The Los Angeles Lakers could blame their early season struggles on the absence of some key personnel, but that excuse isn't totally valid when it comes to the team's porous defense.
Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are integral pieces of the Lakers' championship formula, but their most significant contributions will be on the offensive end, where the team has also struggled to find consistency.
For now, the Lakers have some real problems on defense, especially when it comes to prized center Dwight Howard.
Howard was brought in not only to help energize the offense, but to stabilize a defense that would otherwise have been without an anchor in the middle.
While Howard has struggled to adapt to his role as the Lakers' No. 2 option on offense, his defensive performances have raised some valid questions about the center's health and ability to adapt to a new scheme.
Throughout the first quarter of the 2012-13 season, Howard has shown a lack of discipline on defense, particularly when it comes to defending big men who can pull him away from the basket.
A great example comes when examining how Howard struggled to defend Cleveland Cavaliers' center Anderson Varejao in a the team's 100-94 loss last week.
Here we see the Lakers in your basic man-to-man defense as the Cavaliers organize their offense in the half court.
Howard is one the league's best (if not the best) post defenders, and Varejao is well aware of that, as he seeks to drag Howard away from the basket, out beyond 15 feet.
As Varejao goes to spot up for a clean jumper (seriously, Howard isn't within four feet of his man), Howard's lack of recognition is evident. Howard doesn't respect Varejao's jump shot, which is troubling because he's been converting on his mid-range shot at a 43 percent clip, per NBA.com.
Now, a few possessions later, we see Howard try to right his previous mistake as Varejao positions himself on the left baseline for what appears to be another mid-range jumper.
This time Howard establishes a good defensive stance, opening up the left baseline for Varejao, knowing he would prefer to go to his dominant, right hand if he chooses to drive.
At this point, Varejao realizes that Howard has it in his head that a jump shot is forthcoming. The Cavs' center pump fakes, causing Howard to bite, and Varejao then drives into the lane.
Varejao finishes the play by putting Jordan Hill on a poster, all thanks to Howard's poor defensive discipline outside of the paint.
When Howard is stuck with matchups against centers who can stretch the floor, discipline is going to be key. He has the strength and physical ability to dominate opposing big men in the post, but those tools are neutralized when he's caught in open space.
A second area in which the Lakers must improve is their transition defense.
When Mike D'Antoni was brought in to be the team's new head coach, many believed the Lakers would thrive in an up-and-down system that required awareness in transition on both ends of the floor.
Instead, the aged Lakers have looked particularly beatable in transition, where opponents like the Cavaliers and Washington Wizards have taken advantage of the Lakers laziness getting back on defense.
In our first look at the Lakers' transition defense, we see Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving pushing the ball into the middle of a congested Laker defense.
The biggest problem here? All five members of the Lakers are keen on stopping the ball (Dwight Howard's even pointing to help us figure that out), while no one is getting back to defend his own man.
Even with 10 eyes on Irving, the second-year guard slices through the middle of the defense and finds a cutting Varejao for a relatively open layup.
A second look at the Lakers' transition defense reveals even more egregious communication breakdowns.
In this set the Wizards are pushing the ball, but not at an abnormally fast pace. We're well aware of that because by the time the Wizards push the ball over half court, all five Laker defenders are also on that side of half court.
How, then, does this play end in an uncontested transition slam? What it comes down to is the Lakers are failing to execute transition defense in the most basic way possible. Coaches always talk about positioning yourself between your man and the ball, but many of the Lakers defenders are content watching the ball.
To add insult to injury there's a lack of understanding between the Laker defenders, as you can see above. Metta World Peace and Howard are trying to establish who's responsible for whom in transition, and the results are not pretty.
Simple tactical missteps have rendered the Lakers defense helpless on many occasions this season, but the good news is that these problems can be fixed with some simple tweaks.
Note: All stats used in this article are accurate as of Monday, December 17th.
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