What's the Real Reason for LA Lakers Defensive Struggles?

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IJanuary 7, 2013

Is it me or do the Los Angeles Lakers often seem more discombobulated than cohesive over the course of a 48-minute game?

This team has about as much chance of winning an NBA title this season as most of us would in pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  Exception, of course, given to David Copperfield.

When you've got the NBA's best defensive center saying the team lacks chemistry and an understanding of rotations, you know you've got problems.

With such outstanding defensive veterans as Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant, there is no excuse for the pitiful performance the Lakers are demonstrating on the defensive side of the ball this season.

One could make several arguments for why the Lakers look lost and out of sorts, as they often did in losing to their hallway rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night.  Blown defensive assignments, the inability to cover the pick-and-roll, failing to stay in front of an opponent with the ball on the perimeter, turnovers leading to points for the opposition—all of these factors confront and confound the Lakers defense.

Is this a personnel issue or a coaching one?  It's probably a bit of both.

The Lakers spent a small fortune to field a marquee starting lineup of Kobe Bryant ($27.8 million), Dwight Howard ($19.2 million), Pau Gasol ($19 million), Steve Nash ($8.9 million) and Metta World Peace ($7.2 million).  After that, the payroll and talent fall off considerably, leaving the Lakers without much depth.

As Kobe Bryant has pointed out more than once, the Lakers are an old team with tired legs.  Yes, they have Kobe, Dwight, Steve and Pau, but all of them deal with ongoing maladies and three of them are in their 30s.  Nash will be 39 in a month.

Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni both claim lack of effort as being the reason for L.A.'s defensive struggles.  But then, who are these two to know much about defense?  D'Antoni never met a defensive scheme he liked and Nash, while not terrible, is certainly not known for his coverage abilities.

As for the team's inabilities to get stops on a regular basis, the best D'Antoni could come up with on Saturday following team practice was (via Yahoo! Sports), "Whatever we're doing isn't working right now.  And defensively, we need to work harder.  We lose our energy on defense sometimes because the offense sputters."

T.J. Simers of the L.A. Times, not known for his subtlety but more often than not brutally honest, wrote this of D'Antoni and the Lakers' struggles:

As head coach he remains the central spokesman for the franchise and the great hope for fans for better days ahead.

But he has fallen short here as well. He no longer says, "I don't know" in answer to most questions, but he has already said if he fails, he has a guaranteed contract and will be playing golf again.

If Jim Buss had any sense, he would reserve a tee time for D'Antoni sooner than later.  The Lakers once again had to play catch-up Sunday against the Denver Nuggets, coming close but losing by seven. 

It would not have been even that close had Kobe Bryant not scored 18 of his team's 22 points in that fourth quarter.

The Lakers turned the ball over 18 times against Denver and that just will not get it done in the NBA.  Now three games under .500 and headed to Texas for road games against the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers cannot seem to find a way to stop teams from scoring.

Heading into their Sunday night game with Denver, the Lakers were averaging 102.8 points on offense while surrendering 100.5, a 2.3-point differential.  Last year, under Mike Brown, the defense allowed 95.9 points, which was good for 15th among the 30 teams.  The offense scored 97.3, again right in the middle of the pack.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Lakers are giving up 42 points in the paint and rank 29th out of 30 teams in fast-break points allowed (15.6).  They also turn the ball over more than 15 times per game—only five other teams are more vulnerable. 

L.A. ranks 24th in fourth-quarter points allowed (24.5), a sign that the team loses steam.  Here is where D'Antoni needs to be resting some players and giving others (Antawn Jamison for instance) more time on the court.

For the Lakers to compete with the elite teams, even the average ones, they will need to show passion, drive and determination every play, every night.  They need focus, energy and enthusiasm. And for whatever reason, Dwight Howard (via Ramona Shebourne, ESPN.com) doesn't feel as if the team is on the same page:

It's (chemistry) something we have to do to get better.  We have to play like we like each other.  Even if we don't want to be friends off the court, whatever that may be, when we step in between the lines or we step in the locker room or the gym, we have to respect each other and what we bring to the table.

Court and clubhouse chemistry start with the head coach.  Mike D'Antoni has always been known for his offensive acumen, but even that strength has not translated into anything resembling an NBA title.

The Los Angeles Lakers score a lot of points but are not making baskets at critical times and are not playing four solid quarters in any one game.  This is a team that makes too many mistakes, allows far too many easy trips to the rim and gives up way too many offensive rebounds.

Sunday night's loss to Denver was a microcosm for the team's entire season.  The Lakers offer some brilliant stretches where you can see the potential.  Nash had 13 assists, Bryant had 29 points and seven dimes, Howard tied his personal best with 26 rebounds and Gasol chipped in with 11 points and three assists before leaving late in the game with what looked like a broken nose.

In the end, the Lakers did not compete for the full 48 minutes. 

And unless they figure out a way to do that on both ends of the floor, and do so in a hurry, this team is going to miss the playoffs for only the sixth time in its storied history.