Why Jarred Vanderbilt Is The Missing Puzzle Piece to Top-5 Lakers’ Defense

LakerTom
7 min readFeb 28, 2023

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Jarred Vanderbilt couldn’t have asked for a better venue to showcase to the basketball world why he’s the missing puzzle piece to transforming the Los Angeles Lakers languishing defense back to a top-5 squad in the NBA.

In an electrifying performance, Vanderbilt showed why he could be the steal of the trade deadline as his dominating defense on Luka Doncic and energizing hustle and aggression fueled the Lakers’ monster comeback.
Vando’s 15 points, 17 rebounds, and 4 steals were at the heart of every run the Lakers put together to bounce back from their 27-point deficit early in the second quarter and stun the Dallas Mavericks with a 111–108 victory.

More importantly, Vanderbilt’s game saving performance cemented how impactful he has become for Lakers defensively with his elite hops and rebounding and combo of defensive quickness, physicality, and length.
There has only been one instance in the history of the NBA where a team that was not a top-10 defensive team was able to win the championship. Vando could be the player who transforms the Lakers to a top-5 defense.

Since trading for Vando, the Lakers have gone 4–1 and are currently on a 3-game winning streak and their defense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league before the trade, has been the league 3rd best since the trade.
Whether the Lakers’ new look roster gells soon enough to make playoffs or they have to wait until next season to make a run for #18, the Lakers know they now have found the key player they needed to revitalize their defense.

So let’s take a closer look at why Jarred Vanderbilt has been such a great fit in the Lakers’ starting lineup and why he could be the missing puzzle piece to transforming Los Angeles’ languishing team defense into a top-5 unit.

Vanderbilt Gives Lakers Elite Wing Defender

The Lakers biggest defensive weakness the past three years has been the lack of a 6' 8" wing defender who could shut down or slow down the bigger guard and wing scorers in the West like Luka Doncic and Paul George.

Credit to someone in the Lakers organization who had the vision to think outside the box and find a better solution to a wing defender than spending all of their valuable trade capital for an elite option like O.G. Anunoby.
The answer was the brilliant 3-team trade where Pelinka got the defensive wing they desperately need in Vanderbilt and the necessary high volume, high percentage 3-point gunners in Russell and Beasley to make it work.

Pairing an elite wing defender who can’t shoot with two high volume 3-point gunners with good size was an inspired solution to the Lakers’ desperate need for a wing defender while still improving their spacing.
Vanderbilt has been the difference maker the Lakers’ defense needed, giving them an elite versatile defender who can defend all five positions. Teams now have to game plan for Vanderbilt when playing the Lakers.

Vanderbilt showcased his defensive stopper capabilities to the max against the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, who leads the NBA in scoring. Luka went 0–3 and turned the ball over 5 times when defended by Vanderbilt.
Visibly frustrated by Vanderbilt, Luka struggled to maintain his usual control over the game pace as Jarred’s quickness, physicality, and 6' 8" size and 7' 1" wingspan forced him to speed up his game and make errors.

Thanks to outside-the-box front office thinking, Jarred Vanderbilt now gives the Lakers an elite 6' 8" wing defender with size, length, quickness, and physicality to shut or slow down the West’s bigger wing scorers.

Vanderbilt ‘Completes’ Lakers’ Front Court

Jarred Vanderbilt is also the perfect fit as third member of what could be the NBA’s best defensive backcourt. His size, length, quickness, athleticism, savvy, and physicality complement and ‘complete’ the Lakers’ front court.

Finally, after three full years of watching the small forward position being poorly manned by shooting guards, the Lakers have finally given the small forward position back to the front court through 6' 8" Jarred Vanderbilt. What Vanderbilt does is create an almost interchangeable front court trio with James and Davis that can defend all three front court positions and has versatility to switch in the front court. No more small ball for Lakers.

Vando ‘completes’ the Lakers in that he provides everything their two superstars need in a third front court player: great defender, cutter, rebounder, and passer who does all of the little things that matter.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis have never had a third front court member as impactful as Jarred Vanderbilt. He could make this Lakers front court even better than the 2020 championship front court in the bubble.

Vanderbilt is only 23-years old and has two years left on his contract with an annual salary under $5 million, which means he’s likely to become a staple alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the next three years.
Finding that third front court member who complements and completes the Lakers front court was a huge plus for the Lakers’ chances to make the playoffs this season and emerge as a consistent contender going forward.

With a towering, long, and athletic front court trio with 6' 8", 6' 8", and 6' 10" size 7' 0", 7' 1', and 7' 6" wingspans, the Los Angeles Lakers have what could become the best defensive front court in the league the next few years.

Vanderbilt Helps Lakers Backcourt Defense

The key to balancing the Lakers’ starting lineup to include a non-shooter like Jarred Vanderbilt is starting a pair of volume 3-point gunners D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, who together take over 15 threes per game.

Since the Lakers traded for Russell, Beasley, and Vanderbilt, who all played together on the Minnesota Timberwolves before being traded to the Jazz as part of the Rudy Gobert deal, their backcourt defense has been excellent.
In fact, during the Lakers current 3-game win streak, the three Lakers players with the best individual defensive rating were surprisingly D’Angelo Russell at 83.5, Malik Beasley at 88.3, and Jarred Vanderbilt at 93.7.

The combination of having Vanderbilt defend the opposing team’s leading scorer, who’s often a guard, and having three elite rim protectors in James, Davis, and Vanderbilt in the front court helps L.A.’s backcourt defense.
That Russell, Beasley, and Vanderbilt have played together before on the Wolves also had to help them get off to a good start in purple and gold. There were moments when the Laker defense was rotating on a string.

D’Angelo Russell is 6' 5" with a 6' 10" wingspan and Malik Beasley 6' 4" with a 6' 7" wingspan, which makes the Lakers backcourt bigger. With Schroder moving to the bench, the Lakers suddenly have a bigger starting lineup.
That positional size and length advantage translates into more rebounds, dunks, layups, blocks, and steals throughout the game. After suffering from being undersized, watching the Lakers bully ball other teams is fun.

Having D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley post the best defensive ratings on the entire Lakers team for the current 3-game win streak is encouraging since both guards were brought in for their offense, not their defense.

Vanderbilt Makes Lakers Top-5 Defense

NBA history is studded with great players like Ron Artest,Dennis Rodman, and Draymond Green who found ways to become championship players despite not being shooters. The Lakers think Jarred Vanderbilt is another.

In the 5 games since the trade deadline, the Lakers have a 4–1 record and a team defensive rating of 106.8, which 3rd best in the NBA for that period. During the recent 3-game win streak, they had an even better 104.2 rating.
One of Rob Pelinka’s goals at the trade deadline was to improve the Lakers’ defense as well as their offense, which is why Rob demanded Vanderbilt be part of the trade and why they pursued Bamba in the end over Bogdanovic.

Pelinka knows defense wins championships and the current roster needed help on the defensive side and the offensive side. Before the trade, the Lakers had #19 OffRtg at 113.1, #20 DefRtg at 114.3, and #24 NetRtg at -1.1.
For the 5 games after the trade, the Lakers had #21 OffRtg at 112.4, #3 DefRtg at 106.8, and #7 NetRtg at 5.6. While the deadline trades have not yet helped the Lakers’ offense, they’ve definitely given L.A. a defensive boost.

The Lakers simply need to play like a top-5 defense for the 21 games left on their regular season schedule. That means posting a defensive rating below 110.0 for the rest of the regular season, which L.A. should be able to do.
The challenge for the Lakers is going to be to stay healthy. We already heard that James and Russell will both miss tomorrow night’s game against the Grizzlies. Hopefully, they’ll both be ready to play Wednesday night.

With Vanderbilt becoming their shut down wing defender, ‘completing’ the Lakers front court, and helping the backcourt defend better, the Lakers have a chance to enter the playoffs with a dominant top-5 team defense.

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LakerTom

Lakers fanatic since 1971 when team traded for Wilt Chamberlain. Founder, editor, and publisher of Lakerholics.com, a community for smart informed Lakers fans.