The Lakers’ offseason approach saw the team swap out defense for offense in their roster remake. Out went solid defenders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma and in came score-first replacements like Kendrick Nunn, Carmelo Anthony and Wayne Ellington.
The series of changes showed the need the Lakers placed on offensive production after flaming out in the playoffs due to an inability to make shots. However, the team has not punted on the idea of having one of the top defenses as they did last season.
“We lost some strong perimeter defenders,” head coach Frank Vogel said during media day. “But we’ve got great two-way players, and no one that we really feel is a liability. We have a smart scheme that I think our guys will come in and compete in... We’re going to set a high standard for what we’re going to come in and accomplish on the defensive end.
“Are we going to be the No. 1 defense in the league again? I don’t know. We have the rim protection to do it. We have the minds to do it. We have the athleticism to do it. Is this group going to commit like the teams of the last couple years? That’s going to be the question, and that’s going to be the challenge placed upon them.”
When the Lakers won the title less than a year ago, it came on the back of one of the best defenses in the league, particularly during the playoffs. The leader of that defense, Anthony Davis, still thinks the Lakers can perform at a high level on that end of the court.
“Myself, Russ, Bron, (Rondo), Dwight, (Jordan), (Horton-Tucker), Nunn, we’ve got some defensive-minded guys and guys who want to play defense,” Davis said following practice on Wednesday. “And it kind of just - Baze - and it fits into our scheme that we’ve been doing in the past couple years, trying to be a defensive-minded team, being the No. 1 defense in the league and even though we lost those guys, we’ll get back to our ways. Even the guys that, over the years, has been known for struggling on defense, buy into the system. Helping them, having their backs and come together as one on the defensive end. I think we can be a great defense.”
The Lakers will need to rely heavily on that scheme of Vogel, who has become one of the best defensive coaches in the league. To his credit, the Lakers still ranked near the top of the league defensively even when Davis and LeBron James went down to injuries.
Again in tune with the formula that helped them win the title in 2019-20, the Lakers will look to also excel in the fastbreak. It’s a natural evolution if for no other reason than the arrival of Russell Westbrook, one of the league’s best players in the open court, to pair up alongside James, another lethal player on the break.
While the Lakers were not a high-volume fastbreaking team when they won the title, they were a particularly efficient and dangerous team in those scenarios. Vogel has already placed an emphasis on running this season, something he once again reiterated after practice on Wednesday.
“We want to be the best fast-breaking team in the NBA,” Vogel said. “We have dynamic players, and then adding a guy like Russ and the speed that he brings to the table, we want to support him and get everybody running. That’s when we’re going to be at our best, that’s when we were at our best two years ago when we led the league in fast-break points, and I think those two things, along with some different early offense looks that we put in — that are a little bit different than who we were last year — to open things up.”
For the Lakers to be a top-level defensive team, much work will be necessary. Becoming one of the league’s best fastbreaking teams, though, will come far more naturally. Each element will make the team particularly dangerous and help them contend for a title but if the Lakers can accomplish both, they could take big steps toward title No. 18 next spring.