Even in their base coverage, they have a ton of slip-ups that lead to open layups and threes. “It’s the little things every night that really put us in a hole” Luke Walton said, when the team was mired in a five game December losing streak. The scheme puts a lot of responsibility on the players in both their ability to read the action, as well as remain constantly focused throughout every possession. In any pick and roll coverage, any of the five defenders, from the two guys on ball to the three guys off ball can kill the defensive possession for the rest of their teammates if they are not engaged.
Take a look at these two clips against the Mavericks:
No, they’re not the same play.
They actually happened in back to back Maverick possessions. In the first clip, Clarkson attempts to weak the screen but Randle is not the same page. Typically, it’s the big’s job to call the coverage before the guard cuts off the screen, so it’s not clear why Randle was on the wrong side to contain Deron Williams’ penetration. When he jumps back into position, he has no chance to recover to slow Dwight Powell’s roll. A bigger issue is D’angelo Russell’s positioning. As the sole defender on the help side, he is the only other line of defense on the roll man. When Williams starts his dribble attack to the left side of the floor, Russell should already be moving with him, sliding towards the middle of the paint. Then on the roll, he would already be in position to tag Powell without compromising his ability to recover to the corner shooter. His mere presence there could influence Williams into skipping the pass early to the weak side corner, whereupon he would then stunt toward Powell and then quickly close out.
In the second clip, the Mavericks know that they have a weakness to exploit in the Lakers defense and they run the same high ball screen. This time Randle is in the right spot for the weak coverage, but it doesn’t matter. Lou Williams is now the help side defender and he makes the same mistake as D’angelo, not moving with the movement of the ball on the court and thus can’t meet Powell high and deep in the paint which results in a dunk.
If the opposing roll man getting into the paint for dunks and layups is a common sight for Laker fans, it’s because of small details like this. In order to improve on this, the Lakers have two different options.
The first is to continue to constantly drill the coverage and enforce the execution in game until the off ball movement becomes second nature. The second option would be to tweak the coverage, such as having them blitz the ball handler with high hands, making it hard for him to squeeze the pass over to the roll man or the weak side shooter, with the off ball defender playing safety. Of the two, the first option is likely still preferable, as changing the coverage mid season introduces a whole new set of details to mess up the execution on. But it takes time. And even if the positioning is correct, the closeout back to the shooter is not an easy task.
Even the most straightforward parts of these coverages need some work. Here is a common mistake by the Laker guards:
On this side pick and roll, Lou Williams is supposed to ice by forcing Wade Baldwin away from the screen and toward the sideline. Instead he lets him get middle, which means that the containing big, in this case Black, needs to recover from slot area back into the paint. This also puts him in a two on one versus both the ball handler and the roll man. Marcelo Huertas is forced to help too far off the three point shooter on the wing and they give up an open shot. Even after getting beat initially, Lou should have made the extra effort to spin back under the screen in order to deny penetration to the ball handler, like Huertas does below:
This might result in a pull up three from his man, but its preferable to the multiple options for layups or spot up threes that middle penetration gives the offense.
When the team is forced to go into defensive rotations, they’ve already lost half the battle.
The defensive scheme is not one that is actively disruptive in terms of forcing opposing offenses out of their sets or of pressuring to force turnovers. The Lakers want their opponents to hesitate to drive or cut into a crowded paint and to see seemingly uncovered players who may not actually be open as defenders stunt (quickly stepping in at the man with the ball and then stepping back) and recover. The steals are more likely to come from deflections from active hands or being in a good position to react after reading the offense. Thus the Lakers defense is dependent on all five guys on the floor being connected and not making mistakes. If one guy isn’t focused, isn’t in his stance, or in the right place, then that creates a hole that NBA offenses have time to pick out and exploit. And once the other team gets into a rhythm, there isn’t much the Lakers can do take them out of it even when they are making the correct rotations. Yet, despite all of their frequent breakdowns and an overall defensive efficiency rating that’s even worse than last season’s (110.2 vs 109.3), the Lakers have actually shown tangible improvement on the defensive end.
The entire league overall is on pace to have one of the highest average offensive efficiencies in its recorded history.
Whether that’s because of an influx of offensive talent, more three point shooting, or the innovations from coaches to counter the latest defensive trends, the bottom line is that teams are harder to defend than ever. Even in this environment the Lakers’ two most played lineups, the usual starting unit and the killer bench unit that has since been grounded by injuries, have managed defensive ratings of 103.3 (even after their recent shellacking by the Spurs) and 100.0 respectively. This is the equivalent of a league average defensive team and then the best defensive team in the league (Utah leads the league with a 101.2 rating). In contrast, the two most often played lineups last year had defensive ratings of 112.9 and 116.6, easily the worst marks for any lineups that got significant minutes that season. To look at this in another way, out of the top 50 lineups in terms of minutes played this season, the Lakers starters this season, who typically go against the best offensive units of other teams, rank 22nd, and the main Lakers bench unit (when healthy) ranks 15th.
Within these figures, one can see the outlines of coach Walton’s vision for the team defensively. Each player on the starting lineup of Russell, Nick Young, Deng, Randle, Timofey Mozgov are at least 6’5 or taller. The forwards can switch with each other without giving up too much of a physical advantage. The unit’s length enables them to cover distance and close off passing lanes even when helping inside.
In terms of defensive awareness, D’Angelo Russell understands the coverages and has the ability read the offensive actions to react accordingly, while his quickness and athleticism are underrated. His main problem is the willingness to consistently put forth the second effort to get back in front of his own man in transition or after being screened. Too often, he tries to bail himself out by calling the switch in transition or ‘veer’ in pick and rolls when he doesn’t want to fight back to his own assignment. Often this leaves his big out to dry because the coverage typically demands that he at least recover enough to contest any pull up jumper from behind.
Mozgov is serviceable in the rim protector role. He talks on defense, generally sees the play developing in front of him and is well versed in using his length at the right time to contest shots, so long as the other guys do their jobs. He isn’t the intimidating presence inside who can clean up the mistakes of the guards and help defenders however. In those instances, he’s either caught too deep under the basket to contest pull up jumpers or on drives where his predictable attempt to get vertical is too easy to score around.
Yes, actually having a league leading shot-blocking rim protector would help the team defense significantly, but without the rest of the guys building up good defensive habits, it would only be a stopgap measure.
The bench unit of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black which has defended so well, has unfortunately been sidelined by injury. On paper, it doesn’t look like a strong defensive lineup. The backcourt is undersized and offensively minded, and while Ingram has a lot of defensive potential, he is still a very young player who tends to make his fair share usual rookie mistakes. But the front court pairing of Nance and Black complement each other and they cover well for the other players who are at their best defensively when they’re aggressive trying to get deflections and steals.
Outside of the main lineups, the Lakers defense has tended to crumble. Injuries have forced the Lakers third string players into action, with disastrous results. Every single one of the third stringers has a defensive rating of 111.7 or worse. Due to their height and age, the point guards are poor defensive fits next to the normal backcourt players. Thomas Robinson has been a pleasant surprise with his effort and rebounding, but his 115.4 on court defensive rating betrays his lack of awareness at that end. And inserting the aging Metta World Peace (126.1 defensive rating) into a game that’s still tightly contested has been the coaching equivalent of a Steph Curry behind back pass that sails out of bounds.
Mixing the players from the main two lineups has also hasn’t worked for the most part. The substitutions often shift players over a position, where the defensive responsibilities may be different. Players shift from mostly on ball to mostly off ball, from guarding shooters to having to be the last line of defense in the paint. For players learning a new system as well as struggling to build up basic defensive fundamentals, that change just adds to their existing tendencies to make mistakes.
Interestingly, out of the players the starting lineup, only one has a personal defensive rating (108.3) that is even with 5 points of the defensive rating when they play together as a unit of five (103.3).
The defensive growth that really matters is that which happens not in this season, but in future ones. The Lakers core is still extremely young, with most of them only in their first or second season. It’s easy to see that the rail thin 19 year old Ingram will get better and better as his body develops. With his length and quickness, he should have the ability to fill multiple roles on the defensive end, including becoming a key secondary rim protector. Regardless of how much potential Ingram has, the team will still likely need another wing who can get into it defensively against the top perimeter scorers, as well as who can consistently play tough, smart help side defense.