If there's one image that has been emblematic of the Lakers’ current upswing, it’s that of Anthony Davis — his tree-trunks for legs bent — sweat dangling over his brow and his eyes burning holes through the opposing offense.
He’s tucked away in the middle of the floor, tip-toeing above and below the free-throw line, pacing there as if sensing a threat approaching his cave.
For other teams’ ball-handlers, Davis is the type of imaginary-being you trick yourself into believing isn't real. There’s no way he is creeping within the dark. There’s no way he can get to the ball in time. But he is, and can, of course. And once he emerges from his hunkered stance, he makes their fear become reality.
While it was easy, and even understandable, to count the Lakers out once LeBron James was ruled out of action for an extended period of time, the team has instead only ascended the Western Conference standings.
There are multiple factors as to how and why the Lakers have chugged along without James, but the backbone of their recent success rests on what has become a stifling defense anchored by Davis.
Since the NBA trade deadline, the Lakers have the best defensive rating in the league (108.9) and are allowing the second-lowest effective field-goal percentage to their opposition (50.6%).
Figuratively and literally the center of it all, Davis has been the fulcrum of the defense despite having to also shoulder the offensive burden left behind by James and D’Angelo Russell. Fortunately, the big man hasn't let up on his barricading duties. In fact, he’s arguably been as dominant as ever.
Amongst the 15 players who have defended at least 170 field-goal attempts since February’s trade deadline, Davis currently leads the pack in allowing the stingiest field-goal percentage against him (41.9%) according to the league’s tracking data.
Beyond his individual efforts, the game-plan has also worked in lockstep with Davis’ abilities to help fortify the defense.
As the cornerstone of Darvin Ham’s drop coverage, Davis has leveraged his quick feet and condor-like wingspan to deter shots near the basket while also getting out to contain pick-and-rolls.
While utilizing a drop isn't new by any means for the Lakers, their new surrounding pieces, namely Jarred Vanderbilt, have allowed Davis to occupy more of a roamer role instead of needing to defend the opposing team’s best big on every possession.
So far, the combination of the drop and new frontcourt (100.3 defensive rating) are achieving Ham’s continued goal of forcing the opposition to “play inside the 3-point line.”
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers’ defense is allowing the 9th lowest percentage of shots coming at the rim, the 6th lowest conversion rate, the 6th highest midrange frequency and the 4th lowest FG% on shots near the floater area of the floor since their roster makeover.
Outside of Davis’ spectacular play and the team’s backline coverage providing a secure shield, another staple of the half-court defense that has paid off is the team’s trust in the percentages.
It’s becoming more and more clear that what qualifies a good defensive possession for the coaching staff isn't as much the types of shots the opposition are getting, but more so who is taking them.
The Lakers have aggressively shifted their defensive strategy to not just sag off weaker perimeter shooters, but almost ignore them completely in hopes that the data wins out. The tactic has seen the team’s defenders cheat off their assignment and camp out in the paint, not even offering as much as a courtesy closeout once the shooter finally lets it fly.
While the strategy has received some pushback, specifically after the Blazers lit up their open looks against them en route to a blowout win, the larger sample has strongly suggested it’s been a net positive as no team is allowing a lower 3-point percentage (32.3%) than the Lakers since the trade deadline.
It’s also important to note where the threes given up have come from. The Lakers are allotting the highest percentage of above the break treys (32%) to the opposition during this same span. Historically, this is where the percentages say you want the other team’s attempts from behind the arc coming.
As is the case with any defensive strategy however, there are of course limitations and times when adjusting is appropriate. Whether it was Matisse Thybulle hitting four uncontested 3’s or Ja Morant throwing in floater after floater against a drop, sometimes relying on solely the numbers can backfire.
A balance is needed, and while the aggregate has shown the team’s approach to be effective, there is always room for improvement.
The Lakers’ rise to the top defense over the past month hasn't solely rested on their game-plan though, as their uptick in sheer energy and doggedness has also helped shore up what has been a nagging ailment all season — their transition defense.
On the year, the team has allowed 131.7 points per 100 transition possessions according to Cleaning the Glass, that ranks 27th in the league. Since the deadline however, the team has made huge strides as they have given up just 115 points per, good for 5th best during this stretch.
While there is nuance and technique that go behind a good transition defense, many instances it boils down to how well a team can get back, stop the ball and build a wall to prevent the initial advantage created to hit the breaks.
These were aspects the team failed to do consistently earlier in the season, as they routinely got blitzed in the open court. Fortunately, the team has done a much better job of late in both sprinting back and matching-up.
This is another area where the team’s moves at the deadline have paid dividends. A player like Vanderbilt for example, has a level of motor and athleticism that enables him to not only catch up to his man, but even beat him down the court.
The combination of a defensive stalwart like Davis, a more versatile roster (with positional flexibility, bye bye small guards!) and a game-plan that is churning out positive results, suggests this recent success isn't just a flash in the pan.
There will always be a degree of luck involved with defense. Sometimes the opposition simply misses. This is the case for every team, and the Lakers are no exception. That said, there are enough indicators to suggest that defense can continue to be the Lakers’ calling card if they commit themselves to that end like they have.
In a season riddled with change and stop-and-goes, the Lakers need a reliable foundation now more than ever. One they can find their footing upon, and one they can believe in. It took them 66 games to get here, but in their defense they may have finally found some steady ground underneath them.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.