Watching the Lakers play, reviewing their roster, and analyzing the stats for the first seven games, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Lakers have traded the defense-first strategy that won them a championship for better offense.
Anybody watching the games can see the difference. The Lakers no longer have to rely entirely on LeBron James and Anthony Davis on offense but the defense is riddled with holes and once great rim protection is non-existent. Replacing Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard with Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell has clearly turbo charged the Lakers’ offense but the cost may have been their championship defense.
The stats so far tell the same story as the eye test. Offensively, the Lakers rank 3rd in offensive rating, 5th in points scored per game, 2nd in team plus/minus, 2nd in field goal percentage, and 3rd in 3-point percentage. Defensively, they rank 6th in defensive rating, 6th in opponent points allowed per game, 8th in opponent field goal percentage, 6th in opponent 3-point percentage, 8th in blocks per game, and 25th in steals per game.
While championship teams rarely abandon the strategy that helped them win a title, have the Lakers traded their championship defense to get more firepower on offense this offseason or is there something else going on?
The truth is there’s a lot going on that’s caused the defensive problems that have plagued the Lakers through their first seven games, including roster and scheduling changes as well as a major change in defensive philosophy.
Let’s start with the obvious. It’s only been 83 days since Lakers won the championship, they had a shortened 3 week training camp. Their preseason consisted of just 4 games and they’ve only played 6 games this season. Needless to day, it’s unfair to expect the Lakers to be playing defense at the level they did in the playoffs at this point in the season. Like Frank Vogel warned, it’s going to take time for the players to get back into game shape.
While the Lakers returned twelve players from last year’s squad, they also added five new players in Dennis Schroeder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews, and Talen Horton-Tucker to an already deep rotation. Adding that many players to the Lakers lineups is going to be a challenge that will take time to click, especially on the defensive end where reading schemes and rotating in sync are critical to Vogel’s defensive system.
While it’s the regular season, the Lakers are still experimenting with lineups and players still working to get into game condition. We probably won’t see the real Lakers’ defense until we’re a fourth of the way through the season.
So what will the ‘real’ Lakers’ defense look like? Have we traded defense for offense? Have we sacrificed rim protection for more offense? The answer is defense is still the priority but there’s been a major change in philosophy.
The change in philosophy started in the playoffs last season when the Lakers stopped having McGee and Howard play drop coverage and went to more athletic defensive lineups that could rotate more quickly and challenge shots. There’s no question the Lakers’ rim protection right now is not what it was last year in the regular season when JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard were playing a combined 35.5 minutes and blocking 2.5 shots per game.
But McGee and Howard were not the rim protection formula the Lakers used to win their 17th NBA championship. While Howard was key in the Denver series, both he and McGee became unplayable most of the playoffs. The defensive lineup that won last year’s championship was Davis at the five, Morris at the four, and James at the three, plus two guards. Vogel confirmed last week that that lineup was still the Lakers’ core defensive formula.
So the question that needs to be asked is what’s happened to the Lakers’ core defensive formula? Why haven’t the Davis, Morris, James, and two guards lineup had the defensive impact so far this season they had in the playoffs? The answer is simple. Despite reiterating that AD, Keef, LeBron, and two guards were still the Lakers defensive formula and Death Star lineup to close games, Frank has simply not played them together so far this season.
Instead, Frank has been experimenting with different lineups and rotations and has only played AD, Keef, and LeBron together in 2 games for a total of 6 minutes, which is the major reason why the Lakers’ defense has been subpar. The other problem is Vogel has played Gasol or Harrell at center for 44.4 minutes per game or over 93% of the time, meaning Davis has only averaged 3.6 minutes per game or just 7% of the game at the center position.
Finally, as he has openly admitted himself, Anthony Davis has really not played well defensively so far this season. In fact, his 114.0 defensive rating is the worst of any player in the Lakers rotation through the first six games.
What the Lakers have done is to double down on the defensive formula that won them their championship last year, which was to rely more on speed, quickness, and athleticism to create better defense than pure size at the rim.
Rather than bring back the traditional centers who became obsolete in the playoffs, the Lakers replaced them with centers with the defensive smarts and athleticism to defend all over the court and ability to contribute on offense. It’s going to take Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell time and experience to learn how to play in Frank Vogel’s defense and that’s why they’re getting the minutes at center right now rather than Anthony Davis or Markieff Morris.
Like McGee and Howard, Gasol and Harrell at the five will be the Lakers’ regular season plan but down the stretch and in the playoffs, Vogel will once again turn to the championship formula of Davis, Morris, and James.
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