The Lakers lost to the Bulls on Sunday night in a game I’d rather not recount too much. For one, the game was frustrating for me to watch and even after a night to sleep on it, that feeling has not subsided much. Secondly, there was simply too many things that got the Lakers to the point where they again were looking to come back, but just couldn’t get it done.
So, yeah, I could tell you about all the things I thought went wrong, but that would mostly be a waste of energy and not the way I want to spend my morning. Sorry. Just know the Lakers played poorly in nearly all aspects and the fact that they were even in the game late was more random shot making and poor play from the Bulls than it was about some sort of sustained good play from the Lakers.
However, there was one aspect from Sunday night which fits into a larger recent trend which does need some digging into. Namely, that the Lakers’ defense has not been good lately and the Bulls game was just another data point in the team’s decline. Against the Bulls, the Lakers surrendered a defensive rating of 116.5 which is dreadful. And this on the heals of other poor efforts before Sunday (more on that in a minute).
Luke Walton knows this too. In fact, after practice on Saturday, Walton was asked about the team’s rough upcoming schedule and how to best compete against the those teams. His first comment was about his team’s defense:
Mainly on the defensive end I feel like we have started to plateau a little bit. We’re not making the same progress we were earlier and we’re kind doing the same mistakes over and over. The exciting thing is if we really lock in and fix that stuff, the room of growth and how much better we’ll be instantly is exciting. We’re already in games and we’re winning some games. So if we start doing those things better, we just give ourselves a much better chance of winning and competing against these top level teams.
Walton spoke generally there and didn’t give much detail, but the numbers bear out what he’s saying. In fact, “plateau” might have been him putting it nicely.
For the season the Lakers have fallen to 26th in defensive rating, allowing 107.2 points per 100 possessions. That decline is mostly due to extreme struggles lately where, in the team’s last 5 games, they have a defensive rating of 114.0 — a number which is 29th in the league over that stretch. So, yeah, let’s revise the above and state with certainty that “plateau” is putting it nicely. They have cratered defensively.
After the Bulls game, the first thing Walton discussed about the Lakers’ defense was their propensity to foul. Against the Bulls the Lakers committed 19 fouls, which is actually lower than their season mark of committing roughly 21 per game. But Walton went further by saying his team fouled to put players on the FT line, especially early, which allowed the Bulls to get a rhythm of seeing the ball go into the hoop.
Whether that is true or not, I think the point is still clear. The Lakers, as a team foul too much and that hurts them. For the season they are top 10 in both most fouls committed (9th) and most opponent FT’s attempted (8th). That’s not terrible, but it’s not good either. I’d much prefer they be in the bottom half of the league by fouling less in general, but especially when their opponents are shooting.
Some of what we have seen lately, however, isn’t as much about fouling but how the team is playing at the point of attack and what transpires as a result. Against the Bulls, for example, the Lakers continued their commitment to going over the top on picks — even though the Bulls don’t have great shooters — and it again led to issues. I mean, look at Jimmy Butler’s shot chart:
Of Butler’s 23 field goals, 17 were in the restricted area and only 4 were of the long-2 or three point variety. Butler came off screen after screen (or worked in isolation well enough) to get right to the rim consistently. It did not matter if there was a Lakers’ big man to challenge him, he either scored, got fouled, or created the type of shot which collapses the defense to open up offensive rebounding chances. And that was that.
This is not limited to Butler, either. Per NBA.com/stats The Lakers allow the 4th most shots inside of 5 feet in the league and are the worst in FG% allowed on those shots (66.2%). In case you were wondering, these are not good numbers.
Some of that is scheme. The Lakers chase over the top on P&R’s against most players and sag their big man back to contain the dribble. But their guards do not do a great job of fighting through screens and this leaves their big men on an island against NBA guards/wings going downhill on them to the basket. As you might imagine, this doesn’t often work out in the Lakers’ favor. The Lakers also have too many guards and wings who give up straight-line drives to the rim. Russell and Lou are key culprits here, but even Clarkson, Young, Ingram, and Deng can be guilty of this (though, again, it’s less often).
Lastly, as a (mostly) young team the Lakers still need to work through striking a balance between not fouling and playing assertive defense while not having the former impact the latter. I know that’s a mouthful, but in simple terms, the Lakers cannot let their worries about not fouling impact how aggressively they defend; they must still challenge shots at the rim, they must still contest shots on the perimeter, they must still slide with their man when they try to get to the rim. These are acts of good defense and just because they can lead to fouls doesn’t mean they can be done haphazardly.
The team must simply do them better and do them without committing the types of infractions which draw whistles. What complicates this, of course, is how much of a reputation the Lakers have as a team who fouls too much. Because just as team or player can have a reputation of not fouling and have that positively impact the referees, teams can have a rep for fouling too much. My sense is the Lakers are currently one of those latter teams and they need to dig out of that hole to escape a more scrutinous eye from the refs.
If there’s good in all this it is that the Lakers continue to be in most games even when their defense struggles. They boast a top 10 offensive rating and can get turn games in their favor with their ability to get buckets. As Walton has said, if they can make strides defensively, it will go a long way into turning “competitive” into “wins”. Now, they just have to get there. It will be a process.