As Pete and Darius brought up on the latest LakerFilmRoom podcast, the Lakers’ team has been quite the inverse of what we’ve expected to see thus far. The defense has really carried the team while the offense is much lower ranked. This comes as a surprise to us all, but is it something we should believe in? Is the team’s defense legit, or should we expect it to regress a substantial degree negatively moving forward?
Let’s break down where the Lakers are conceding shots and learn more about those attempts to see just how far the Lakers defense might regress moving forward based on how they’ve played so far.
I can’t predict what the Lakers defense will look like in a month, but we can look at what has happened so far and see if statistically if the results have not lined up with the process.
Are Teams Just Missing Open Shots?
Short answer: Not to a degree that should concern Laker fans.
It would make sense that on a small sample of games a team could get lucky by having their opponents miss an unusual number of open shots, but this doesn’t appear to be the case.
LA has done an excellent job of forcing contested jump shots and limiting open looks. When teams do get open jumpers, they’re shooting slightly less efficient than the average, but not by a significant amount.
If we were to rewrite history and these teams were to shoot league average on these open shots, the Lakers would concede a whopping 0.8 points per game more than they already have.
0.8 points per game doesn’t quite move the needle and topple some house of cards that is supposedly the Lakers defense. This wouldn’t impact the team’s defensive efficiency ranking whatsoever.
Contested Jump Shooting
Well, what about on contested jump shots? The Lakers have the second best defensive points per possession defending guarded catch and shoot jumpers, so there’s potential for regression here.
If we do the same math for contested shots as we did for open shots, and assume that teams shot an average efficiency relative to what teams normally do on contested jumpers, LA would have given up 2.5 points per game more. A top 10 defensive efficiency in this area limits the damage to just under 2 points per game.
This isn’t insignificant, but it’s not a catastrophic decline either. I’d like to think that Lonzo and KCP and Ingram’s length would affect shooters more than normal, but even if it doesn’t, we’re looking at about a 2-2.5 point per game difference. That difference may not seem huge, but it’d result in a drop 4 spots in defensive efficiency.
Pull Up Shots
The Lakers are 19th in defensive efficiency against pull up jumpers, so it’s unlikely that the team is massively overperforming in this regard. LA is also giving up the 10th lowest amount of pull up shots by percentage, also mitigating potential effects of regression.
When looking at interior shots it’s important to understand what kinds of shots those are. Putbacks and cuts are high quality looks. Drives in general have higher scoring efficiencies than post ups. Post ups are actually one of the least efficient play types, behind even isolation. Pairing those post possessions, which the Lakers face more than average (which again, isn’t a problem), with drives is something I disagree with.
Breaking this down between post shots and non-post shots is key here, and something that we’re able to do with Synergy’s data. When looking at these non-post up possessions at the rim, the Lakers face these possessions 5th most frequently, right behind Golden State.
And teams are converting on those looks. The Lakers are 27th in defensive points per possession against these types of shots. That’s not good at all, but it’s also not an area where the team is overperforming and we should expect their defensive efficiency to come crumbling down. If anything, potential positive regression may be on the horizon.
Play Type Based Expected PPP
We’ll look to my NBA data spreadsheet for some assistance here. We can estimate the expected points per possession for each team based on the breakdown of play types that the team faces and the average scoring on each play type. LA would rank 13th in expected PPP and are 13th in actual PPP. In fact, the Lakers are overperforming their expected PPP the 4th least among teams overperforming the expectation, so that doesn’t scream regression.
The Lakers are looking like a top 15 defense that’s performing about as well as you’d expect a defense of that caliber to perform. They aren’t a top 5 defense and might be a fringe top 10 team, but based on what we’ve seen on the court and the data we have from those games, they seem legit and their data doesn’t scream regression to a below average team. I’d argue that what we’re seeing on the court matches the data quite well and the Lakers will be in the top 10-15 defenses by the end of the year. Even a finish in the top 15-20 would be a great step forward from last season and something to build upon for next year.