This off-season the Lakers have worked to shore up their most damning perceived weaknesses. In trading for Steve Nash, they’ve added the playmaker at point guard that also gives them elite shooting from the perimeter. In signing Antawn Jamison, they’ve bolstered their bench by adding a scoring threat that also has the ability to space the floor from the PF position. With rumors of a transition to the Princeton Offense via the hiring of Eddie Jordan and the hard looks at back up SG options like Jodie Meeks or Leandro Barbosa, the Lakers look to be going all in by fixing their offense.
It’s not difficult to see why the Lakers would take this approach to their off-season. Last year they were mostly an average offensive team, ranking in the mid-teens most of the season before a late push settled them in at 10th in offensive efficiency. All year the team struggled to find the right mix between a Kobe-centric offense and one that featured the big men, often running disjointed sets that left the team working against the shot clock with at least one of their big three threats (usually Pau Gasol) not being used in a manner that optimized his skill set.
And while the addition of Ramon Sessions – whose stellar play after being acquired gave the Lakers are real offensive boost – masked these issues for a stretch, the offensive woes returned in the playoffs. Against both the Nuggets and the Thunder, the Lakers struggled to produce consistent offense against a packed paint that took away their post options, ultimately not able to aptly pose a perimeter threat to keep defenders from digging down on their big men.
Solving these issues should have been a priority going into next season. A few more buckets or better offensive execution down the stretch of games may have found the Lakers in better position to advance farther in the playoffs than they did.
However, while I’m ecstatic the Lakers have attempted to fix their offensive issues with deft acquisitions, I also know they’ll need to be better on defense next season if they hope to be a much better team. What’s not mentioned enough about the Lakers again failing to advance out of the second round is that it was their defense that failed as much as their offense.
In the 14 regular season games in April, the Lakers posted a defensive efficiency of 109.5, or the equivalent of being nearly 2 points per 100 possessions worse than the worst defensive team in the league. If you thought that was some sort of fluke, consider that in the 17 regular season games in March, the Lakers’ defensive efficiency was 103.1 which would have ranked them 19th on the year if they’d played that way all season. These numbers were dramatically worse from earlier in the season when the Lakers didn’t post a defensive efficiency worse than 98.6 in December, January, or February.
In the playoffs, the Lakers’ defensive slippage was just as pronounced when they posted a defensive efficiency of 106.5 over their 12 post-season games. Some of that is surely related to the fact that the Lakers played two of the league’s better offensive teams in Denver and OKC. But the fact remains that stops – especially key ones – were hard to come by for a group that sorely needed them.
After adding defensively challenged players like Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison only the need to be better on D is only highlighted further. More than ever next season, the Lakers will need a sound defensive scheme and fully committed players buying into making it work. Last season that wasn’t always the case as guards too often got caught on screens without recovering. Big men, meanwhile, were frequently out of position playing much too low on picks (Andrew Bynum) or sliding too high at bad angles (Pau Gasol) to deny the penetration that diced up the defense. Add to that wings that didn’t always close out hard or didn’t race to the paint to help the helper on the back line and the results were spotty at best by the end of the year.
So, improvement will be needed. Luckily, the Lakers have some ingredients to become the defensive team that they need to be. With Kobe shedding some pounds he should be able to better navigate screens and chase his man around the perimeter. Ron’s improved health and conditioning should also help him return (close) to his standards from previous seasons. And, of course, if Bynum can focus more of his energy into being one of the elite game changers he has the ability to be, the Lakers can be one of the better defensive teams in the league.
And, in a strange twist, the offense can also help them. If the Lakers do end up running the Princeton O, they’ll return to a two guard front that will promote better spacing and floor balance. This will help them in transition – an area where they’ve long struggled whenever their twin towers share the floor. Plus, if the Lakers can return to being one of the elite offensive teams, they should also be able to better control the pace and flow of the game by making the other team take the ball out of bounds at the end of possessions rather than getting run at after misses.
If all of these things can come together, the Lakers can show the better defense they’ll need to be one of the elite teams. It won’t be easy, but it will be possible. It will take the same defensive commitment on the hardwood that the front office showed off it to improving the O this summer. And, come October, the players and the coaches mustn’t lose sight of that.
*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com