As the Lakers continue to try to tread water without Anthony Davis, they’re learning more and more about the strengths and weaknesses of their current roster and how some of these disparate parts best fit together to form more cohesive units that can help the team win games.
A key part of this process is better understanding what players can and cannot do on both ends of the floor, particularly on defense. After all, since the Lakers' 2-10 start to begin the season, the offense actually has not been much of a problem. In those 24 games since the team fell 8 games under .500, they’ve actually ranked 4th in the NBA in offensive efficiency at 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Even in the games since AD went down (including the Nuggets game where he left with his foot injury), the team has an offensive efficiency of 117.7, which is 7th in the NBA over that stretch.
Defensively, however, the Lakers have struggled. Since AD got hurt, they’ve ranked 27th in the NBA in defensive rating. Which, of course. That said, when the team is scoring as well as they have been, finding ways to be just a bit better on that end can have a major impact on their win-loss record and help them gain some ground in the standings rather than running the treadmill of being anywhere from six to eight games under .500 and waiting for whenever AD returns to catapult them up the standings.
The limitations of a frontcourt defense anchored by Thomas Bryant being what they are, the Lakers can’t simply expect to keep doing the same things over and over and get different results. They also can’t realistically cut Bryant’s minutes by any significant amount as he’s too important to the team’s offensive attack currently. Being more judicious with his minutes against particularly difficult defensive matchups is fine, but Darvin Ham is already doing that about as much as he can.
One schematic shift I think can be deployed a bit more to help the defense, however, is to play more switchable groups that can counter the team’s more standard drop coverages. Mostly, these would be the groups in which LeBron is the only big man on the floor (though Gabriel could be an option here too, either with or without Bron) where he is then flanked by Troy Brown and Juan Toscano-Anderson and then some combination of Russ, Austin Reaves, and/or Dennis Schröder.
Per Cleaning the Glass, when LeBron is the lone big on the floor and he is flanked by Brown and JTA — which, is a small sample and includes multiple shorter shifts in several games beyond the longer shift from the most recent game vs. the Hawks — the Lakers have a +33.2 net rating on the season with a defensive efficiency of 85.4 overall. And, intuitively, this makes a lot of sense as both players compete defensively and have enough versatility to guard multiple positions.
Before the season, Brown spoke about his ability to guard down on guards, and in recent weeks where he’s had to size up and play more PF, he’s shown a penchant for hitting the glass. JTA, meanwhile, has mostly stuck in this league because of his defensive motor and ability to guard on the wing while battling bigger forwards when they take him to the post. He then also hits the backboards hard and is a willing rebounder — both getting to the ball himself and as someone willing to give up his body when boxing out.
Add in a combination of Russ, Dennis, and/or Austin and you then have differing types of guards who can step in and provide a range of defensive abilities — even a switching one. Obviously, this is true of Russ, but in Dennis and Austin you can find ways to switch with them even with their relative lack of size and strength. Both can front the post and both have enough motor to then rotate out of traps and scram switches with LeBron to then recover back to the arc in scramble possessions.
None of this can be a full-time defensive approach, and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be. What’s most important right now is for the Lakers to continue to find different looks that can offset what the team is already doing in order to find just a bit more success in more parts of the game. Earlier during the season, that meant playing some zone. And those looks can still work — though I’d like to see them with both TB and Wenyen in the game and when LeBron rests.
But now, without AD, they need another look and option for the stretches in which you still want to play small. With AD around the team had more leeway to play multiple smaller guards because AD could cover up for so much. But with LeBron in the middle, more size on the wing is important and that’s where JTA and Brown can help. I hope they get more chances to see if the success they’ve had in smaller samples can sustain. Because, if it does, the Lakers can swap out some of their moral victories for actual ones and move up the standings in the process.
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