The Los Angeles Lakers were a defensive dumpster fire during the 2013-14 season, one of the many reasons they weren't able to live up to even the most modest expectations while failing to make the playoffs for the second time in as many years.
To recap, the Lakers allowed 109.2 points per game during the prior campaign, placing a terrifyingly small amount of emphasis on that end of the court under the supervision of the offensive-minded Mike D'Antoni. Only the Philadelphia 76ers allowed more scoring, and things look similarly putrid when pace is factored into the equation.
How bad did things get?
The Lakers allowed opponents to top 140 points on three separate occasions, most notably when the Los Angeles Clippers dropped 142 in a 48-point win on March 6, one in which they actually stopped trying at the end of the game.
If the Purple and Gold offense had been even remotely effective that night, the Clippers starters might have remained in the game and pushed the score up above 150.
As Mark Medina wrote for InsideSoCal.com after the blowout (a word that doesn't even do that memorable game justice), this type of performance doesn't speak kindly about more than just the skills of the players on the court:
Such an effort reflects poorly on the players' failure to compete and the coaching staff's failure to entice players to buy into everything. Sure, the Lakers have offered some lightning in a bottle, such as upsetting Portland. But the Lakers look checked out. Instead of defending, the Lakers hacked the Clippers en route to a 13 of 18 from the foul line. Instead of opening the second half with effort, the Lakers botch an inbounds pass on the opening possession. The Lakers may have proudly displayed their championship banners in a designated home game at Staples Center. But the Clippers fully mocked them with every open dunk and jumper along the way. Even more embarrassing: the Clippers lone disappointment happened on a missed jump shot at the end of the third quarter that could’ve extended the lead to 50 points.
Throughout the entire course of Lakers history, only 26 times has the team allowed a score of 140 or greater. Three appearances on that list in a single season is cause for serious concern, especially when the rest of the NBA allowed a combined zero 140-point games throughout the 2013-14 season.
Obviously, that can't become a trend, not if the Lakers hope to be more competitive in 2014-15. Scott is well aware of that, as he indicated throughout his introductory press conference.
However, doing something about it is much more difficult.
The Emphasis is Good
There were two themes from that opening presser: the family aspect of the Lakers organization, as emphasized by the presence of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes, and the necessity of defense and effort.
While the former is undoubtedly a positive, as it shows just how much support Los Angeles is giving the new head coach—retread though he may be—it's not as important as the latter. Defense was just that problematic last year, as addressed above.
Scott is well aware of how difficult turning the team's point-preventing unit around is going to be, but that doesn't mean he's placing anything less than a heavy emphasis on it. In fact, that was one of the very first things he addressed while holding the microphone, coming only after he discussed his sadness that Dr. Jerry Buss was no longer with us:
Byron: "I think they put a roster together that will be very competitive. The thing I have to do is put together a defensive b-ball team."— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 29, 2014
The sentiment and emphasis is nice. But can Scott back up his claims?
You tell me, based on his history with the various teams he's coached throughout his tenure in the NBA:
|2000-01||New Jersey Nets||105.5||23|
|2001-02||New Jersey Nets||99.5||1|
|2002-03||New Jersey Nets||98.1||1|
|2003-04||New Jersey Nets||98.0||4|
|2004-05||New Orleans Hornets||107.7||22|
|2005-06||New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets||106.8||19|
|2006-07||New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets||106.5||14|
|2007-08||New Orleans Hornets||105.7||7|
|2008-09||New Orleans Hornets||107.0||9|
*Not including 2009-10, when he coached the New Orleans Hornets for just nine games.
It's a roller-coaster ride, but there's one common factor in the up-and-down trends—Scott tends to coach defensive talent well.
When there are quality players on his roster (Chris Paul and David West in New Orleans and the Jason Kidd-Kenyon Martin-Richard Jefferson troika in New Jersey, for example), he can produce a good defensive unit. When the rosters are devoid of point-preventing prowess (see: Cavaliers, Cleveland), he struggles.
We'll get to the Lakers' talent levels in a bit, but you can't knock Scott for the early emphasis he's placing on the less-glamorous end of the court.
All of a sudden, it appears as though there will be accountability:
Byron Scott on his guys if they don’t play defense next season: “I’m going to have to find other guys that will.” #loveit— Lakerholicz.com (@Lakerholicz) July 29, 2014
Remember Medina's take on the Lakers after that embarrassing loss to the Clippers?
"Such an effort reflects poorly on the players' failure to compete and the coaching staff's failure to entice players to buy into everything," he wrote.
That won't fly anymore. Scott is leaving a clear message that he will serve as a disciplinarian if necessary, and it appears as though he'll be calling out—definitely privately, maybe even publicly if it gets bad enough—players who give forth lackadaisical efforts on the defensive end.
Ideally, that policy even applies to Kobe Bryant, who has developed a bad habit of ball-watching and jogging back at half speed after an LAL possession.
Scott says this message was delivered by Magic early in his career: "We win championships by defending every single night."— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) July 29, 2014
Isn't that just a new variation of the old maxim that defense wins championships? But, as Scott reiterated, effort and the right mindset does as well:
Byron Scott: "If you’re winning is contagious. If you’re losing it's contagious. Gotta change their mindset."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 29, 2014
Byron: "It’s all about winning. When you lose games, you shouldn’t be in the locker room having a good time. It should hurt."— Lakerholicz.com (@Lakerholicz) July 29, 2014
This is the area that he can undoubtedly help the Lakers out with.
Far too often, there were letdowns during the 2013-14 season. Losses piled up, heads were hung and there was a distinctly negative feel permeating the Staples Center when the Lake Show was in town.
Remember Chris Kaman taking a nap on the bench? Sure, that came during the third quarter of a blowout victory, but that isn't the type of professionalism that will be required going forward. Mentality changes apply to both victories and defeats, after all.
Byron Scott’s one promise: “We’ll play hard every single night & we’ll come ready to defend."— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 29, 2014
It's all going to be about attitude and effort, especially on the defensive end.
But will it matter?
The Execution Will be More Difficult
Effort and desire are large parts of defensive excellence, but players also have to have the physical tools necessary to shut down their man. I can try as hard as I want, pushing myself well past the breaking point, but my 5'11" frame and distinct lack of NBA-caliber foot speed isn't even going to let me make much of an impact against Andre Miller on the perimeter.
Scott's desires are excellent. However, the execution will prove to be his greatest challenge, as this roster isn't exactly primed to look like an average defensive bunch, much less a top-notch one.
Take a look at the depth chart at this stage in the offseason, though it's still subject to minor changes in the coming weeks:
|Starter||Jeremy Lin||Kobe Bryant||Nick Young||Carlos Boozer||Jordan Hill|
|Primary Backup||Steve Nash||Jordan Clarkson||Xavier Henry||Julius Randle||Ed Davis|
|Secondary Backup||Wesley Johnson||Ryan Kelly||Robert Sacre|
Let's keep playing with that depth chart, this time showing numbers instead of names.
In this next chart, you'll see the player efficiency ratings allowed by each Laker while guarding the position they're listed at, as given by 82games.com. Kobe isn't actually listed at shooting guard on the site, though, so his number comes while guarding 3s, the closest approximation we have.
|Primary Backup||16.6||N/A (Rookie)||14.7||N/A (Rookie)||14.8|
That's not exactly a pretty picture, especially because the marks for the guards are deceptively small, both due to small samples and effort.
Bryant, for example, spent so much time watching the ball and failing to play help defense that he was able to conserve energy for his on-ball work. He's still a fantastic individual defender, even if his team play is horrific at this stage of his career. The same applies for Steve Nash, minus the good on-ball work.
And how about those rookies?
Jordan Clarkson has enough athletic tools and a long wingspan to become a quality defender, though, he's still an offensive specialist. His defense is going to make him look like a liability on one end—maybe not against the backdrop of poor defenders on the roster, though—during his rookie season, and there's no telling whether it'll get better in the near future.
As for Julius Randle, defense was always one of the primary concerns for him.
The lack of steals and blocks—51 combined in 40 games at Kentucky—is problematic, as those stats are often good indicators of defensive impact at the next level, and he can struggle when he's not in a strict post-up situation.
But things don't look much better beyond the rookies.
Carlos Boozer is one of the biggest liabilities in basketball. He actually made the Chicago Bulls 3.2 points more porous per 100 possessions last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and that came while spending most of his time with the defensively dominant starters.
The rest of the frontcourt won't help him out, as Ed Davis is really the only above-average defender at either power forward or center, unless Jordan Hill is allowed to line up at the 4 on a consistent basis.
Even if Scott is able to make hustle and non-stop effort part of the Lakers' collectively ingrained mentality, it won't matter all that much until he's given more pieces to work with.
With Kobe trying and acting like the All-Defensive player he legitimately was in his prime, the defense will be better. The same can be said if Nick Young follows suit, as he has the potential to be one of the best wing defenders on the roster.
But there's not much hope at point guard, and the frontcourt is bound to hemorrhage points, which is why the challenge of building a stellar defense will ultimately be a failed effort...for now.
Implementing the right mentality for this franchise should be the goal. Even if it won't help that much during the 2014-15 campaign, it will going forward, especially because it will help draw higher-quality free agents to Tinseltown during next year's offseason.
Much as some members of the organization might hate to admit it, there still has to be a two-year plan, at the very least.
Even if the Lakers finish right near the bottom of the league in defensive rating for yet another season, a mentality change will help make the year a success.