It’s hard to believe now, but from the first day of training camp, the Lakers defense was a main priority of the coaching staff. For much of those early practices, they ran shell drills and spent hours going over defensive concepts in the film room. Coach Luke Walton even expressed optimism that they would “become a good defensive team.”
So what the heck happened?
After finishing the past three seasons with defensive efficiency rankings of 28th, 29th, and 30th, there was hope that with an incoming head coach from the top ranked Golden State Warriors, the days of being a sieve on the defensive end would be over. But here the Lakers are again in January, ranked dead last in the NBA.
It’s only natural for fans to wonder whether this Lakers core, from the young players to the veterans under multi-year deals, has it in them to ever become even half-decent at stopping the other team from scoring – a prerequisite to becoming a playoff contender. However, this young roster needs one thing more than anything else. Patience.
In a mid December road game against the Kings, the Lakers’ starters set up their defense after a made basket, with halftime approaching. They had not allowed a Kings field goal in over three and a half minutes. Seven Kings passes later, amid a flurry of closeouts, baseline pushes, and timely switches from the Lakers defenders moving together as if on a string, and the Kings committed a traveling violation with a few seconds left on the shot clock:
Although some Lakers were forced to rotate to cover others, the overall effort and more importantly the communication between the players was at a high level. They finished the quarter holding the Kings to 18 points on 34% shooting in what appeared to be a step forward for the team — then came the third quarter. The Lakers promptly surrendered 39 points on 70% shooting, giving up 6 threes and 14 points in the paint, and lost the game in a blowout. The same thing happened two weeks later against Dallas, as the Lakers gave up 31 points and six threes in the third, and were outscored by 16 points.
Prior to the Kings game, Luke Walton explained why it was so hard for this young team to be consistent on that end:
“We haven’t been a good defensive team for the last few years, so you add that with the fact that we have a new team and a new staff and new concepts, and we’re putting all that out there and we’re getting the effort, but then, if we’re lucky we can get two solid practices in a week. It’s tough to get the amount of reps that we really need to in the practice. So, a lot of the reps we’re getting are literally happening in a game, which is still getting reps at it, so we still should get better at it, and we will.”
Basically, there have been a lot of bad habits built up over the years that now need to be worked off.
Walton did indeed try to retain the basic defensive philosophy from his time with the Warriors. The Lakers signed Luol Deng as their starting small forward, who has the size and strength to switch to the power forward spot and battle bigs on the boards. Walton’s preferred lottery pick, Brandon Ingram, fit the mold of the lengthy athletic wings that filled Golden State’s bench. In Randle he has a player that at least has the physical tools to match up against opposing 1-5 on switches. Obviously, the team lacks the all NBA defensive talent of their NorCal counterparts, but the basic components are there to try some of the same stuff.
On side pick and rolls they typically “ice” it, forcing ball handlers away from the screen toward the sideline and keeping the action out of the middle of the floor. For middle pick and rolls, they will “weak” it or play it “soft / flat”. “Weak” is similar to ice coverage, except that it’s called in the middle of the floor and forcing the ball handler typically to their left side (usual weak hand). This eliminates confusion in the coverage and the big can consistently contain on the same side without worrying about the offensive screener flipping the screen at the last moment and giving the ball hander a free lane to the basket. “Soft” or “flat” means that you have the opponent use the screen, usually by chasing him over, and the big contains on the side that he comes out of.
Against certain teams, such as ones with screen setters who can really shoot the ball, the coaching staff will mix it up with switches and hedges – the big comes up closer to the screen while impeding the progress of the dribbler.
In all three of the base coverages, the “big” sits back in a contain position, with the distance depending on both how good the offensive players are at shooting / driving, and how mobile the defending big is. The reason is that in an ideal situation, the defenders guarding the ball handler and the screener can contain their assignments by themselves, with the only shots given up being an outside jumper from the big, or a pull up mid range jumper from the guard.
Here, D’angelo Russell ices the Orlando side pick and roll by forcing D.J. Augustin away from the screen toward the sideline, where Tarik Black is waiting to cut off his penetration:
When Augustin kicks back out to Vucevic out past the three point line, Russell is able to get back in front of him and Black easily recovers to his own match up, forcing him into taking a contested two point jumper. The Lakers are able to contain the PnR two on two without the need for any other rotations. Note that when the screen happens, three Lakers, Ingram, Randle, and Clarkson, are waiting on the help side around the paint in an “I” formation. Ingram is at the “nail”, around the middle of the court slightly above the free throw line, where he would be in a position to tag, or bump, the big should he have decided to dive to the rim. Randle is in the “2.9” or “low” spot as the last line of defense should the other team get all the way to the basket. All of the help side defenders are guarding two places at once, the on ball action as well as their own man. They are there to prevent penetration into the paint as well as prevent kick-outs to open shooters at the three point line. Therefore, they have to retain their defensive stance and maintain an awareness of what the offense is doing and might do in either area at all times.
As with Golden State and many teams around the league, the Lakers’ defensive scheme is designed to reduce the amount of shots taken in high efficiency areas.
In the half court, as in their PnR coverage, they’ll try to keep the opposing team from penetrating middle and the paint, while still closing out hard on shooters on the three point line. In transition situations, they will send two or more guys back early on their own shots to take away easy fast buckets.
So far they haven’t done a good job at any these things. After 45 games played, the Lakers rank 29th in the league in opponent points in the paint, 27th in opponent fast break points per 100 possessions, and 27th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. They’ve fared only a bit better against the three ball, ranking 19th in opponent 3 point attempts per 100, 19th in giving up open three point attempts, and 23th in giving up wide open (6+ feet) three point attempts.
The transition points are a real problem. Offensively, the Lakers have a high turnover rate, and their occasional tendency to drive into the crowded paint area leaves them with poor floor balance, as some of their main lineups rely on guards to manufacture offense without a lot of shooting around them. While the players are generally pretty good at remembering to get back early, they struggle on communicating the defensive responsibilities in these situations.
The young players often put too much pressure on their teammates to cover for them when a little more effort could have gotten them to the correct matchups and spots.
Here you see Randle jogging back and then standing upright, guarding no one in particular while his man draws Mozgov out with the threat of a corner three which opens up the lane for the other big to score deep inside.
Another problem is the way that they execute switches on defense. The purpose of a switch is to take away the advantage that an offensive player would gain from using a screen, whether that is separation to pull up for a shot or get all the way to the basket. But too frequently the Lakers switch when they don’t need toand end up handing the other team a matchup advantage. This is exacerbated when the Lakers field lineups with too many one dimensional defensive players, either too small or too slow to contain their matchup.
Laker Film Room previously did a video which showed a lot of the mistakes that the Lakers made in a game against the Knicks with their switching defense:
A switch on a screen generally starts out similarly to other defensive coverages, with screener’s defenders having the option to drop back or jump out at the ball handler before the switch happens, however, the type of coverage then depends on the abilities of the ball handler more so than the screener, which is different from traditional screen coverage. The defender of the screener can’t just sit back in soft coverage if the ball handler is a good pull-up three point shooter, or else you’re just handing them an easy shot. Another thing that happens is that defenders are put into roles that they are unfamiliar with. Off the ball, bigs have close out on guards on the perimeter. Guards have to box out bigs that outweigh them significantly. All of these things add another layer of complexity that the defenders need to process and this leads to defensive breakdowns.