Since the departure of Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, the Lakers have been expected to be awful on the defensive end of the court. The Lakers lost their best post defender and their best wing defender, both of whom were not really replaced. Wesley Johnson was signed as a potential for that wing defender, but the Lakers ignored trying to find a defensive minded big man. Although the Lakers lost some solid players, they’ve replaced Metta, Chris Duhon, and Antawn Jamison with Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, and Ryan Kelly.
Aside from having poor defense, the Lakers were lambasted for having pathetic transition defense; rightfully so. Last season if a team forced a turnover, which happened frequently at 15 per game, the Lakers were unable to get back and allowed uncontested baskets. Most fans can attest that it got old quickly watching other teams earn easy points while the Lakers struggled on fast break offense. So the Lakers did the only thing they could do, given their limited financial resources – they got young. This season the Lakers average age is 26.4 years old, last season that number was 28.6. Although players like Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Ryan Kelly, Xavier Henry, Nick Young and Shawne Williams may not seem on the surface to be strong defensive players, their youth and ability to get back on defense was what the Lakers really needed. Keep in mind, the combination of Metta, Earl Clark, and Dwight was responsible for 5.32 turnovers, over a third of the Lakers total turnovers per game.
By cutting down on turnovers, the Lakers will already be limiting fast break opportunities. Steve Nash already noted during training camp that he will no longer be the only player getting back on transition opportunities, as all of these young players who were brought in can get back with ease. If looks that were uncontested last season become contested looks this year, the Lakers will have improved their transition defense in a huge way, with only minimum salary players available. The Lakers have been blasted for not having a plan and just throwing together a team, but for those of us paying attention, each move that has been made has been to help run D’Antoni’s offense and to have speed on defense.
By having more athletes on the team and getting rid of some of the most turnover prone players, the Lakers will have an improved transition defense this year. Halfcourt defense is a completely different issue. Last season, even though he wasn’t at 100%, the Lakers were lucky to have Dwight protecting the rim. If he had been taken off the team, the Lakers could potentially have had one of the worst defenses in the league. This season, the Lakers don’t have a rim protector of anywhere close to the caliber as Dwight. I’ve already written on the importance of Jordan Hill and his potential impact on this Lakers defense, but I haven’t addressed the rest of the team yet.
Last season wasn’t just a failure, it lacked any sort of cohesion or team chemistry that legitimate title contenders have. In the preseason, the Lakers have actually been fun to watch and appear to be having fun while playing the game. Team chemistry is one of the few concepts left that is almost impossible to quantify with some sort of stat or analytic, but it is wildly important. If the team has good chemistry and genuinely trusts one another, the team defense should improve, just based on trusting your teammates to do their job. Last season after every scored basket it seemed someone was getting glared at for missing an assignment. With a fresh crop of young athletes getting ready to defend, the Lakers should be improved, as long as they all do their job on defense. Young athletes have an easier time staying in front of defenders, even if they aren’t considered great defenders. By not allowing the opposing offense to have its way, it gives the Lakers defense a slight win.
Overall this team is going to have weaknesses on the defensive end. They don’t have those one-on-one lockdown defenders that are needed come playoff time, but they do have a team of athletes who are eager to prove they belong in the NBA. Transition D should no longer be the sieve it was last season. Will the Lakers give up a lot of points? Yes, but that is also in part to the uptempo style of offense Mike D runs. Quicker offense leads to more possessions overall. I don’t expect the Lakers to be a top team defensively, but I think they can surprise some people. If they finish above the bottom third in team defense, this Lakers team could win a lot of games.