The Los Angeles Lakers are in big trouble.
I'm not talking about Kobe Bryant as he fights to regain his pre-injury form now that he's playing instead of watching from a seated position on the sidelines. I'm not discussing the injury woes—is that even a strong enough word?—currently plaguing the point guard rotation. I'm not even worried about the strength of the Western Conference.
Well, I'm kind of worried about that.
It's defense that gets focused on here, the very thing that wins championships and will ultimately prevent the playoffs from having a purple-and-gold tint if changes aren't made in Tinseltown.
Up through this mid-December point in the 2013-14 campaign, the Lakers are allowing 103.5 points per game, a mark that leaves them beating only the Philadelphia 76ers. Of course, that's not much of an accomplishment since Brett Brown's Sixers are slowing starting to resemble the D-League team they were expected to be prior to the hot start.
Yeah, yeah. Pace matters, since the Lakers are using the No. 3 pace in the NBA.
But even after adjusting for the speed of the system, Basketball-Reference still shows the Lake Show has a defensive rating of 106.5. That's a number lower than only those posted by seven teams this year, and most of them have been bottom-feeders.
Defense is a problem.
Lack of External Changes
The Lakers aren't going to be able to go out and suddenly acquire a player who turns everything around.
Sure, they could use a stellar interior defender, but good luck finding one of those in either the D-League or splashing around in the almost-completely-dry free-agent pool. It ain't going to happen.
The only way to acquire such a player is by trading current members of the team, and it's unlikely L.A. will part ways with either of its two biggest tradable assets.
Steve Nash isn't a desirable chip at this stage of his rapidly declining career, and it's unlikely that the team wants to split up him and Mike D'Antoni anyway. Pau Gasol could be dealt, but the Lakers still need at least one established offensive presence in the frontcourt, even if the Spanish big man has been struggling throughout 2013-14.
That leaves them looking to trade spare parts, and such a strategy usually doesn't fly when trying to land a quality defensive big.
So, external is out, even if D'Antoni was quoted by the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan as saying, "In the paint, we're awful, and we've got to get tougher." And if external is out, that means internal is in.
The Lakers are working with an offensive-minded head coach who doesn't speak the defensive language, a roster that features many defensive liabilities and a system that forces players into exerting most of their energy on the more glamorous end of the court.
Yikes. Talk about a brutal combination.
But if the playoffs are the ultimate goal, the Lakers must turn to the man who has graced the courtside seats for quite some time. As Jack Nicholson knows, something's gotta give.
Start Gambling in Half-Court Sets
When analyzing a defense, we can take a look at what are called the "Four Factors:"
- Opponent effective field-goal percentage: How well the opposing team shoots the basketball, with three-pointers counting more than two-pointers to compensate for the extra point.
- Opponent turnover percentage: How well the team forces turnovers, or changes in possession that don't involve shots.
- Defensive rebound percentage: The percentage of times a missed shot leads to a change in possession.
- Opponent free throws per field goal attempt: How often a team sends the other squad to the charity stripe.
During the first quarter of the 2013-14 campaign, the Lakers have been great at minimizing fouls and pretty solid in terms of holding opponents to low shooting percentages. But they've struggled in the other two areas.
I'll focus on the rebounding later, but first, let's go over the turnovers.
With a turnover percentage of just 12.2, the Lakers are barely forcing cough-ups at all. Only the Portland Trail Blazers have a lower mark, and that's not going to get the job done. Possession-ending plays are important, especially those that come without a shot on behalf of the other team.
As a reference point, the Miami Heat force turnovers 17.5 percent of the time, and that leads the league. A difference of 5.3 percent may not seem a lot, but that's still around five more turnovers forced per game.
There are many different ways to force a turnover, but the easiest to track is steals. And the Lakers sure don't record many of them.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases, L.A. is averaging 7.0 steals per game, giving them the No. 25 spot in the league. That's not going to cut it, and the easiest way to remedy it is to start gambling more.
The guards must keep their hands active, attempting to swipe the ball away from the opposing team. More importantly, everybody must make a more concerted effort to jump into the passing lanes. Wesley Johnson gave a perfect example during Kobe Bryant's second game back in the lineup:
With the ball in the hands of Gerald Green, who is pretty much trapped in the corner, Johnson starts looking.
He may still be close to his man, but look at the direction of his eyes. He's assessing the situation and remaining in an athletic stance, ready to take off if he can intercept the pass.
Take a gander at how far away he is from his original assignment. This is a gamble, but it's one that pays off because he's able to get his hands on the ball and spark a fast break that leads to an open three-point attempt for Nick Young.
The Lakers are an athletic team. They can move quickly and elevate even quicker still.
All of that points toward an ability to intercept plenty of passes, but only if they make a concerted effort to start gambling with more frequency.
Focus on Defensive Rebounding
The other factor plaguing the Lake Show is defensive rebounding.
With a defensive rebound percentage of only 73.5, the team ranks No. 24, and that must change as well. Poor defensive rebounding leads to second-chance points, and that's never a good thing.
As you can see, the areas that give L.A. the most grief are the ones that end possessions. And what's the best way for a bad defense to minimize the amount of damage it does to the winning effort?
Face the lowest number of possessions possible.
In basketball, there's typically a tradeoff between fast-break offense and defensive rebounding. The former requires a team to allow its player to take off after a shot, essentially cherry-picking so they can beat the other squad down the court. The latter involves more people crashing the boards, which takes away their ability to run.
Now there is a way to remedy this, but it's a solution that isn't readily available to the Lakers. A dominant point guard can complete fast-break opportunities by himself, thereby mitigating the need to focus on transition over rebounding.
L.A. doesn't have that luxury, so it needs to stop worrying about pushing the pace, especially because the 12.6 points per game the team is scoring in transition leave it in the middle of the pack, per TeamRankings.com.
But more than anything else, it's all about effort. And that's frustrating for energy guys like Jordan Hill. As the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina wrote, "After providing endless energy on hustle plays as both a Lakers reserve and starter, Hill appeared visibly frustrated that hasn’t spilled toward his teammates on defense."
Plays like this just aren't going to cut it for a team that doesn't have any rebounding studs:
This is a normal spot to be in when the shot is up in the air. But from here, the Lakers have to crash the boards.
Notice the position of the guards? Even though a three-pointer offers more potential for a long rebound, they haven't moved at all. Nick Young shouldn't be watching, but he should instead be helping to seal off the mid-range portions of the court so that Phoenix doesn't get a second look.
The Suns do, as you can tell by the fact that P.J. Tucker is currently embracing the ball.
How about this play, which came in the fourth quarter of the same game?
From this point forward, just keep an eye on Xavier Henry. He's joining Nick Young alongside Goran Dragic, who somehow ends up with the rebound.
Don't believe that based on the still shot above? You should.
It's the Lakers we're talking about.
While everyone else starts moving toward the basket, realizing the shot won't fall, Henry leaks out in the wrong direction.
He's getting ready for a fast break, neglecting the fact that his team must first secure the rebound.
As Dragic comes up with the offensive board, Henry is now all the way back at the three-point arc.
This is an effort thing. It's about a willingness to commit to the tougher aspects of the game, even if they take away from the more glamorous plays like fast-break three-pointers and dunks that make SportsCenter.
Dunks are highlights. Rebounds can win games.
The Lakers aren't going to be able to bring in new pieces to shore up the lackluster defensive efforts.
All of the improvements must come internally, and fixing the rebounding while forcing more turnovers is the easiest way to turn everything around. In fact, it may even be the only way, dramatic as that sounds.
If L.A. hopes to make the playoffs in the brutally difficult Western Conference, there is no other solution.