What Makes the Lakers’ Aggressive Swarming ‘Attack Dog’ Defense Work?
In a league where great offense commonly beats great defense, the Los Angeles Lakers have built a championship team around a set of defensive principles that are redefining how defense is played in the modern NBA.
These defensive principles represent a dramatic transformation in how to defend modern analytically driven offenses where unstoppable superstars dominate the ball while surrounded by cadres of dead eye 3-point shooters. While related, these three principles together form the heart of the Lakers’ defensive philosophy: defenses need to act rather than react, defenses should leave no man on an island, and defense is just offense without the ball.
The symbiosis behind the evolution of the Lakers’ innovative championship defensive philosophy was the serendipitous pairing of defensive coaching genius Frank Vogel and modern defensive center unicorn Anthony Davis. Just as Draymond Green enabled the Warriors’ innovative switch everything Death Lineup to succeed, Anthony Davis has given coach Vogel the perfect modern center to anchor the Lakers swarming attack dog team defense.
The transition from the passive drop coverage the Lakers’ centers had been playing on ball screens to the aggressive hedging, trapping, and doubling they trusted in the playoffs set the stage for an offseason roster makeover. They replaced older less mobile defenders like McGee, Howard, and Green with younger, quicker, and longer players like Schroder, Harrell, and Horton-Tucker who could thrive in a fast rotating team oriented defense.
So let’s take a closer look at how each of the three defensive principles upon which the Lakers have built their aggressive swarming ‘attack dog’ defense work and how they’ve contributed to the Lakers’ defensive transformation:
1. DEFENSES NEED TO ACT RATHER THAN REACT
This is the core principle Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel has embraced in his defensive evolution from a coach who before the Lakers had built his career on the philosophy that defense started inside-out with elite rim protection. Abandoning passive drop coverage schemes designed to stop shots at the rim for an aggressive outside-in perimeter defense strategy designed to prevent players from getting into the paint was a revolutionary move by Frank Vogel.
It also was exactly the kind of innovative defensive scheme that takes full advantage of a modern mobile defensive center like Anthony Davis who can both protect the rim and switch and guard smaller players on the perimeter. More importantly, the Lakers’ swarming ‘attack dog’ defense with its traps, hedges, and doubles is exactly what the Lakers need to slow down and disrupt the perimeter focused 3-point dominant offenses that dominate the NBA.
The Lakers’ decision to dump McGee and Howard and abandon passive drop coverage schemes for an aggressive swarming proactive strategy was a first step to a defense that attacks rather than reacts to the actions of the offense.
2. DEFENSES SHOULD LEAVE NO MAN ON AN ISLAND
The seemingly unstoppable transcendent offensive skills and talent of the superstar players who dominate the NBA today have transformed the cliche that ‘great offense can beat great defense’ into a harsh every game reality. Throw in the analytics preference for layups and threes and most NBA offenses now focus on getting to the rim for an easy basket, driving and dishing for a dunk, or driving and kicking to an open shooter for a three.
Stopping ball handlers from getting into the paint thus becomes defenses’ greatest priority and most NBA teams do this by having help defenders cheat and create a wall and having their bigs play drop coverage to clog the paint. The Lakers have instead decided to trap, hedge, and double ball handlers off ball screens to prevent them from beating single coverage and penetrating and relying on multiple coordinated quick rotations to plug any holes.
It’s a gambling scrambling style of defense that leaves no man on an island and focuses on forcing the ball out of the hands of opposing teams’ stars and forcing offenses to adjust to the Lakers’ defense rather than vice versa.
3. DEFENSE IS JUST OFFENSE WITHOUT THE BALL
The idea that defense is just offense without the ball is the mortar that holds the Lakers’ defensive philosophy together. It’s the guiding principle that transforms activity over passivity and team over individual into a system. Approaching defense as offense without the ball fundamentally refocuses everything a team does on the defensive end. The goal becomes to attack rather than just react, to create advantages in numbers and matchups.
Just as offenses run plays to create 2-on-1 or 3-on-2 advantages, the Lakers’ swarming traps and doubles are plays designed to create chaos and force ball handlers to give up the ball to players who are not as talented or dangerous. Like many offenses that ‘hunt’ weak defenders, the Lakers’ defense seeks to take the ball out of the hands of the other team’s best scorers and playmakers and put in the hands of less skilled and more mistake prone role players.
The Lakers’ swarming ‘attack dog’ team defense is just offense without the ball and a deadly defensive style that creates mismatches and forces turnovers that ignite the lethal fast break opportunities that blow games wide open.
It’s important to remember that the Lakers swarming ‘attack dog’ defense is still very much a work in progress and far from the finished product playoff opponents are likely to face. Right now, it’s still in the experimental stage. Coach Vogel is still adjusting the system to accommodate his new personnel. The Lakers also still need a mobile modern defensive center who can both protect the rim and switch and defend smaller players on the perimeter.
Right now, the Lakers are in the same regular season mode as last year with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell mimicking JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard by eating up minutes at the center to save wear and tear on AD. Once the playoffs start, the Lakers will go small and revert to their swarming ‘attack dog’ team defense with a combination of Davis with Harrell or Morris manning the four and five and Marc Gasol becoming JaVale McGee.
This offseason, the Lakers will likely look to make a major move to bring in a modern two way center like Myles Turner, Chris Boucher, or Christian Wood so they can stretch the floor on offense and defend all three levels on defense. That’s what the Lakers need more than a third superstar to build another dynasty and they’ve done a commendable job accumulating a portfolio of valuable trading chips to be able to pull off such a trade this next offseason.
In the meantime, the Lakers have a vision for present and the future that’s built upon a swarming ‘attack dog’ team defense that’s the perfect weapon to counter today’s analytic driven, superstar dominated modern offenses.