team felt like Bradley gave them some electricity, and inspired the team with his hustle. Numbers can’t always account for that stuff, but with plays like Schröder’s last night, or the way he hounded Young and Walker in their prior games, it’s easy to see that he’s making an impact on defense. He’s just playing in front of someone who is even better, but it’s also obvious to see that the team is inspired by how much heart the spritely guard is playing with on that end.
When the Lakers acquired Schröder, most of the focus was on his offense, but despite the numbers, it’s clear that the team feels he’s been more impactful in how he’s utilizing his natural tools on the other end. Is he going to win Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon? No. Is he even a great defender? Probably not, but he is a good one, and the eye test screams that he’s better than his metrics and reputation would suggest on that end of the floor.
“He uses that defensive presence,” Vogel said. “His speed is one of the reasons why we have him on this team, and he’s certainly given us a big lift in that regard.”
It’s why Vogel clearly wants to lift Schröder too, whether he’s correcting a national reporter’s question about offense to shine a light on Schröder’s defense, or literally scraping him off the floor after he leaves it all out there on the hardwood.