What else can Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard do to turn the Lakers around?
Let's face it. There's no one thing that the Los Angeles Lakers can do to miraculously turn their season around.
There's no magic elixir they can take to suddenly evolve into the juggernaut everyone thought they would be just four months ago.
However, the season isn't over. The playoffs are still within reach, and with the competitors on this team—Kobe Bryant chief among them—you know they will strive for as much success as they can attain.
If they do want to make that final desperate push for glory, there's one adjustment the Lakers must make.
They have to commit themselves totally to the defensive end of the floor.
It sounds so simple. Just play defense. But it's not that easy.
There's no on/off switch for it. It's a mindset. A culture. An identity.
Right now, the Lakers don't have it. They assumed that just by acquiring Dwight Howard their defense would improve by osmosis.
That hasn't been the case. Far from it. In fact, the Lakers have regressed defensively from last year to this one, and it's because the effort just isn't there from possession-to-possession and night-to-night.
At this point in the season, there's no time for a drastic change in defensive scheme or philosophy. The only thing the players can do is decide to work harder on that side of the ball and relish the task of grinding out stops.
It starts with the basics. Five guys on a string, just like any middle school basketball coach worth his salt will tell you.
The Lakers have been lazy on defense thus far. They watch the ball too much. They don't get back in transition. They get beat on back-door cuts (Looking at you, Kobe), don't close out hard enough on shooters and don't rotate properly away from the ball.
For instance, when defending the pick-and-roll, the basic principle is that when the big man helps to cut off the dribble penetration of the ball-handler, the man guarding the weak-side shooter crashes into the paint and bumps the big rolling down the lane, staying with him long enough for the defending big to recover.
In situations like that, the Lakers are consistently a step slow on crashing the paint and opposing bigs have killed them in the pick-and-roll. According to MySynergySports, the Lakers are 22nd in the NBA in points per possession allowed to roll men.
Even when there is help on the roller, there's usually no one to help the helper—meaning no one rotates to cover the weak-side shooter who's now got an open look at a three. It's just too easy to break the Lakers down defensively.
Ball-watching is another big problem, and no one is more susceptible to it than Kobe. The San Antonio Spurs famously burned the Lakers on the final play in an early-season game by preying on Kobe's tendency to lose his man and act as a rover.
Overall, the Lakers are 21st in the league in points per possession allowed on plays designated as "cuts" or "off screens", the types of plays where losing your man really shows.
The other cardinal sin that the Lakers constantly commit is not getting back on defense in transition.
Once again, Bryant bears the brunt of the blame here.
Too often Kobe spends precious time after a possession yapping at the refs about a foul they didn't call, giving the other team an advantage going back the other way.
But what really amazes me is how often the Lakers fail to get back after they actually make a basket.
To my knowledge, there's no stat that tracks how many times a team concedes a layup on defense within five seconds after getting a hoop on offense, but if there were I'd imagine that the Lakers would top the charts.
Transition baskets are the easiest points in basketball, but they're also the easiest to stop. All you have to do is get back. Sometimes it's not possible, like when a live-ball turnover occurs, but when you're having a hard time recovering after basic missed shots and even on made baskets, you're really adding points to your opposition's score.
It shows in L.A.'s case. Synergy has them as 24th in points per possession allowed in transition. Their opponents shoot 58 percent from the field in those situations, including 43 percent from three. No team gives up more fast-break points than the Lakers, per NBA.com.
The area of the floor you most want to protect defensively is the real estate right around the hoop. When you play defense as lackadaisically as the Lakers do, that's exactly where teams are going to inflict the most damage on you.
And again, the numbers bear that out. Only three teams have allowed their opponents to attempt more field goals in the restricted area than the Lakers. That's why they give up the third-most points in the paint of any team in the league, according to NBA.com.
L.A.'s defensive problems run too deep for them to transform into a shutdown unit, but one thing they can improve is their effort.
If they commit to communicating, rotating and recovering, they can make opponents really work for their points. When that starts happening the Lakers will be able to compete in every single game they play.