Coming off one of their most miserable seasons in franchise history, the Los Angeles Lakers are set to have another down year in 2014-15.
The roster is tattered with holes and somewhat delusional in its construction, so much to the point where pointing out a single weakest link is almost impossible.
The Lakers have talented players, but just about all excel on the offensive end with the ball in their hands. From aging contributors like Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Carlos Boozer, down to players either approaching their prime or currently prospering in it—most notably Jeremy Lin and Nick Young—Los Angeles is built to score a ton of points but allow even more.
Here’s a closer look at why overall defense will be the Lakers' weakest link this season.
They need rim protection
Let’s begin in the front court, where Boozer, Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, Ed Davis and Robert Sacre all figure to battle for a spot in Byron Scott’s rotation.
None of these players can anchor a quality team defense on a full-time basis. Hill comes closest, and he’s a tremendous rebounder who stands 6’10” and is only 27 years old. But in five NBA seasons, he’s only started 52 games, and last season was his first averaging at least 20 minutes per game (20.8).
Hill finished ninth among all players in total rebound percentage last year and third overall in offensive rebound rate, per Basketball-Reference.com. He’s useful and belongs on the court, but protecting the rim at center for 30 minutes each night isn’t a suitable option.
According to SportVU, opponents shot 51.4 percent at the rim with Hill defending six attempts per game last season. He also blocked 1.5 shots per 36 minutes, which equals his career average. Again, Hill isn’t a useless chess piece, but putting him on the back line and telling him to protect the paint, defend pick-and-rolls and rebound with the same tenacity he always has is asking way too much.
The problem—even though the Lakers were half a point per possession worse on defense with Hill on the court last season—is he’s far and away the best option to fill that hole. And it's one of the most important roles any competitive team needs to be set with.
Moving on, Boozer is a Laker. Related side bar: Remember how during workouts leading up to the 2007 NBA draft, Yi Jianlian would unleash a bevy of furious post moves on a helpless folding chair instead of, you know, an actual human being? There’s a solid chance Boozer puts that folding chair out of business the day he retires from professional basketball.
Playing in Tom Thibodeau’s “all defense, all the time” system with the Chicago Bulls, Boozer was a shopping cart’s crooked wheel each and every night. He doesn’t move his feet, get into proper defensive position, jump to contest shots or generally know where he’s supposed to be as the offense whips passes around the perimeter.
Boozer is utterly and incomprehensibly atrocious on that end and, just as his offensive skills slip, he won’t get better with age. Last year, the Bulls were a very good defensive team with Boozer on the floor, allowing only 99.2 points per 100 possessions. But most of that number is attributed to Thibodeau's game plan, and Boozer playing a healthy chunk of his minutes beside Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah.
Chicago turned the screws even tighter with Boozer on the sidelines, giving up an insanely stingy 96.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats (subscription required). Three points may not seem like a lot, but they are.
Defending the rim, Boozer allowed opponents to convert a whopping 55.4 percent of their shots on 4.0 attempts per game. That’s very bad.
Elsewhere, Randle figures to play heavy minutes at power forward even though it’s a crowded room. For all we know the rookie will grow to become a solid defender at his position. But it’s unfair to think Randle will master Scott’s system as a 19-year-old also trying to physically slow down the very best basketball players in the world.
Kelly, Davis and Sacre are bodies the team will likely plug in on a regular basis, but none will move the needle and make the team's defense work.
The guards will struggle too
As bad as the Lakers frontcourt appears to be on defense, their ability to consistently lock up ball-handlers on the perimeter is a legitimate sob story. Nash is 40 years old and has logged only 60 starts in the past two seasons. Even during his heyday as a two-time MVP winner with the Phoenix Suns, he was never even an average defensive player, and age and injuries have made him a shell of that ordinary former self.
But even on the assumption he’s unable to stay upright for most of the 2014-15 season, things don’t get much better if we remove Nash from the conversation.
Lin is an athletic point guard who gets to the basket almost at will and can cut a defense up in transition. But his success has yet to translate on the other end, where he often gets stuck in screens and can’t stay with his man (on or off the ball).
Things nearly get worse when we look at Bryant, who’s now 36 years old and coming off two serious surgeries to his lower body. The future Hall of Fame inductee has made 12 All-Defensive teams (most recently after the 2011-12 season), but he’s taken a noticeable tumble on that end of the floor in recent times and is far from capable of stopping the league’s best wing scorers on a nightly basis.
Even if the Lakers limit Bryant’s responsibilities by playing him at small forward this season, there’s no suitable replacement to chase opposing off guards around screens all over the court. Young figures to see minutes at the 2, but he's not a long-term defensive solution.
Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz were worse than Los Angeles on defense last season, and no team was less imposing on the glass. Bryant's mega-contract made it very difficult for general manager Mitch Kupchak to improve any area of the Lakers roster this summer, but on paper they may have gotten even worse.
The ancient players are a year older, and the new faces are creaky screen doors at key spots on the floor. Last year was a disturbing swan dive for the Lakers organization, but there's a good chance their defense will make things even worse in 2014-15.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.