How the Lakers defense wins them games, and why that should have remained their calling card

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever made the mistake of checking the ESPN, FS1 and talk radio shows after a Lakers loss? Worse still, a Lakers loss that had some scoring heroics by LeBron?

"The Lakers can only win when LeBron scores 50 or more ..."

"He needs to carry their offense; you can't expect a 37 year old to play defense too!?"

Seemingly only scoring makes headlines. If you subscribe to the Nick-Wright-LeBronisms and his flawed understanding of a team sport he clearly has never played, then this FanPost is for you. My goal is to clear up misconceptions about offense and defense. How the Lakers got it right in their championship year, and so terrible wrong this season. Duh, right?


Find yourself a 50-plus years old basketball head and try to argue how your favorite player of today is better than anyone during the '80s and '90s. You will be hit with a barrage of "soft", "hand-checking", "Detroit Bad Boys", "Rileys Knicks", "Oakley" and "Laimbeer". And they would be right, the game has changed a lot, which is why era-to-era comparisons are mostly an exercise in mental gymnastics.

We have come a long way in basketball. Here is a description from a radio interview in 1939, as described by Dr. Naismith, the inventor of the game himself:

"The boys began tackling, kicking, and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder."


And so, in the process of mainstreaming the game it evolved constantly, decade by decade. Once it became a global entertainment business and had to compete for the big entertainment dollars (TV money), the commission started changing the rules to improve the flow of the game, especially offensively. The rational was simple: more dunks and scoring are good to sell the product.

Looking at the changes in league averages over the past 30 years it becomes clear how much the flow has changed: significantly more 3-pointers as well as assists (looking for good shots). Defensively: sharp decline in offensive rebounds (less "big" man), drop in steals, turnovers, blocks. Defense is dying. We're in a historical low for personal fouls as well, which is not the result of smarter or more disciplined defense, but lack of defense altogether.

So what did the Lakers do when they won the championship in 2019/20? They simply went the opposite route. They went BIG. Their smallest regular starter in the playoffs was Kentavious Caldwell-pope at 6'5''. They had JaVale (7'0'') or Dwight (6'10'') on the floor, along with LeBron (6'9'') and AD (6'10'', only because he doesn't want to play center and won't admit he is closer to 7'0'').


From their pretty bad 2018/2019 campaign to their championship year the Lakers had huge jumps in defensive efficiency. Everyone talks about the #3 defensive rating that year, but look at the actual upticks:

  • Offensive Rebounds (ORB): Lakers improved year-to-year by 4.7% while lowering the opponents offensive boards by 16.5%
  • Steals (STL): Lakers improved their steals by 14.4%, while lowering the opponents steals by 1.1%
  • Blocks (BLK): Lakers increased their steals by 22.8%, while lowering the opponents blocks by 27.9%!!!
  • Turnovers: Lakers committed 3.1% less turnovers, while forcing 11.8% more turnovers for their opponents
It will remain a mystery why the front-office stopped going with this formula for success, especially with a defensively gifted (and offensively limited) coach in Frank Vogel. Fast forward to this season and the misconceptions that Lakers win because LeBron scores (even if he stops playing defense to find the energy for his scoring heroics).

So ... I crunched some numbers. If you take the league averages for the basic stats and compare how the Lakers performed in their wins and how their losing opponent performed, you get this picture:


What does this tell us?
  1. In our wins we shoot LESS three-pointers, but those that we take we convert at a higher clip than the league average, while our opponents go below the field goal percentage and three-point percentage! => Worse looks, thanks to defense
  2. In our wins we lose the offensive boards badly, and this seems like an anomaly, but its quite consistent within our losses too, we are simply a very bad rebounding team
  3. Yes, you see correctly. In our wins, our blocks shoot through the roof, we jump 29.8% in that category, while allowing 20% less blocks on ourselves. => Defense and good shot selection
  4. Our steals jump up as well, our turnovers go down, while those of the opposition go significantly up => ball pressure / defense will do that
So let us look at how the Lakers perform in a loss ...


We could keep it short and sweet ... barely any yellow bars go above the league averages, except for the one you don't want to see go up: turnovers. But let's give in nonetheless:
  1. We simply take too many bad shots. Both field goal attempts (barely visible) and three-pointers go up slightly above league average, but the makes and thus percentages go significantly down
  2. Rebounds we not only lose the offensive boards, but defense as well
  3. Most significantly: we drop our assists while the opponent improves on his assists, meaning we don't disrupt their offensive sets and we play more ISO basketball ourselves (and convert poorly when we get an assist)
  4. We steal the ball less often, while the opponent jumps up in steals significantly. We're careless with the ball ourselves, while not putting enough pressure on our opponents
  5. Our blocks stay slightly above league average, but they are a far-cry from the previous graphic. The turnovers swing wildly from the last graphic as well, most noticeably: opponents don't turn it over against us in losses => we don't put enough pressure on them, too little effort on the defensive end
Incredible that the opponents outperform the league average in pretty much every meaningful category, except blocks. Wanna look like a million bucks? Go play the Lakers.

Lets put it all together - what's the differential between our wins and losses then?


This graphic is read from the win-perspective, so what are the wildest swings when we win?
  1. Our shooting percentages go up, we favor 2-pointers over 3-pointers in our wins, regardless how "clutch bombing from the logo" in ESPN highlights wants to paint games as something which is culminated in a social-media-friendly 10 second clip. Averages and 48 minutes matter!
  2. Our lack of size (visible by the rebound stats) doesn't have to be the only story regarding our defense: steals and blocks have huge swings in our wins. Thats defensive plays and effort, as well as playing for each other (help defense, covering for each other's mistakes, running in transition).
  3. In our wins we control the ball better (less turnovers), share it more (more assists), while doing the opposite to our opposition: their turnovers shoot through the roof and their assist ratio is cut down, as we jump passing lanes, pressure their ball handlers and double their key players while playing help defense.
So back to the "we need LeBron to score 50 to win" crowd ... no we don't. We need him (and others, looking at basically the whole roster here) to limit themselves to fewer but shots, which means effort on the offensive end. And we need to invest the conserved energy on offense on more defense. Sure, the 2.3 blocks per game by Anthony Davis are missed, as well as his 1.2 steals, but you can't put the entire defense on him and call it a day.

In 2019/2020, as the league kept going faster and smaller, we did the opposite and were rewarded a championship. This is what crafting an identity means: you decide who you want to be as a group, and everyone contributes to that goal. This season we don't have an identity and sorely lack contributions as well. However, make no mistake, it was never the scoring that would have carried us, it was always defense.