LOS ANGELES — After a recent loss against the Denver Nuggets, in which innumerable defensive blunders led to a steady rush of baskets for the opposition—120 points is a lot of points—Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott generalized his team’s calamitous performance with a slew of demoralizing truisms.
“We have to figure out a way to play extremely hard and extremely well on the defensive end,” he said. “Not miss assignments and play together as a team for 48 minutes. We have flashes of doing all the things the right way but sometimes when you do it the right way, teams are gonna score.”
A few moments later, Scott pivoted in an attempt to identify the problems that still plague his team.
“Most of all it’s not effort. It really isn’t. I think our guys are giving a great effort. Most of it is just, knowing where you’re supposed to be at the right time and the right place. Anticipation is big in defense because you don’t have to be the smartest or fastest, but you have to anticipate where the ball is going. Where the next play is going. Where your man is going. The ball, you’ve got to be on a string every time. When the ball moves, you have to move.”
He concluded with a sincere observation that contradicts the very words he spoke not even two minutes prior: “Sometimes our guys just relax. That’s what young people do. We’re just going to keep pushing at it, working at it. It’s going to take us some time, but we’re going to get it.”
It's obviously bad news when a head coach scratches his head this long in a single press conference, but nothing Scott said was incorrect.
Heading into Tuesday night's showdown against the Miami Heat, the 1-5 Lakers are allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which is second worst in the entire league. No team forces fewer turnovers, only two teams have a lower rebound rate and opponents are 8.1 percent more accurate than their average within six feet of the basket when a Laker is defending them (the worst differential in the league, per SportVU).
There's zero improvement from last year's outfit, which finished 29th out of 30 teams in defensive rating and featured Carlos Boozer instead of Roy Hibbert.
But why is the defense so terrible?
Is it because the players have no clue where to be or what to do? Is Los Angeles' personnel physically incapable of executing Scott's game plan? Do they lack focus and effort?
Watch the Lakers at any given moment, and it’s hard to construct an argument that doesn’t support all three stumbling blocks as a reasonable explanation.
Let's start with their lack of communication. The Lakers rarely, if ever, rotate as a single organism. At any point over the course of a 24-second possession, someone will find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in an opportune look at the basket.
They shoot themselves in the foot more than anybody else.
Here's an example from last Friday's win against the Brooklyn Nets: Jordan Clarkson drops off Jarrett Jack to double Thaddeus Young in the post. When Young passes out to the open point guard, D'Angelo Russell and Clarkson both rush to the perimeter at the exact same time. Meanwhile, Russell's man, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, is left alone. He catches a pass in the paint, gets Roy Hibbert and Russell to bite on a series of pump fakes, then feeds Brook Lopez for the easy shot.
Here, against the Nuggets, Clarkson and Kobe Bryant switch an off-ball screen instead of fighting through to stay with their original assignments. It creates a brutal mismatch that Denver immediately attacks. As Danilo Gallinari goes to make Clarkson pay, Julius Randle slides off Kenneth Faried to offer help. By itself, this isn't the worst decision, but zero of his teammates react when Faried flashes through the paint for an easy dunk. There's no second effort.
The systematic brain farts are bad, but youth and inexperience serve as a hopeful silver lining. It takes time for the complex principles of team defense to sink in as second nature.
On the other hand, L.A.'s nonexistent effort in transition has been apocalyptic.
The Lakers are allowing 1.33 points per possession in transition (worst in the league, per Synergy Sports). This has little to do with understanding where to be and everything to do with common sense and minimal exertion. Once a shot goes up, run in the opposite direction. This isn't calculus.
The most problematic individual here is the 37-year-old face of the franchise. The picture below was snapped a second after Bryant misfired a mid-range jumper. Instead of backpedaling to defend his own basket, he stands and admires the shot while Joe Johnson, his man, sprints in the opposite direction for an easy two points.
And here, as Lopez corrals a defensive rebound, the Nets take off in transition while the Lakers stand upright for reasons known only to them. The imbalanced floor leads to an easy layup the other way.
Taking and missing a whole bunch of threes—which leads to longer rebounds and a more fluid game—won't help their cause, but the Lakers also rank third in free-throw rate, second in isolation frequency and 23rd in drives per game. All three figures imply that their transition defense should be a tad more dependable.
Free throws momentarily pause the action while allowing players plenty of time to get back and find their man; isolations stagnate the attack and limit chaos; and, in theory, drives tend to usher in poor floor balance. (Offense and defense are always related.)
After their third game of the season, a decisive loss against the Dallas Mavericks, I asked Kobe Bryant how he’d assess the Lakers defense. He responded with an expletive. It was a perfect description, enhanced by the awkward silence and shrug that followed.
Bryant is clearly part of the problem, but he's far from the only leak on a perimeter that offers less resistance than a damp ply of toilet paper. Nick Young bites at every pump fake (every, single, one), Lou Williams is as one-dimensional as NBA players get, Clarkson is completely lost when his man doesn't have the ball and Russell is a sluggish 19-year-old.
Scott has already shifted a few pieces around—removing the Brandon Bass/Ryan Kelly duo from his rotation was absolutely necessary—but there's only so much he can do. The Lakers allow a stingy 97.1 points per 100 possessions when backup center Tarik Black is on the floor, but he's only played 58 minutes this season.
They've actually been better with Hibbert, ostensibly their only source of rim protection, on the bench.
The roster is filled with ugly trade-offs and clear limitations that can't be solved overnight. It’s a lineup of designated hitters with warning track power, but only two or three guys even own a glove.
Getting beat off the dribble because you're too old to defend in space is a legitimate excuse. Not understanding where you're supposed to be as a help defender because you're journeying through the first month of your career is a legitimate excuse.
Not hustling back on defense is unforgivable.
Heading into the season, the margin for error was thinner than a blade of grass, but somehow the Lakers managed to make it more narrow. Opponents have shot just 29.7 percent from behind the three-point line in L.A.'s first six games. It's scary to imagine how desolate things will look when that average normalizes itself over the next few months.
These are dark times in Laker Land.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.