The Lakers are fun again! Or, at least, that’s what many people — including me, I should say upfront — are saying heading into the 2017-18 season. Coming off a run to the summer league championship in Las Vegas and with the infusion of Lonzo Ball’s unique talents as a lead guard, the Lakers are poised to play a style of ball that should have Staples Center buzzing.
It’s not just the addition of Ball which matters here, either. Brook Lopez offers an entirely new offensive approach from the C spot that the Lakers have not had since…well, Pau Gasol. I’m not comparing Lopez to Gasol aesthetically, but a big who can stretch the floor, get buckets in the post, and pass the ball some will be a welcomed addition to any roster, but especially this specific Lakers one. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s arrival should also offer a nice boost. Pope isn’t the shooter that Nick Young is, but he does take 3’s at a high volume while also being able to attack the rim in transition in ways Young did not while a Laker.
So, this is all great! The Lakers can, potentially, make a jump in offensive efficiency and be one of the league pass darlings for NBA fans this year. Fun, fun, fun.
You’ll notice, though, that not once did the word “defense” appear above. That’s not necessarily a purposeful omission, either. When analyzing the Lakers coming into this upcoming season, most of us understandably focus on the offense. This is what will make them such a delightful team to watch. The pace, the passing, the ball movement…all of it exciting just to consider. But, if there’s one thing we should all know is that if the Lakers are actually going to improve this year, they will also need to make strides defensively.
Those are the Lakers defensive rating rankings the past four years. As much as we harped on Byron Scott’s teams being terribly defensively, Luke Walton’s first year offered a similarly poor defensive team and a league’s worst DEff in his first year as coach. There were personnel reasons for these ranks that cannot be ignored, but there were also schematic ones. These things go hand-in-hand, of course, and should not be ignored. But no one can get a free pass for being that bad on one side of the ball. Not the players, not the coaches.
In saying all that, then, if the Lakers are going to be a team that actually improves substantially in the W/L column, they cannot just rely on being a much better offense with a new style of play. They’ll need to get better on defense too. A lot better. But, can they?
The answer to this question isn’t so straight forward. I do believe the team has improved its defensive talent, even if that talent still has holes and issues to overcome. I think Ball will be an improvement over D’Angelo Russell. Ditto for Lopez over Timofey Mozgov and KCP over Nick Young. But defense at the NBA level isn’t just how good you are at defending your own man. Defensive schemes require communication and anticipation, helping and recovering, sacrificing yourself for your teammates knowing they will do the same for you.
The Lakers have been nowhere near that level for any stretch longer than a few possessions in a row at any point for the last several years. They have too many breakdowns, too often, and have seemed content to just try to get it back on the offensive end instead of tightening the screws to get the stops they need.
That attitude will need to change. Which makes it not only a players’ problem, but one for the coaches to solve too. Finding the right scheme to optimize the players is a necessity, for sure, but so is finding the right tactics to keep them motivated and engaged on that end to avoid being in the basement for a 5th straight season. And then it’s on the players to buy in and execute to the best of their abilities while not falling back on bad habits which can sink their scheme due to a lack of togetherness.
It’s a tall task, to be sure. No one will look at the Lakers roster and see a bunch of defensive stoppers ready to make a huge leap on that end of the floor. In fact, it’s probably easier to see the opposite and project them to be again be terrible.
Regardless of what those predictions are, however, this team needs to find a way to improve on that end. If they don’t, the “fun” many of us predict might still be there with highlight plays and huge point totals, but the same will be true for the other team and L’s are likely to stack up just as they have all too often recently.