What type of team is the Lakers?
An offensive one?
A defensive one?
At this point in the season you’d think this would be clearly established but over the past few weeks, it’s tough to actually tell.
When the season got started, this team was clearly geared towards offense. After the team’s first 10 games they had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 116.7 which was good for 1st in the NBA by a large margin. (Really, that’s a staggering number.) If it would have held up, this team would have easily been considered one of the best offensive teams ever and could have continued to cruise through games and racked up wins playing only mediocre defense as they had to that point (through that same period, they were 16th in defensive efficiency with a rating of 107.5).
But as of today, it’s easy to see that the ranking has not held up as the Lakers have started to sputter on offense. After last night’s effort against the Grizzlies, the Lakers now rank 4th in offensive efficiency with a rating of 110.9 and have fallen behind the Spurs, Heat, and Suns. I’m no mathematics genius, but by my calculations the Lakers’ efficiency on that side of the ball has dropped by 5.8 points per 100 possessions in its past 24 games. Even when accounting for the fact that keeping its early season pace would be nearly impossible, that’s still a hefty decline on offense.
With the return of Andrew Bynum, then, this team must be moving more towards a defensive model, right? I mean, last year when Bynum started the season healthy the Lakers came out of the gates as one of the best defensive teams in the league. For the first moth or so, they actually ranked either 1st or 2nd in defensive efficiency and ended the season in the top 5.
And while this team has made some strides since Bynum has returned, the steps towards positive improvement haven’t fully taken hold yet. Don’t get me wrong, Bynum has been altering shots at the rim and has been as good as I could have imagined in defending the P&R, stepping out to contest jumpers, and helping to close out defensive posssesions by securing the rebound. But as a team, this group is still giving up too much dribble penetration and players whose initials aren’t AB haven’t been protecting the rim with the sort of consistency needed.
So again, I ask, what type of team is this?
From past years, we know that the Lakers can win with either style being their identity. Last year, when they won their second consecutive title, the Lakers finished the year with the 4th best defense and the 11th best offense. The year before that when they beat the Magic in the Finals, the team had the 3rd best offense and the 6th ranked defense. Obviously these rankings show that defense is what’s mattered a bit more (a composite 5th ranked D vs a 7th best O is sloppy calculating, but shows they performed consistently better on that side of the ball over that stretch), but the Lakers have an offensive philosphy that has dominated the league since the early 1990’s so you know that it’s also a major force in their team identity.
Here at FB&G, though, we’ve always said that this team will go as far as their defense takes them. They’ll need to get the necessary stops and hold teams down when their offense isn’t clicking. There was no better example of that than game 7 of last year’s Finals where Boston put a strangle hold on the Lakers offense (though offensive rebounding by LA was huge to counter that) but the Lakers kept pace in the game by stopping the C’s just as effectively on the other end. When the Lakers trailed big in the 2nd half, they turned up the defensive intensity even further, forced turnovers and misses, and secured rebounds. This year’s team needs to take a page from that notebook and try to get back to that level of defense.
(On a sidenote, this conversation about defense can’t be had without mentioning that the Lakers defense is invariably linked to their offensive success. The Triangle is predicated on ball and player movement but the underlying theme to it all is floor spacing and floor balance. Those characteristics allow the team to transition from offense to defense without being overly hurt by leak outs and semi transition baskets. So even by saying the Lakers need to improve their defense and their approach on that side of the ball can’t be completely separated from saying that they also need to execute better on offense. End note.)
So, it’s now time to step up on defense – figuratively and literally. Last night, a play that sticks out in my mind was when the ball was rotated to the corner to Rudy Gay and Fisher closed out well to force Rudy to put the ball on the ground. Fisher then took away the middle drive and guided Rudy baseline where his help waited. But rather than stepping up quickly to close down any scoring chance, Gasol hung back by the basket and Rudy elevated for a floater from 6 feet out. Those two points weren’t the difference in the game, but it showed me that the defense isn’t close to where it needs to be. Those are the types of plays that the Lakers need to make consistently in order to get back to where they want to go. There’s time to make it happen, but it needs to start now.