Note: Weâ€™re doing a two-part Laker preview this week, one part for each end of the court. Defense goes first, with offense to follow (likely on Saturday).
We love our fancy statistics here at FB&G, but you really didnâ€™t need them to figure out what was wrong with last seasonâ€™s Lakersâ€” it was the defense. I knew it (and backed it up with fancy stats), you knew it, opposing coaches clearly knew it, Jack Nicholson knew it, the media knew it, the Laker girls knew it, birds knew it, bees knew it, even educated fleas knew it.
Last seasonâ€™s Lakers were 29th in the league in defensive efficiency, with a rating of 108 (points per 100 possessions given up). While they were well below average in opponents shooting percentage (giving up 49.2% [eFG%], 21st in the league) what really hurt was being dead last in creating turnovers (just 12.5% of opponents possessions). On a gut level I wanted to lay all of it at the feet of Chucky Atkins (he of the defensive rating of 115 [same per 100 possessions system as the team rating], he who allowed opposing point guards to shoot 49.6% and have a PER of 19.2, basically the equivalent of having Mike Bibby playing against you every night) but the problem was bigger than that. It was systemic.
To fix this, the Lakers have turned to Phil Jackson. Last time he came to town the Lakers improved from a defensive rating of 104.4 (24th in the league) the year before to 98.4 (second in the league) under Jackson. This season the Lakers (along with the Knicks) are an interesting experiment this season in just how big a difference a coach can make on a team defensively.
But Phil is going to have to fix this system with some mismatched players and guys that have not been defensive stalwarts in the past. Of the nine Lakers expected to see significant time this season, only two have a career defensive rating below the league average â€” Devean George and Aaron McKie. Three guys are right at the league average (Kobe, Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown) and the rest have been worse than average.
While defensive stats are not definitive right now (due to lack of quality information, something changing this season), just eyeballing the Laker roster makes you nervous about the defense.
Up front there is the combination of Kwame and Chris Mihm. Kwame has the reputation of a good on the ball defender but a poor help defender, plus he doesnâ€™t show up to play every night (something Jackson needs to help fix). Chris Mihm tries to block everything and that leads to foul trouble (something else Jackson needs to fix). The guys backing them us â€” Slava and Brian Cook â€” are far from defensive stalwarts.
In the middle the Lakers are better â€” Kobe can defend but had a bad season last year and, at times, wasnâ€™t asked to in previous years in an effort to save his energy for offense. Lamar Odom is long and can create problems because of that, plus he can guard a four if need be. Devean George is a solid, though not spectacular defender off the bench. Luke Walton, well, letâ€™s just not ask him to guard anyone good.
The biggest personnel concern is at the point â€” Chucky Atkins is gone (thank Buddha) but who is taking his place? There is Aaron McKie, who hasnâ€™t guarded a point guard for two years while playing alongside Iverson. Plus McKie is not getting younger and faster. Then there is Smush Parker, who had a terrible career defensive rating coming into the season (last season in Detroit opponents had a PER of 19.4 playing against him, worse that Chucky Atkins, and that was with the best defensive front line in the league behind him). However, in the Summer Pro League and preseason he has looked better. These two guys do fit Philâ€™s preference for tall point guards that are both versatile and can use that length to disrupt the shots of players who beat them off the dribble.
So how does Phil overcome the questionable personnel? By applying some pressure and getting the players to apply themselves. He is asking his players to step up the defensive pressure â€” do some full court pressing (picking their spots during the season, one should not challenge Steve Nash too closely) and some jumping into passing lanes. Take some risks, create some turnovers, disrupt the offensive flow. It may mean giving up a few easy baskets but you canâ€™t get rewards without some risk.
In the preseason it is working. The Lakers have a defensive rating of 101.5 â€” 6.5 points better than last season, an even bigger numerical improvement than last time he took over the team. Plus, the Lakers are creating turnovers on 17.6% of opponent possessions, meaning a lot more empty trips.
Those numbers are just from the preseason and things could change when the games matter, but the bottom line is the Lakers appear to care about defense first this season, understanding that it is the key to team improvement.
And that alone is a huge step toward the playoffs.