The Lakers Defense Has Hit a Huge Speed Bump

A few months ago, the Lakers were the best defensive team in the NBA, so good that when they lost LeBron James and Anthony Davis for an extended stretch they still managed to make the playoffs. With or without James and Davis, the Lakers were a difficult team to score on in half-court sets. Motivated by a defensive-minded coach (Frank Vogel), the Lakers identity was steeped in steals, blocks, takeaways, and turnovers. They wanted to get stops with the same kind of aggression they wanted to score. But the eye test noted the Lakers offense was as scintillating as waiting for wet paint to dry on a bunch of cement stairs. Their defense had to be special or else the season would have bored everyone to tears.

Vogel’s weakness is offensive creativity- he’s no Picasso with the clipboard- but his strength is defensive intensity and want-to. Everyone on the Lakers played defense in 2020-21 and was good at it.

At the age of 36, LeBron James was ranked the 8th best defensive small forward (Defensive Real Plus-Minus) in the league. Anthony Davis was ranked 13th. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was ranked 4th. Dennis Shörder was ranked the 9th best defensive point guard in the league.

The need to blow the team up and start all over again with only James and Davis as the star power has brought in former All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza who last played for the Lakers in 2009, and won a title, and former Lakers Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn.

While Nunn was ranked the 21st best defensive point guard last season, Malik Monk was the second-worst defensive shooting guard in the entire league, ranked 115th; Wayne Ellington was ranked 28th. Ariza had a respectable ranking considering his age, ranked 30th playing for Miami. Westbrook was ranked 23rd among point guards. But Carmelo and Dwight Howard were ranked 77th among power forwards and centers.

If the Lakers aren’t scoring, this will be a Space Jam 2 disaster (a lot of hype but mediocre box office.)

Consider. Kent Bazemore’s defensive assignment of Devin Booker, and Donovan Mitchell feels like a broke man having to buy a caviar dinner on hot dog money. Russell Westbrook will attempt to guard Luka Doncic and Donovan Mitchell without fouling and good luck with that. Marc Gasol- if he isn’t waived- will be too slow for Deandre Ayton or Rudy Gobert.

The Lakers were always going to be behind the eight-ball. Dennis Schröder wasn’t coming back and Schröder, despite the criticism and the not pure fit, was a good defender in the backcourt. He had quick hands, good foot speed, played with ferocity and had a jumper that, when it was streaky, helped the Lakers win games. He turned down more than enough money. $85 million isn’t an insult, but it looks like a huge backfire at this moment in time (think Nerlens Noel). But what Schröder did or didn’t do isn’t the point here and he isn’t the fall guy. The contracts of Davis and James make it difficult to acquire young stars. The salary cap can bend but it’s stronger than oak. No breaking it. Ever.

So the Lakers were forced to do what the system makes teams do. Get generational talent and pay them accordingly then fill the team with old players on minimum deals who want a ring. A sign-and-trade for Schröder isn’t happening.

Optimistically, the Lakers are hoping Westbrook’s energy will be contagious, and that Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, and Kent Bazemore can be better at making threes than Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Wes Matthews.

The wildcard in all of it is Talen Horton-Tucker. Does he have the kind of work ethic and training to make a serious jump ala Julius Randle who in the offseason of 2020 took an enormous amount of threes, improved his weight training, conditioned like he was about to run a 100-mile marathon, and had a chip on his shoulder?  When training camp starts, will Frank Vogel have a decision? Horton-Tucker or Bazemore? If not, the shooting guard position is going to be in trouble.

Currently, this Lakers team is the oldest team ever assembled in the history of the NBA. Old players don’t have the foot speed to defend. They are victimized by drive-bys and dunks, their feet cemented to the court, their eyes as glassy as my grandfather. Old players can’t get back on fast breaks and so they don’t. Teams ram a quick offense down their throat and thrive doing it. Did I mention old players get injured?

But LeBron James is LeBron James and everyone is forgetting Anthony Davis is 28 years old. A healthy Davis is an antidote for the aging role players who are going to have to take days off. Davis is going to have to do more than he has ever done. And then there is the chemistry question with Westbrook as the lead guard. It is going to be an issue all season long, oxygenating a wary media that for the most part can’t stand Westbrook.  And the elephant in the room is how long can LeBron be LeBron.

The Milwaukee Bucks won the title but in the regular season, they were 22nd in points allowed. Not particularly special. They were 19th in blocks, 10th in defensive rating, but 7th in steals, and 1st in rebounds. And 1st in points.

The Lakers are eyeing that 1st in points with 66% of their team past their prime. This is the biggest challenge of Frank Vogel’s Laker career. Stability with a contract extension comes with a price. Vogel has to prove he can make old dudes play hard in an offense that is overly predictable. He’s on the hot seat, as is this experiment of the old leading the blind.