Sunday, May 22 2022
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The Los Angeles Lakers played 16 games between March 21 and April 21 in 2021. In those 16 games, they allowed only 106.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranked fourth in that stretch. It would have ranked first over the full season, a distinction that very Lakers team earned by allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions across their 72 games. What’s notable about those 16 games is that neither LeBron James nor Anthony Davis participated in a single one of them. Frank Vogel didn’t just manage to keep his defense afloat without its two best players. Statistically speaking, he actually managed to make it slightly better. 

There is, of course, a ton of statistical noise in such a small sample, but the broader point holds firm. It is very hard to build a bad defense with Vogel as your head coach. He’s led the No. 1 ranked defense in three of the past nine full seasons. He’s not quite as accomplished as Gregg Popovich, as experimental as Nick Nurse or as fiery as Tom Thibodeau, but you could make a compelling argument for him as the NBA‘s brightest defensive mind, one capable of coaxing stops out of almost any group of players he’s given. 

Except, unfortunately, for the 2021-22 Lakers. Through five games, they are allowing 111.4 points per 100 possessions, the most any Vogel-led team has ever allowed. Their No. 25 defensive ranking is also a worst for Vogel, beating out the 24th-ranked 2016-17 Orlando Magic, a roster Vogel inherited straight out of the lottery. He led the Lakers to a championship two seasons ago.

But the Lakers team he has now lacks the defensive identity that got them there. Davis was the only player who took the floor for them on Wednesday that has been with the Lakers in each of the past three seasons. GM Rob Pelinka went out of his way to bring back several friendly faces from the championship season, but they’ve largely aged out of any defensive utility, and the new faces he added to supplement them have, thus far, struggled mightily. That has never been more apparent than it was in Wednesday’s humiliating 123-115 defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers held a 26-point lead in the second quarter, but managed to lose it against a Thunder team that had been the Western Conference’s last winless squad and entered the game with a paltry 96.4 offensive rating. Against the Lakers, they were world-beaters, and a quick glance at the tape shows why. Davis may still be the NBA’s best overall defender, but the Thunder tortured just about everyone else the Lakers paired him with.

Malik Monk’s lackadaisical defensive effort dooms this play from the start. He jogs his way around the Derrick Favors screen, giving Josh Giddey an easy decision off the handoff. DeAndre Jordan tries to split the difference and offer some protection against both a pull-up jumper and a drive, but in the process he gives Giddey, one of the NBA’s most gifted young passers, an easy lob to Favors at the basket. Davis excels at that cat and mouse game. He’s so long and so athletic that he can credibly take away any credible option a driver might have in that situation. But Jordan, never known for his effort and lacking the athleticism that once made him special, can’t cover all of those bases anymore. There was going to be an opening somewhere, and Giddey found it.

Davis, guarding Darius Bazley, wasn’t even in the play. That’s going to be a common theme here. The Thunder had no reason to attack the four-time All-Defense selection when every other Laker was so vulnerable. Here’s another example of Davis watching as his teammates are picked apart. As he guarded Isaiah Roby in the corner, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ran a small-small pick-and-roll with Kenrich Williams. The Lakers simply lack a guard capable of consistently denying dribble penetration, so Gilgeous-Alexander knew that with the screen, neither Monk nor Avery Bradley would be able to keep him out of the paint. He scores on the layup.

Expect to see plenty of this when the Lakers play Davis at center, or happen to be facing any opponent with enough shooting to keep him away from the basket. Personnel issues like this are, for the moment, unavoidable. But giving up points because of poor effort and communication? That’s inexcusable, and that happened plenty against Oklahoma City. What is Kent Bazemore doing here?

Giddey walks right into a trailer 3 because of what we’ll generously call a miscommunication. Rajon Rondo points Bazemore to Giddey, but Bazemore instead offers confusing and unnecessary help at the nail. The charitable explanation is that Bradley, even at his peak, was never a strong help defender and is too small to be much of a deterrent as the low man at the basket in this coverage. It’s either that, or this was a brain fart. This one at the end of the first half might even be worse. Malik Monk closes out hard on Lu Dort. Fine. He is therefore excused from the drive. But there are still four Lakers between Dort and the basket. How on Earth did he glide so easily into a layup?

Communication and effort tend to improve with time, but they are by no means a given. Defense has been an identity for the Lakers under Vogel. Whether or not it can be with so much personnel turnover is unclear, but if the Lakers are going to rediscover that identity, it’s going to have to come from the top. LeBron James played some of the best defense of his career over the past two seasons, completely buying in from the moment Vogel was hired. He’s also in his 19th NBA season and will turn 37 in two months. Asking him to lock in on both ends every night over an 82-game season might not be feasible anymore, and as Sports Illustrated’s Michael Pina noted Wednesday, James hasn’t been his typical self on that end of the floor thus far. If that continues upon his return, it’s going to have ripple effects. Whose example will his teammates follow if not his? For all of the talk of great teams flipping a switch when it counts, defense is, at its core, about building habits. Great playoff defense tends to stem from great regular-season defense. The Lakers aren’t building the right habits yet. 

Of course, habits mean little without talent, and that is the biggest problem facing the Lakers right now. They just have too many bad defensive players. The one that got picked on Wednesday was Carmelo Anthony. Gilgeous-Alexander effortlessly hunted him late in the third quarter. On such possession, Russell Westbrook managed to stave off the switch. On the other, he couldn’t. The result was the same for each: a made 3-pointer.

This must have been somewhat cathartic for the Thunder, organizationally speaking. They lost a 2018 first-round series to the Utah Jazz largely because of how easily Donovan Mitchell managed to torture Anthony in switches just like these. Now he’s several years older, and if the Lakers plan to use him at all in the playoffs, they’re going to face the same issues. Giddey took a turn as well.

Even when things went right for Anthony in these scenarios, they wound up going wrong. The Lakers successfully scram switched Anthony off Gilgeous-Alexander on this fourth-quarter play, but the ever-aggressive Westbrook immediately blitzed him. He responded by dumping the ball off to Dort with only Anthony in front of him. You can probably guess what happened next.

Anthony is a flawed defender, but he isn’t without his virtues. His stone feet and inconsistent effort make him vulnerable, but his quick hands, underrated strength and rebounding acumen give him value in certain contexts. He doesn’t have to be a great defender to survive on an NBA court. The bulk of his value comes, obviously, from offense. The goal is to build defensive lineups with him that can survive enough to actually take advantage of those offensive gifts. That’s possible with the right teammates. Therein lies the problem.

You can scheme around Anthony’s weaknesses. You can scheme around Monk’s weaknesses. You can scheme around Jordan’s weaknesses. You can scheme around Rondo’s weaknesses. You can scheme around Westbrook’s weaknesses. You just can’t scheme around everyone’s weaknesses. At a certain point, a defense reaches a tipping point at which no amount of star power can overcome the number of poor defenders on the floor. 

This, in essence, is how the Lakers survived without James and Davis last season. Almost everybody they had aside from those two was at least a good defender. Their guards were great at denying dribble penetration. Their forwards were sturdy and communicated clearly. Marc Gasol is a defensive genius and Andre Drummond remains an above-average athlete for his position. For all they lacked without their two best players, they had enough to maintain proper defensive process. 

The 2021-22 version hasn’t come close to doing so. Through four games, they were allowing 21 wide-open 3-pointers per game, third-most in basketball. The 33 shots they’re allowing in the restricted area per game is the second most in the NBA even with a healthy Davis on the floor. Meanwhile, the 8.8 mid-range shots they’re allowing per game are the second-fewest in basketball. Right now, opposing offenses are having such an easy time against the Lakers that they virtually never have to take bad shots. They’re creating exactly the looks that they want.

Now, we must acknowledge that things are going to get better, if only because they can’t get worse. The Lakers have been without LeBron for 40 percent of their five games. That hurts defensively. Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker are probably the third- and fourth-best defenders on this roster. Neither has played a game yet. Continuity is critical to defense. The Lakers don’t have it yet. They’re going to develop it with time. Assuming you ignore seasons in which he requested a trade, no Anthony Davis defense has finished even below average since the 2015-16 season. The high-end talent and coaching here is going to matter. 

But they’re not going to solve everything, and responsibility for that falls squarely on a front office that put Vogel in this impossible position in the first place. After watching him keep the defense afloat without James and Davis last season, they seemingly built a roster this offseason under the assumption that Vogel could generate stops no matter what players he was given. That doesn’t mean Vogel isn’t blameless here. His rotations can be somewhat baffling, and to some extent, a coach is responsible for the effort of his players, but the flawed roster-building process the Lakers engaged in this offseason runs far deeper. The Lakers traded their defense for a third star without a plan to replace it. 

This isn’t, in itself, an indictment of the Russell Westbrook acquisition, but rather, an indictment of everything that came after it. The Lakers, as an organization, do not seem to have fully understood the gravity of the decision that they made in adding Westbrook. As Houston learned when it literally had to abandon the center position entirely in order to make his fit work, it takes a nearly perfectly-constructed roster to maximize him. He is simultaneously one of the NBA’s most uniquely gifted and flawed players. Taking advantage of the positives means going above and beyond to cover up the negatives. It means finding supporting players that don’t compromise spacing or defense. It means complete and total organizational buy-in both financially and ideologically, the sort of attention to detail that separates good franchises from great ones. 

The Lakers didn’t have that this summer. Golden State and Brooklyn are both spending in excess of $50 million in pre-tax salary on players outside of their three-highest paid cornerstones. The Lakers, with access to all of the financial benefits of being the NBA’s most glamorous and accomplished franchise, are spending a more modest $36 million (excluding dead money) on their supporting cast, according to Spotrac. They chose Talen Horton-Tucker, an unproven prospect whose poor shooting makes it unlikely that he’ll ever fit properly alongside Westbrook, over Alex Caruso, a top-flight point-of-attack defender with an excellent track record alongside James and Davis. They theoretically could have retained both had they been willing to pay a higher tax bill. Doing so probably should have been a priority after losing key defenders Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma in the Westbrook deal. They used their mid-level exception (Kendrick Nunn) and several minimum slots (Monk, Anthony) on redundant scorers. In the process, they ignored more practical three-and-D role players, including James Ennis and Wesley Matthews, both of whom publicly lobbied for spots on the team. Of the 15 players on the roster, 10 are making the minimum salary. It goes without saying that players who take the minimum tend to be available at that price for a reason. The defect that gave the Lakers access to several of those players was poor defense.

None of this precludes the Lakers from winning a championship, and while there is no basketball justification for some of their financially-driven decisions, the talent-over-fit approach the front office took this offseason comes with as much upside as it does risk. Things are going to get better. The Lakers are going to wind up winning a lot of games based on that talent alone. There are going to be opportunities to turn the salaries of Horton-Tucker and Nunn into easier fits at the trade deadline if the Lakers want to pursue them. 

But they built a roster that wasn’t designed to defend particularly well. It should therefore surprise nobody that, through five games, that roster isn’t defending very well. The Lakers replaced most of their defenders with veterans who are either past their prime on that end of the floor or never had primes in the first place. No coach could overcome that. Not even Vogel. 

Source: CBSSports.com

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