One of the misconceptions of last season's Lakers team is all of their problems were on the offensive side of the ball. This shouldn't be a surprise since most teams' success or failure is seen through the prism of their ability to put the ball in the basket, not their ability to stop the other team from doing so.
However, the Lakers' bigger failure—especially down the stretch and into the playoffs—was in their inability to secure the stops they needed.
In the postseason, the Lakers posted a defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 106.5, a mark that would have ranked them 27th in the NBA if they'd posted it during the regular season. If you want to put a positive spin on that number, you can take solace in the fact their defense actually improved from the 109.5 mark they posted in April.
Needless to say, finding a way to improve their defense this offseason was a major priority for the Lakers even if few were talking about it.
Enter Dwight Howard.
In trading for the league's best big man, the Lakers have gone a long way in improving their biggest weaknesses on defense.
Before we get to Howard's specific skills, however, we must understand the type of defense Mike Brown likes to run. Brown's schemes call for a risk averse approach that funnels the ball to the middle of the floor where his team's superior size could contest and block shots. He wants to force teams into mid-range jumpers (the least efficient shot in basketball) and wants his players flying all over the floor to close out on shooters and cut off driving angles.
In Dwight Howard, the Lakers have acquired the exact type of big man they need for the centerpiece of this scheme.
Howard's quick feet allow him to cover massive amounts of ground when rotating to the open man. Furthermore, he can use that quickness to slide with ball handlers on the perimeter on switches and keep good angles in tracking his man to the basket. Plus—with his leaping ability—Howard can challenge and block shots, turning an opponent's shot into a fast break chance going the other way. Add in his instincts, timing, positioning and understanding of angles and this is a match made in heaven for a team that floundered down the stretch.
Take, for example, how the Lakers too often defended the pick and roll. Here, Andrew Bynum did what he did many times last season when his man went to go screen for the ball:
As you can see, he barely moved from his spot in the paint. Rather than actively moving to the perimeter to aid his guard, he laid back in the hopes that the ball handler would bring the action to him so he could challenge the shot from his a spot on the floor in which he's more comfortable.
Now, compare that to how Dwight Howard handles a very similar play:
Instead of hanging back, Howard slides up the floor to meet the ball handler closer to where the pick occurs. When the guard tries to turn the corner, Dwight is high enough to deter a pull up jump shot while showing enough quickness to slide with the ball handler on his way to the rim. Then he shows enough leaping ability and timing to block the shot.
Don't get me wrong, Bynum showed he could do these same things defensively last year. However, the difference was the frequency in which Bynum displayed this effort in comparison to Howard. The Lakers needed that type of defensive enthusiasm more than they got.
The pick and roll is only one area that the Lakers struggled on defense, though.
Last season the Lakers were the worst defensive transition team in the league in terms of points allowed per play. By starting two slow-ish defensive bigs, every Laker opponent stressed running the ball back at them in transition and trying to score before the defense could be set. With Howard in the fold (as well as a full season of Jordan Hill), the Lakers now possess more athletic big men to better counter teams that try to push the ball back at them. There will be fewer times their bigs can't keep pace and thus fewer times the paint is exposed in transition.
Plus, with the Lakers likely moving towards the Princeton offense, the team should also have better floor balance on O which will translate to better transition. Too often last season the Lakers guards and wings found themselves below the foul line trying to create a shot for themselves or a teammate. If the shot missed, there was no one rotating back to slow down the advancing ball. With the Princeton offense, the Lakers should be in a two-guard front more often, naturally setting them up to better retreat on D.
This isn't to say that the Lakers won't have any issues on defense. Steve Nash has never been a good defender and, as he ages, his problems on that side of the ball only grow. Antawn Jamison is another recent addition whose reputation as a poor defender is well earned. Add in an aging Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and there are open questions as to whether the Lakers can be one of the elite defensive teams.
That said, the Lakers were a top 5 defensive team at the beginning of last season with inferior personnel compared to what they have now. Metta World Peace was only a part-time player, Jordan Hill was not yet on the roster, and Dwight Howard was still on the Magic. Dwight's addition alone has the ability to transform what the Lakers can do defensively and with a healthy MWP and a full season of Hill, the Lakers defensive ceiling has been raised considerably.
Now it's about going out there and playing up to their potential.