You can’t half-ass defense.
Individually, you can maybe get away with being below average. Granted, that’s mostly only if you have the superior offensive talent to offset those limitations and are fortunate enough to have capable support around you. But collectively, there’s a degree of shit that needs to be given. Good defense is not something that can be faked like a smile. No, it’s as necessary as breathing if you have any hope of winning at the professional level on a consistent basis.
The Lakers — who as of this article are losers of eight of their last ten contests and possess just a mere half-game lead over the tenth-seeded Pelicans — are currently learning this lesson the hard way.
While the team’s lackluster play on the defensive end has ultimately been the result of a myriad of factors that have ranged from roster construction, scheme and the aforementioned dips in effort, there has been another consistent contributor to the slippage when looking closer under the hood — their inability to stop the opposition’s running game.
According to Cleaning to the Glass, the Lakers currently rank dead last in transition frequency (aka the percentage of their opposition’s possessions that begin with a transition play, currently 16.4%). What follows are a few possible reasons why that is the case, as well as how they may be able to address it. And maybe, just maybe, finally start giving a shit.
The area that may be most in the Lakers’ control when it comes to limiting their opponents’ fastbreak chances moving forward may actually rest in their literal hands: Improved ball security.
After a stretch where they dialed back on their early season giveaways, the team has since experienced a relapse, coughing up the rock with regularity and simultaneously paving a runway for the opposition to take off from.
Since the start of February, the club has ranked 21st in turnover percentage, and on the season, are 27th in terms of the percent of the opposition’s steals that have resulted in a transition play on the other end.
While not all turnovers are made equal or look the same, the Lakers have routinely been burned by a nightly combination of poor decision making, lazy passing and the negative effects that come from their poor half-court spacing and aggressively uncreative offense.
Mistakes and gambles will naturally happen within the ebbs and flows of a game. But the rate at which they happen, and to what degree do such errors border carelessness are the exact details that need to be ironed out in the film room. The self-inflicted mistakes are the ones that need to be cut out of the team’s diet.
Coaching decisions like optimizing lineup configuration and play-calling also fall in the same category, as playing multiple non-shooters or bigs at once have proven to be just as harmful, if not more so, than an ill-timed pass or reckless drive into traffic. Although turnovers may only register as one individual’s fault, it’s typically done by committee, and will need to be improved upon as a group as well.
Long-ball long misses
Beyond directly giving the ball away in the form of a turnover, another transition accelerant that has recently gnawed at the team’s defense has come via their own perimeter shooting.
Although the Lakers started off the season hot from deep, they have since cooled off considerably. Most recently, they have converted their 3-point chances at just a 33% clip, the third-worst mark in the NBA since the start of February. And on their “wide-open” attempts — classified as shots taken with six or more feet of space from the nearest defender — the Lakers have the worst conversion rate in the league during that same time span.
Similar to poor lineup usage or play-calling, the sheer inability to knock down shots also has a negative impact on a team’s transition defense, as it is much harder for the opponent to get out and run when they have to take the ball out after a made shot. This has been the direct cause of many of the team’s transition defense issues, as they currently rank 24th in the NBA when it comes to opponents’ transition frequency off of live rebounds. And when those misses have come from behind the arc, it has proven even more costly.
A 3-point miss can be extra prickly for transition defenses as longer shots naturally create longer rebounds, which — if the opposition can corral them — allow a much better chance for a head-start in leaking out.
There is also the element of who is taking or missing the shot that has given the defense fits as well. For example, when LeBron James has played center and the opposing big contests a perimeter shot, that player is now in position to leak out on the other end through his forward momentum via the contest. This then creates the possibility of a lob, or another big/small type of mismatch.
The Clippers recently exploited this exact thing against the Lakers in their blowout win, as will other teams if the team’s shots continue to miss their mark.
Poor technique and hustle
While aspects like turnovers and missed shots are mostly unavoidable within the heat of a competition, playing with effort is one part of the game that a player and team can directly control.
Although effort is non-tangible, the lack of effort can take many physical forms, and is most readily visible on the defensive end. Especially in transition, where running back and communication are essential to creating a wall between the ball and the current advantage.
The Lakers’ effort waxes, but mostly wanes. They jog, but don’t sprint. The group’s lackadaisicalness of late has trickled down to everything from their ability to actively stop the ball, match up properly, or even simply attempt to hustle to prevent an easy bucket on the other end.
The result has been a lot of open lanes to the rim from the opposition, numbers advantages that lead to open threes and bundles of points that come in endless waves. Fingers are then pointed at each other for missed assignments. The exasperation and frustration is visible on nearly every face as the margin for error grows even smaller.
Quantifiably, the lack of focus and sheer will to fight are big, if not the biggest, reasons why the team’s transition defense has also been 11 points worse since the start of February compared to their season average.
Contextually, the Lakers may simply be at the point where it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy-in and exert that energy when things continue to spiral, and the championship aspirations that they all once shared are becoming just another distant memory. The human element of all this is real, and the team’s play of late is a striking portrait of what the difference playing with spirit looks like as opposed to not.
The great Tex Winter once said — “Good defensive play is as much a matter of hustle, desire and pride as it is anything else.”
The Lakers have played this season like they’re intent on proving this statement true.
So while this team is not exempt from their valid claims of bad luck, unfortunate circumstances, and everything else that has befallen them this year, they are also not exempt from criticism for their unwillingness to control what they can control. To take pride in stopping the other team.
Until that changes, the rest of the league will only continue to run them out of the gym. One fast-break and snarl towards their bench at a time.