Darvin Ham was brought to the Lakers to help restore the team’s defensive foundation. The 2021-22 season had many issues, but finishing 21st in defensive rating under a defensive-minded head coach was arguably the most embarrassing.
Even as the Lakers remain winless to start the season, Ham has at least had success in the primary goal: the Lakers are fourth in the league in defense, even though they’ve faced Steph Curry, Dame Lillard, and Nikola Jokić to start the season. It’s a commendable achievement for a team that is mostly filled with newcomers learning a new system.
Defensively, the Lakers have had success by doing a number of things well. They limit shots at the rim and force a lot of midrange jumpers. They generate a lot of turnovers. They’ve held opponents to a low shooting percentage.
But one thing that the Lakers have been objectively terrible at is stopping opponents on the fast break. The fourth-best halfcourt defense in the league is accompanied by the third-worst transition defense, and that has been a huge problem, especially considering the Lakers are defending in transition on 18.6 percent of their possessions, the third-highest in the league.
Against Denver, the Lakers ceded 35 fast-break points out of 110 total for the Nuggets. That brings the team’s season average to 20.8 points allowed per game, behind only the Warriors and the Sixers. Suffice it to say, it was a cause for concern for Darvin Ham postgame:
“We work on our principles, we watch film on them. We talk about them all the time. And I don’t know if — I hate to use the altitude as an excuse, and I’m not going to do that — but you know, just guys got to be committed consistently. They’re a fast team. Jokić likes to throw deep, long outlets. They have some very, very fast athletic guys. So that’s part of the game we commit ourselves to. That’s the first line of defense, the transition defense. So we’ll go back and look at it and try to see what we can fix.”
Ham has a point about Jokić, but the Lakers have been bad against every opponent on the break. Even the Clippers, who were one of the worst fast-break teams in recent history last year, managed 16 points in transition against these Lakers.
But the third quarter of Wednesday’s game in Denver was the clearest example of the Lakers’ struggles in transition, as they allowed 13 fast-break points to the Nuggets. On the first turnover, LeBron James and Anthony Davis hadn’t crossed halfcourt by the time Jamal Murray dunked the ball. On the next possession, LeBron missed a layup and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had an uncontested three on the other end within seven seconds. KCP had yet another open corner three a couple of minutes later within seven seconds of an Austin Reaves’ missed shot. It was more of the same throughout the period.
Those are the kinds of mistakes the Lakers can’t afford: not tracking back, failing to match up and leaving shooters open, or forcing smalls to cover in the post. On another possession in the third, all five Lakers were back on defense but Lonnie Walker IV was matched up against Jokić, allowing for an easy entry pass and jump-hook.
The Lakers are going to be defending in transition a lot. As long as the offense continues to struggle, opposing teams will be able to push the pace on live rebounds. When those missed shots come at the rim since defenses can pack the paint against L.A., that floor balance makes it really easy for opponents to run down the other end to score. The offense is setting up the defense to fail, which is what makes it all the more noteworthy that the overall defensive effort has been so strong.
Even if the frequency of transition opportunities is going to be hard to fix, what can change is the Lakers’ commitment to defending on the break. That’s an area of the game they can control, and they’ll have to in order to finally get in the win column.