LOS ANGELES — "We're going to emphasize defense this season," said every coach in the NBA at the start of training camp.
An exaggeration? Maybe, but not far from the truth. The goals for all 30 teams are the same, but significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball usually proves elusive.
Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton sold the same mantra for 2017-18, but unlike many other squads around the league, the early returns suggest substance beyond platitudes. His team is actually playing defense through its first seven games.
Through Wednesday, the Lakers (3-5) are 10th in the league with a 101.6 defensive rating, according to stats.nba.com. That puts them ahead of traditional juggernauts like the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and even the Golden State Warriors.
"Defense is what wins championships. Until we get good at that, that's the most important thing that we're going to continue to focus on," Walton said Monday after practice.
As a result, most of the team's training camp was spent on defensive concepts, and the Lakers' offense has suffered. But Walton is happy with the sacrifice.
"One hundred percent," he said earlier this week. "Offense is much easier. Players like playing it more. That will come when we're ready for it. But right now, the fact that the defense is holding us in games, I love that."
It's still too early to say the Lakers are a good defensive team. Last year's squad also started the season well, winning five of their first 10 before injuries and poor play led to just 26 victories.
Over those 10, the Lakers were 14th in defensive rating, at 103.5 points per 100 possessions. Their offense was far more efficient, at 106.6 (11th). When the season ended, the Lakers were 24th in offensive rating (103.4) and dead last in defense (110.6).
After giving up 41 points in the first quarter Thursday night to the Portland Trail Blazers, it looked like the defense was already slipping, but the Lakers were much-improved through the rest of the contest, making up an 18-point deficit only to lose on Damian Lillard's late three-pointer, 113-110.
Outside of the opening night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers have had a chance to win every game since in the fourth quarter. Key to the Lakers' improvement has been the play of Julius Randle, who's serving as the team's de facto backup center.
Randle has started through most of his tenure with the Lakers, but Walton, hoping to balance his roster's rotation, moved forward Larry Nance Jr. to the starting unit with Randle relegated to a reserve. Initially, the switch did not sit well with Randle.
In the opener against the Clippers, Walton was so disappointed with Randle's lackluster defense on Blake Griffin that he pulled him after three minutes for a heated conversation on the sidelines at Staples Center.
"He wasn't ready to go, so I pulled him out to tell him about it," Walton said.
Randle has since found his niche as a mobile defender strong enough to wrestle with DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans, with the agility to contain elite guards like John Wall of the Washington Wizards.
"[Randle's defense has] been a big factor and it's why it's tough, especially in the fourth quarter, to take him out of the game," Walton said. "Even when Larry, [Kyle Kuzma] and Brook [Lopez] are playing good, [Randle's] ability to switch on to point guards and contain them and make them take contested jump shots is a big factor."
Randle had multiple game-saving plays in the Lakers' 102-99 overtime victory over the Wizards. He has continued to stand out, arguably as his team's best defender this season.
According to Forum Blue and Gold, the analytics show that (so far) Randle has "been a better primary defender than Draymond Green," in that "he bests Green in every area other than defending roll men."
Randle has shown prowess when guarding the pick-and-roll ball-handler, running out to spot-up shooters, defending isolations and against individual post-ups.
For Walton, his primary concern is balancing his team's roster over a 48-minute period, offensively and especially defensively.
"I don't look at it like Larry won the starting job or Julius is winning the finishing job," Walton said. "It's what's best for the unit on the court. For our starting unit, the way that Larry is playing, just being solid and getting us extra possessions and recognizing defensive coverages, the stability he's been giving us, it's been a better fit for that group of players.
"And Julius' ability to switch on to the ones and the energy he's playing with ... it's been a better fit to have him finish."
To Randle, it's not ideal. But given the choice?
"I'd rather finish games than start," Randle said.
Of course, Walton has decisions to make after Nance broke his hand in Thursday night's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. He could turn to Randle or Kuzma, but if he wants to keep the team's bench unit together, perhaps Walton chooses another starting option, such as Luol Deng or Corey Brewer.
Deng, the team's highest-salaried player, didn't impress as a fill-in starter on opening night.
He certainly wouldn't help the Lakers' offense catch up to their defense. The franchise gives up 21.8 points per game off of turnovers (28th in the league) and averages just 98.6 points per 100 possessions, an offensive rating at 27th. Their 17.5 turnovers per game tie for 27th in the league, and the team's 29.8 percent from behind the arc ranks last.
With shooting an issue, the players have made a concerted effort to score in the paint, where they accumulate a league-high 53 percent of their points.
"Have you seen our three-point numbers? Let's get to the paint. Let's not settle for threes," Walton remarked.
Without scorers D'Angelo Russell, Lou Williams and Nick Young this season, the Lakers are searching for points. Last year's team couldn't maintain the elevated level of play; it remains to be seen what this squad can do.
"We're coming in wanting to play defense now," Lonzo Ball said. "We see that it makes our offense a lot easier."
The Lakers' win Tuesday night, a 113-93 away win over the Detroit Pistons, represents their best overall performance on both ends of the floor.
"I think as a group we're starting to understand what type of energy we have to play with on that end and how hard it is to be a good defensive team," Walton said. "They're starting to understand, and they're starting to embrace it."
The Lakers are currently in 13th place in the Western Conference, but they're just 2.5 games behind the first-place Clippers (5-2), Houston Rockets (6-3) and Warriors (6-3).
The loss of Nance indefinitely (perhaps six weeks for a fracture) could set the Lakers back like injuries did a year ago, but this team’s defensive focus seems to have more substance than last year’s group, which was more offensive-minded.
A playoff run is optimistic, but the Lakers have shown some early, tangible strides defensively. If they can sustain and improve as the season progresses, their offense will gradually follow suit.