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.
I think KCP is a big upgrade defensively, and at least improves their athleticism and flexibility on that end. Lopez may or may not be better than Mozgov defensively, but at least his offense will be a net positive (technically the game is about outscoring your man and opponent team, not necessarily being a defensive jauggernat).
Ball will need to get stronger and not die on screens. Otherwise, his instincts and tools and potential are there. He’s very good off-ball.
Ingram, mostly strength will take care of his weaknesses (no pun intended). His tools and instincts show potential to grow on that end.
Clarkson is terrible on-ball. Randle is mostly terrible off-ball. Clarkson randomly jumps lanes and has jittery feet (as in thinking activity means effort). He’s so easy to get beat. Randle is inconsistent. One possession he can stay in front of Westbrook or chase Harden and swat him, while on another possession he can let Plumlee look like Hakeem as he jumps for the smallest fake or gives up easy backdoor.
Either way, just want to see progress. Most fans are going to cry about D all season long and not understand that a young team is going to always be bottom 10 defensively (look at the dEff stats over the last 10 years 😉 ) The Lakers best players are mostly 19, 19, 20, and 22. Even KCP is still young.
I don’t know any player that young be stalwart defensively, especially guards.
The FO signed or drafted all (potentially) plus defenders: Kuz, Hart, TB, KCP, BLo, upgrading the individual def talent. The entire team will be ahead of schedule in conditioning, which also helps. FO must have a plan about upgrading the coaching approach to D, they are too focused on D not to, we’ll hear it.
I believe Lonzo will show up with both shooting and defensive skills his critics say he lacks. He’s got good hands and thinks fast, he’ll adjust to the game and do fine.
Overall, I expect we get an encouraging improvement in D, probably move up a few spots (but still bottom third). But combine that with a radically improved offensive pace and we could surprise people.
Last but not least,I think this team will have a lot of winning swagger, from the FO to the coaches to all the players. Magic and Lonzo convert losers to winners the day they show up – Chino Hills, Flynt, UCLA, LA. We have one leading the FO and the other with the ball. Winners find ways to win, and we have sufficient talent to just might.
Defense can be taught and improved. Personnel is a factor, but maybe not the most important one. Consider the GSW ’10-11 (Last year of Smart) 26th in Def. Eff. ’11-12 (first year Jackson) actually WORSE 27th, ’12-13 (Jackson 2nd yr) improved to 14th, the next to 4th and the next (Kerr yr 1) to 1st. while the personnel did improve, the big change was in the second and third years of Jackson. These changes were due to the players following the def. schemes consistently. My observation is that this was not mostly due to better players but more due to much better conditioning (tired player make more mistakes) and consistent playing time between one group of players (communication is hard with people you don’t know). Laker fans should be looking for improved teamwork and better conditioning not so much a better eff. rating.
Tom Daniels says
Defense takes time. Young players aren’t good at it. Teams tend to take longer to gel defensively than offensively. The small stuff takes time to develop, individually and as a team. And defense is all small stuff.
The Lakers are still too young, and have too many new parts, to be expected to open the year playing good defense.
First we have to hope the offense comes together. That will be a fun distraction and in and of itself will help the defense – better floor balance and better shot selection will help a lot in transition defense. Offense and defense play off each other, and bad spacing, bad shots and turnovers play havoc with defense.
Then, if the offense is clicking, we have to hope that the energy of sharing the ball and seeing succes on the offensive side inspires more effort and focus and teamwork on the other end. Knowing stops can lead to run outs should be motivation.
But this is damn young team, and the best coaching in the world would not be likely to result in actually GOOD defense this year. Let’s just hope for progress.
To begin with, the front office needs to be commended on assembling better players going into the upcoming season than last season. Hopefully the team can avoid major injuries and a few of the players live up to their hype. Who is going to make baskets and who is going to defend? In my opinion, I feel the team can move up about ten spots in both categories. If so, it will be fun to watch, scratch that, listen to on the radio because I can’t get the Lakers channel. In simple terms, I think Lopez is better than Mozgov, KCP is better than Russell, Kozma is better than Deng, Lonzo moves the ball better than Clarkson, Nace will play healthy, Ingram is a year more experienced, yep, I think the team can win ten more games than last year. Yes, I’m optimistic, first time in awhile. ?