Los Angeles Lakers’ defense has dramatically improved

Los Angeles Lakers, JaVale McGee, Kyle Kuzma, Cedi Osman (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers, JaVale McGee, Kyle Kuzma, Cedi Osman (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Early this season, the Los Angeles Lakers defense (or lack thereof) was costing them games, including some games against teams they should’ve beaten. But as of late, they’ve been locking teams down when they’ve needed to

Laker Nation, I know some of us are feeling some consternation, especially after two pathetic and inexcusable losses by the Los Angeles Lakers to the Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets a few days ago. But it’s time for a reality check.

At 14-9, the purple and gold are on about a 47 win pace, which would put them in line with many preseason prognostications. In addition, the Lakers‘ defense, which was a sore spot early in the season, has gotten much, much better.

As we remember, they started 2-5, amidst reports that president of basketball operations Magic Johnson “admonished” coach Luke Walton for the team playing so poorly. At the time, the Lakers were giving up a ridiculous 122.3 points per game, which was second most in the league behind the all-around embarrassment known as the Washington Wizards.

But soon afterward, the tough schedule the Lakers had started to even out, and they signed Tyson Chandler to give them that rugged, defensive-minded backup center they desperately needed.

Since then, they have won 12 out of their last 16 games, which is a pretty elite pace. Surely, they’re not as good as that stretch’s winning percentage would indicate, but it would seem they’re closer to that than to their 2-5 start before that.

As of now, the Lakers are giving up 112.7 points per game. That sounds like a lot of points, but keep in mind that they are an uptempo team that plays at the 5th fastest pace in the league, at least in terms of possessions per game. In the all-important defensive efficiency category, the Lakers are 7th, which is really solid.

This season, the average NBA team is scoring over 110 points a game, which is four points higher than last season, and the highest league-wide scoring average since the mid-1980s. The biggest reason for that, at least numbers wise, is that pace and possessions per game are up. This has resulted in a brand of NBA basketball that is very aesthetically pleasing, not to mention conducive to winning and contending for championships.

This means that our old benchmarks of good team defense need to be updated, because they are always relative to the rest of the league. For years and years, holding your opponent under 100 points was the old hallmark of a strong team defense. This season, not even one team is giving up less than 100 a game.

As scoring and pace have been incrementally increasing throughout the league for about a decade, defensive efficiency has replaced points allowed as the tell-all stat when it comes to how stout your team defense is, and right now, the Lakers are getting it done in that department.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, take a look at this:

Truth be told, they still have plenty of work to do in that area on their journey to (hopefully) winning the NBA championship in the near future. As we saw against Orlando, centers like Nikola Vucevic, who can step out and hit 3-pointers with regularity, especially off the screen-roll, are still a point of contention for this team.

In addition, the Lakers are still turning the ball over too much. When they don’t do so, their defense is good because they’re able to get back and force their opponent to play five-on-five. But when the Lakers turn it over, which usually happens in bunches, their opponent fast breaks them, and Laker leads evaporate like the marine layer on a warm Los Angeles afternoon.

Another issue has been that the Lakers offense will be fast and fluid during the first half, complete with fast breaks and easy baskets, then come to a screeching halt at some time in the second half.

That’s when they revert to LeBron-ball, which usually ends up with him or a teammate taking a contested outside shot with less than five seconds left on the shot clock. That’s not a good strategy if you want to be a good NBA team.

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Since those are not high-quality shots, the Lakers tend to miss plenty of them, which also leads to their opponent getting easy looks in transition immediately afterward.

As former Laker coach Phil Jackson will tell you, an integral part of playing good team defense is playing well on offense – namely, good shot selection and limiting turnovers.

It also helps if other players step up offensively instead of simply ball-watching their superstar, expecting him to keep bailing them out, which is what’s been happening with LeBron James way too much in the second half of games.

Magic Johnson has been well aware of these issues, and he talked about them on a November 29 interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

"“We are trying to make sure that we watch his minutes but also that we don’t run everything through him because now it is Cleveland all over again and we don’t want that,” Johnson said. “We want to get up and down.”"

"“We got a lot of ballhandlers so we feel we won’t overuse him in terms of his ballhandling and also every play has to run through him. I think we got proven scorers — Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram — and then when you have two point guards like (Lonzo) Ball and (Rajon) Rondo, we don’t have to have LeBron having the ball in his hands all the time.”"

"“We’re playing up and down,” Johnson said. “We look good one minute or two quarters and then we don’t look good the next two quarters. So we haven’t been consistent yet. I think they are still learning how to play with one another and trying to adapt to (coach Luke Walton’s) system.“I’ve always said that in January we will look better and I still think that is going to happen. Tyson Chandler has added to our team because we defensively we needed a defensive-minded backup center to JaVale (McGee). … We still haven’t come together. Once we do that, we will be a really good team.”"

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If the Lakers continue to defend as well as they have been lately, they can surprise people in a positive way by the end of the season. Playing good team defense usually gives you a chance to win just about any game, and this is how the Lakers can sometimes beat superior teams such as Golden State, Boston, Philly, Toronto and Milwaukee.