For the Los Angeles Lakers, Defense Is Just Offense Without the Basketball!
Legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight once said “defense is just offense without the ball” and that’s the perfect description of the style of defense Frank Vogel has the world champion Los Angeles Lakers playing.
Defense in the NBA is usually by definition a passive and reactive response to what the offense does and most schemes are built around philosophies designed to defend pick-and-roll actions and protect the paint and rim. Despite an upgraded offense that no longer has to rely entirely on LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Frank Vogel has fully embraced Bobby Knight’s mantra and transformed the Lakers’ defense into a deadly lethal weapon.
What we’re seeing from the Lakers’ defense is the expansion and evolution of the suffocating schemes Frank Vogel unveiled in last season’s playoffs that dominated opposing offenses on the way to winning the championship. The Lakers’ weaponized defense includes aggressive traps and hedges to attack on-ball screens and prevent ball handlers from getting to the rim plus a versatile array of individual defenders who can shutdown elite scorers.
Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office and Frank Vogel and his coaching staff deserve praise for their vision and courage in dramatically changing their base defensive strategy and the front court personnel to implement it. They replaced the drop coverage strategy and traditional low post centers that anchored their regular season defense with more aggressive trap and hedge schemes and smarter, more versatile defenders at the center position.
The Lakers’ regular season defensive strategy was a remnant of Frank Vogel’s successful stint coaching the Indiana Pacers and Roy Hibbert where elite defense started inside-out with verticality rules and rim protection. Anchored by traditional centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the Lakers drop coverage defense dominated the regular season by forcing shooters to take pull-up jumpers from midrange and beyond the arc.
Faced with a gauntlet of elite pull-up jump shooters like Damian Lillard, James Harden, Jamal Murray, and Tyler Herro in the playoffs, the Lakers benched McGee and Howard and abandoned their drop coverage defense. Instead, they opted to trap, hedge, and double the lead ball handler off screens to prevent them from shooting or getting to the rim, relying on a faster, quicker, and more athletic lineup to rotate to protect the rim.
What made the Lakers new outside-in defense work was Markieff Morris playing the four to free up Anthony Davis to play the five. The rest is history. The Lakers dominated the playoffs and won their 17th championship. Having watched their traditional low post centers become unplayable in the playoffs, the Lakers didn’t hesitate to make a change, replacing JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
While Gasol and Harrell are not the elite rim protectors that McGee and Howard were, they’ve both excellent positional defenders and the Lakers overall defense and rim protection has been even better than last season. Besides the impressive boost they’ve given the Lakers’ offense, Gasol’s physical size, toughness, and high basketball IQ and Harrell’s quickness, athleticism, and ability to draw charges have upgraded the Lakers defense.
While the sample size is still small, the Lakers right now have the best record in the league at 11–3, the best defensive rating at 104.0, and the best net rating at 11.0 — all numbers dramatically better than last season.
The second way the Lakers weaponized their defense this regular season is by better utilizing their upgraded portfolio of individual defenders who are capable of shutting down elite scorers like Damian Lillard or James Harden. This was part of the Lakers’ defensive strategy during the playoffs when we saw LeBron James and Anthony Davis volunteer and personally take the responsibility for defending the other team’s star player or red hot scorer.
We saw that last night when Anthony Davis took over guarding the Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram after he exploded for 17 points on 8 of 9 shooting in the first half. Davis held him to 3 points on 1 of 6 from the field the second half. The willingness of James and Davis to defend the other team’s best player gives the Lakers an advantage over other teams like the Bucks or Nets who have superstars who are reluctant or unable to defend opposing superstars.
In the end, great team defense still requires players who can play great individual defense and that’s a big reason why the Lakers’ defense is such a lethal and powerful weapon, especially at games’ end and in the playoffs. Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Talen Horton-Tucker, LeBron James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell all have defensive ratings that are below the Lakers team best 104.0 rating.
What’s scary for Lakers’ opponents is that Anthony Davis is just starting to play up to the level of a DPOY, having only a 104.9 defensive rating for the season but posting an impressive 91.3 defensive rating his last four games.
What’s remarkable about the Lakers’ defensive evolution this season has been how Frank Vogel has modified his long held belief that defense starts inside-out with protecting the rim and embraced this outside-in strategy. Vogel’s ability to adapt to changes in the game is a remarkable and frankly an unexpected development that’s been an important aspect of the Lakers’ championship run last season and their chances to repeat this season.
That Frank Vogel made this defensive change in strategy in the heat of the playoffs and then doubled down on it for the regular season by replacing both McGee and Howard with Gasol and Harrell is even more remarkable. While it’s still early and the sample size is small, the Lakers have shown no sign of abandoning their ‘defense first’ identity. In fact, there are foreboding signs they may have weaponized their defense to be even better this season.
Teams hoping the Los Angeles Lakers traded their championship defense for offensive firepower may end up being extremely disappointed because it looks like for this team ‘defense is just offense without the basketball.’
If you enjoyed this article and would like to share your ideas and comments with other informed Lakers fans, please join us to discuss on Lakerholics.Com.