The Los Angeles Lakers’ defense is saving their offense, and their season
The Los Angeles Lakers have spent the better part of the past two weeks receiving plaudits from around the league for finally obtaining personnel that should thrive offensively around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And yet, even with an improved scoring attack, LA’s defense will have to carry the team to the postseason.
Desperate to remain in striking distance of the play-in tournament, the Los Angeles Lakers came out swinging Sunday afternoon in their matinee match against the Golden State Warriors.
Jumping out to an early double-digit advantage over the defending champs, Los Angeles showcased the hyperaggressive defense that has led the Lakers to a 6-3 record since the trade deadline and resuscitated their postseason hopes. Harnessing the squad’s newfound athleticism and length, Darvin Ham and company have repurposed the LA defense to be a schematic mix of physicality and switching up front, with a dropping Anthony Davis near the backline to swat away anything that might get through.
Once the rock is sprung loose, be it from a block, missed shot, or outright thievery, the Lakers generally like to fly into transition, hitting the throttle to find open lanes toward the basket or crashing the car in the process.
It’s a full-court approach that makes sense in theory – and has finally started to pay dividends in actuality – even if the team always seems to be straddling the line between aggressiveness and franticness.
Take the possession below as an example.
With Donte DiVincenzo initiating the Warriors’ attack just after crossing midcourt, the Lakers are on high alert for the rising Stephen Curry to try and spring loose from the screening action to nail a triple from deep. While Malik Beasley and Austin Reaves do an excellent job of playing up in both the Warriors guard’s space, the hip sidling backfires somewhat when Curry moves (shoves?) Reaves into the backtracking Beasley, tripping up both the defenders and providing DiVincenzo the daylight needed to turn the corner and race into the paint.
Unable to help off Klay Thompson near the sideline, the Lakers’ only defender between the speedy guard and the basket ends up being Davis, who toggled off Kevon Looney to barricade the way to the rim. Not willing to challenge AD, DiVincenzo ends up firing a dart to Looney along the baseline, hoping that the shift from Davis away from the Warriors’ big man provides enough of an angle for him to get in position for a dunk or layup.
Davis, though, is able to recover towards Looney and more than readily absorbs the lowered shouldered from the ballhandler, refusing to be moved thanks to his upper-body strength that is all too often overlooked. Freeze the action for a moment, and you’ll notice four Lakers near the restricted area, essentially suffocating Looney between their long arms and the baseline, with no clear way to get a shot off.
Desperate to find a way out, Looney ended up firing an ill-advised bounce pass towards Draymond Green in the corner that was corralled by Jarred Vanderbilt, sparking the Lakers into transition.
Since turning over their roster two weeks ago, LA has tried to implement this type of action: be aggressive with ballhandlers at the point of attack and rely on AD to cover the gaps on the back end long enough to spark a recovery.
Not content with the steal, Vanderbilt opted against deferring to one of the team’s lead ballhandlers and instead raced into the open court, where the forward changed pace, nearly collided with Davis, and ultimately sank a floater from the lane.
Even if it was far from perfect, the entire sequence was pretty emblematic of the new-look Lakers: aggressive, chaotic, but surprisingly successful.
The question now is, can it last?
The Los Angeles Lakers are trying to turn chaos into points
While the offloading of Russell Westbrook from their roster was the biggest development for the Lakers at the trade deadline, the reshuffling of the roster to provide the team with an identity was the most important.
Though the organization’s lack of success over the last year-and-a-half was a failure with multiple root causes, the most underrated was the lack of clarity regarding how the roster was expected to perform to have a chance to win every night.
Led by two all-time ballhandlers who excel in getting to the rim, the Lakers were a mix of inconsistent shooters, veterans who refused to move off the ball, and a group of defenders unable to generate enough misses and turnovers to alleviate things on the open court. Couple that with the need to station another big alongside Davis to protect his waning health, and LA featured some of the most unbalanced floors in the league, most often providing clogged lanes than open ones for James and Westbrook to exploit.
Over the last nine games, however, the most important development for the Lakers has not just been the improved record but the renewed sense of purpose the team plays with, thanks to a game plan that positions them to succeed.
While the offense continues to tread water, LA improved its defensive efficiency from 20th in the league before the deadline to a 108.9 mark every since, good for eighth. Even if you don’t quite buy the smaller sample size, the eye test shows that the team has made legitimate strides.
Take Vanderbilt’s defense against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks a week ago. Working in a game where Los Angeles clawed its way back from a 27-point deficit, the Lakers began their comeback thanks in part to the full-court pressure on Dallas’ point guard courtesy of their new big man.
As seen in the clip above, LA’s coaching staff has the fifth-year forward pick up Doncic in the backcourt, forcing the point guard to give up the ball early and denying the Mavs an opportunity to unleash one of their favorite plays: getting Doncic a screen near midcourt that allows him a head of steam downhill towards the rim.
Succeeding in taking away Dallas’ preferred opening salvo, Vanderbilt continues the sequence by shadowing Doncic stride for stride into the frontcourt, where the All-NBA guard gets the ball back and attempts to create separation from the forward with a quick change of pace and a fallaway jump shot. Not only does Vanderbilt’s defense cause the ball to rattle harmlessly off the far side of the rim, but he, even more impressively, stays with Luka stride-for-stride flashing his 7-foot-1 wingspan at just the right moments to obscure the guard’s vision toward the rim.
The importance of the Lakers boasting three defenders in Vanderbilt, James, and Davis – when they’re healthy – who can switch one through five and not get burned cannot be overstated, as it allows the squad a degree of flexibility they haven’t had since the bubble.
Built upon a solid defensive foundation, Los Angeles has a path toward at least a somewhat respectable offensive output.
Having already operated with the second-highest amount of transition opportunities in the league before the roster turnover, the Lakers’ preferred shot selection has primarily stayed the same since the deadline, even as their shot quality has improved.
The reason? The Lakers are attacking significantly more off missed shots and turnovers than before.
This isn’t to say that everything is perfect in La-La Land.
Beyond the annual injury concerns that figure to be a regular fixture for James and Davis from here on out, the Lakers display an incredible amount of bad decision-making in transition for a team that spends as much time on the open floor as they do. Watching them, it can feel like the shot clock has been shortened by ten seconds as the team scrambles, treating the ball like a hot potato they must fire away.
With James sidelined, these issues are placed even more front-and-center as Austin Reaves moves up the depth chart to become the squad’s second-leading ballhandler. Though he is a solid backup, Reaves’ shortcomings are often exposed when tasked with pacing the second unit by himself.
Even Vanderbilt, for all the positives he brings to the defensive side of the ball, can find himself gumming up the offense as the second big on the court.
With Vanderbilt primarily working as a big who excels at backdoor cuts to the basket, opponents regularly abandon Davis above the arc, rather than Vanderbilt along the baseline, to corral ball-handlers driving to the rim. While AD has slowly started to knock down outside shots, – as he did against Minnesota last Friday – with more regularity than he has otherwise shown, his 22% three-point average since the start of last season is an albatross that will continue to affect the spacing on the floor for the Lakers until he proves he has moved beyond them.
First-year head coach Darvin Ham has also been a target of criticism, as his late decision-making and strategic acumen have come under fire, with the Lakers averaging a midline .98 points per possession in after-timeout plays; a lackluster number especially considering the stars in James and Davis he regularly employs.
Still, it’s not hard to be optimistic about all the issues Los Angeles faces moving forward. James’ (eventual) return should allow Reaves to settle into a more conservative role, while the addition of Malik Beasley’s shooting alongside Lonnie Walker and Rui Hachimura will make everyone’s life easier in transition. AD has demonstrated enough lift on his jump shot that there’s reason to hope he is past the worst of his shooting slump. Even Darvin Ham, whatever his strategic shortcomings during his first year as a head coach, has displayed a willingness to challenge his team in a way that demonstrates his command of the locker room.
It may not always seem like much amidst breakaway dunks and fallaway threes, but the Lakers’ commitment on the defensive end – always in a crouch, arms outstretched – is a surefire sign of a team that is bought into what the coach is selling.
Now all that’s left is hoping the Lakers have enough runaway to prove their late-season turnaround isn’t all for naught.