The Lakers’ shift to a small ball mentality has come with a number of offensive benefits, largely a result of LeBron James playing at a remarkably high level. A change forced onto the Lakers after Anthony Davis’ injury, the team has adopted a style that has seen them almost entirely abandoning playing a true center.
On paper, it’s a move that would come with certain consequences like on the defensive end and that was the case early on for the Lakers after the switch. However, the team has adapted to the move on that end of the floor and steadily improved. Prior to Sunday’s game against the Grizzlies — which did feature a step backward defensively — head coach Frank Vogel talked about some of the positives of playing small.
“There’s some defensive benefits to it as well, especially with certain matchups where we’re doing a lot of double-teaming with elite guards and you have more speed to scramble around the perimeter,” Vogel said. “There’s a still a lot of areas of those types of coverages that we need to improve on but the speed of that can be beneficial.”
Over the preceding 10 games before Sunday’s against Memphis, the Lakers held a defensive rating of 113.5, which ranked ranking 23rd in the league. However, that steadily improved as the sample size shrunk to more recent outings, indicating consistent improvements.
|Last 10 games||113.5||23|
|Last 9 games||113.5||24|
|Last 8 games||114.9||25|
|Last 7 games||112.4||20|
|Last 6 games||111.1||16|
|Last 5 games||109||12|
|Last 4 games||108.9||11|
Those figures come with two notable caveats. First, as mentioned, Sunday’s loss to the Grizzlies was a loud example of how far the team still has to come on that end as Memphis got to the rim at will as well as torching the Lakers from beyond the arc. You can’t simply ignore what happened on Sunday, but those types of games happen from time to time across the league.
The other caveat is that the team’s schedule during that 10-game span was rather easy. It offered the team a stretch of contests to learn how to play small, but it also means the team could afford to make mistakes and not be punished as harshly.
Still, the numbers show the team has been improving defensively while playing small. The team won’t commit to it for 48 minutes as they are now once Davis returns, instead likely playing just 10-12 minutes with James at center. And it’s James that has proven to be vital to the team learning how to play small and find success defensively as well.
“Whether he’s guarding the five or if he’s on the backside at the 3 or 4 or whatever,” Vogel said, “his voice has been critical over the last three years of me being here and this era of Lakers basketball to the defenses that we’ve had. He’s the middle linebacker. He’s the best communicator. He’s the best anticipator. Anybody who wants to question what he’s doing on the defensive side of the ball, he’s critical to everything we do defensively.”
The Lakers are ultimately getting a huge sample size each night without Davis of how to play small, which they will then put into shorter bursts when he returns. And while nights like Sunday may still happen from time to time, the team is still improving on both ends of the floor as they get more reps.