The Los Angeles Lakers can score. Like a lot. But they can't prevent other teams from doing the same and that's this team's fatal flaw.
Much is made of the Lakers' potential on offense, about how they should be outgunning opponents on a nightly basis. That said, not enough is made of the fact that even amidst Pau Gasol's struggles and Steve Nash's current need for adjustment, Los Angeles still boasts a potent offensive attack.
Currently, the Lakers are scoring at a rate of 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-best mark in the league. That puts them ahead of younger, higher octane teams like the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets.
Offense isn't the problem—defense is.
At present, Los Angeles is allowing opponents to drop 106.6 points per 100 possessions, the 10th-most in the league. The Lakers are also allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with Dwight Howard on the bench as well, a startling realization when you consider the impact he had on the Orlando Magic's defense only last season.
Almost needless (but not quite) to say, Howard (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com) isn't happy with what's taking place in the Land of Make Believe right now:
"Those guys on the Clippers team, they really enjoy each other off the court and it shows," Howard said Saturday after Lakers practice.
And how about the Lakers? Do they have that chemistry?
"It's something we have to do to get better," he said. "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."
Arguing against Howard's interpretation of the Lakers' problems is futile, because he's right.
Los Angeles must respect the craft of each of its players, even if that craft in question is defense. And as of now, they don't. This team doesn't respect or take the art of defense seriously. It takes but a perfunctory listen of Mike D'Antoni to realize it.
I'm not going to berate you with more anti-D'Antoni sentiments—there are already plenty of those. Just know that when the topic of team chemistry was breached, he went immediately to the offensive side of the ball:
D'Antoni said if the Lakers' chemistry was lacking, it's simply from lack of time together. For instance, he said the relationship between Howard and point guard Steve Nash on pick and rolls is "not there yet."
"I don't know if it's because of a lack of training camp, or a lack of Steve being with us from the beginning, but the relationship between Steve and Dwight's got to get a lot better," D'Antoni said. "It's not creating the easy shots that we need."
Listen, Mike, it's great that you realized Nash and Howard aren't quite on the same page yet, but your offense is still putting 102.9 points per game up on the scoreboard. So, while that's a problem, it's not the problem.
The problem is defense, or rather, various types of defense.
There is a case to be made for depth, as the Lakers have five guys (four of which are over 32) averaging 30 or minutes per game. If that doesn't seem like a lot, consider this: Elite veteran teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs have no more than four players pitching in more than 30. And none of them have more than two players over 30 receiving such burn.
So yea, a lack of depth is a problem. But it's also an irreversible reality, one the Lakers cannot change unless they take to the trade market.
Defense, though? That's a different story.
Los Angeles is struggling to develop any sort of defensive continuity. More specifically, its proved incapable of defending any type of movement-heavy offensive sets.
As Kurt Heilin of NBC Sports' ProBasketballTalk points out, it all comes down to rotations for the Lakers:
There seems to be a “once Dwight Howard gets healthy everything will be just fine” feeling around the Lakers and their fans. And that would certainly help. But it’s not the only issue and who knows what that timeline is anyway. I went back and re-watched every point the Lakers surrendered the last two games (thanks NBA.com) and it’s clear the issues are bigger than any one player.
Los Angeles is surrendering 42 points a game in the paint, seventh most in the NBA. That’s an easy one to say is all about Howard, but it’s really about rotations.
Believe me when I say those 42 points allowed in the paint per game are just the tip of the Hollywood sign for Los Angeles.
On the season (per Synergy Sports), the Lakers are second to last in defending the roll man on pick-and-rolls. Roll men are averaging 1.12 points per possession against Los Angeles and scoring 57.1 percent of the time.
But the deficient rotations, the struggle to play off movement doesn't end there.
When a player cuts on the Lakers' defense, they score 62.2 percent of the time. At present, that means the boys in purple and gold are relinquishing 1.24 points per possessions when the opposition slashes, fifth-worst in the league.
Not sold just yet? Well, then how about Los Angeles' defense when a player curls coming off a screen?
Teams are scoring 0.97 points per possession on the Lakers off screens, the eighth-highest mark in the league. And that's absolutely atrocious.
Defensive rotations allow teams to defend movement. When a player cuts, curls or rolls, blown assignments are the difference between a defensive stop and a made basket.
Just ask Howard.
When he defends the roll man on pick-and-rolls, that player is averaging 0.76 points per possession, giving Howard the 11th-best roll defense in the league.
You see, Howard is no stranger to mastering defensive rotations. The problem is he's left to clean up the mistakes of his team, those who aren't rotating properly. Once he leaves the paint to defend the roll man or even the ball-handler, there's no one left to protect the rim.
And that's where the Lakers are failing. Movement of any kind is killing them. Absolutely killing them.
If it weren't, their transition offense wouldn't be ranked 21st in the league and they wouldn't be under .500.
But they are, and while they would like to believe that a healthy Howard will solve all their issues, they don't know when they're going to have a healthy Howard.
Per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Howard will be out at least a week with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Thus, for at least one week, Los Angeles will be forced to try and find a defensive identity without Howard.
The same defensive identity that has eluded them all season.
The same defensive identity Howard has tried to save.
And the same defensive identity that will prove to be the difference between title contention and a failure of epic proportions for these Lakers.
*All stats in this article are compiled from Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports, and are accurate as of January 6, 2013 unless otherwise noted.