Can Frank Vogel Turn Around the Lakers Defense?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJuly 28, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James argues a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers were average defensively last year, and average does not win NBA championships. It won't even get you in the playoffs in the West.

This is where Frank Vogel can have an immediate impact next season.

Building a championship-level defense is what he did with the Indiana Pacers, and it has to be priority No. 1 for the Lakers in a stacked Western Conference. His Pacers teams always finished in the top 10 in defensive rating, including twice leading the league. During that run, they challenged the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the playoffs, earning James' respect in the process. 

Now, he and James are ready to go into battle alongside each other, but they'll have to get defensive in the process. 

          

LeBron's Buy-In

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The most important thing for Vogel will be getting buy-in from his players, especially James, who has picked his spots defensively the past few seasons.

At times, James is completely locked in and ready to rotate, like on the pick-and-roll you see below against the San Antonio Spurs. He rotates over from the weak side as LaMarcus Aldridge catches the ball and forces him into settling for a contested fadeaway jumper. This is a textbook example of a good weak-side rotation. 

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But for every positive example of James rotating, there are several where he does not. In the second half of the same Lakers game, James is on the weak side and watches as Jakob Poeltl rolls to the rim for an and-1. It's his help responsibility, but he never gets there.

The best defensive teams have trust. It is the most important key for a good defense. Players will rotate to help a teammate because they trust their other teammates will rotate behind them. James taking plays off on that end hinders developing that trust.

It cannot be a sometimes thing; it has to be an every-time thing.

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For the 2013-14 Pacers, under Vogel, it was more of an every-time thing, and they showed it against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

In the clip below, James finds an open lane to drive, but Roy Hibbert rotates over, Paul George continues his pursuit from behind, and George Hill and Lance Stephenson cover the weak side. That rotation leads to James being forced into a difficult shot over the vertical Hibbert. 

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Vogel got the Pacers to buy in and develop the trust necessary for their defense, and he will have to sell that to James first.

If he gets that buy-in, it will make it easier to get everyone else to fall in line. 

    

Anthony Davis > Roy Hibbert

Hibbert was often the last line of defense for Vogel's stingiest Pacers teams. They were designed to funnel the ball into him, and he consistently put up a wall at the rim. 

Take this next clip, for instance. When Wade comes off a Chris Bosh screen, George and Stephenson flank him on the sides with Hibbert waiting for him at the rim. Wade challenges him, unwisely.   

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Davis brings the same shot-blocking ability that Hibbert brought but adds another dimension that the former Pacers center didn't have: mobility.

That was Hibbert's biggest weakness. He could not defend in space, which made it hard for him to switch onto guards. Davis' agility, length and speed allow him to switch onto guards like Klay Thompson and James Harden. 

Below, Davis bites on a Thompson pump fake, but he recovers quickly and bothers Thompson's shot with his length. Then he stays with Harden when he switches in a pick-and-roll and bats Harden's shot out of bounds. Even with the game on the line, he switches onto Harden, who tries everything he can to shake him but can't create a good look, and then tracks back to get the rebound.

    

Clutch Defense

A big issue for the Lakers was their defensive execution at the end of close games. They finished last season below .500 in games that had a three-point differential in the final three minutes. In those situations, their defensive rating went up to 111.3, 2.4 points worse than their regular rating.

More simply put: They didn't come up with consecutive stops necessary in close games, and it cost them.  

In the example below against the Orlando Magic, with the game tied, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope jumps too early on a ball screen, giving D.J. Augustin the lane right down the middle of the court and causing a scramble.

Once the ball is kicked out to Terrence Ross, James rushes out to him, and Caldwell-Pope never gets back into the play. Ross blows by James and has an easy path to the rim to give the Magic the lead. Then after the Lakers miss a shot, the Magic are off in transition, and both Kyle Kuzma and James have no urgency to get back. Aaron Gordon makes it a two-possession game, essentially sealing it. 

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Vogel's Pacers improved defensively in close games. They had a defensive rating of 83.3 under the same clutch parameters. It was like a python that continued to squeeze the air out of their prey until there was nothing left. 

Vogel's clutch defense was on full display the final two defensive possessions against the Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. On the first play, the ball never gets below the three-point line with Stephenson draped all over James, and the Heat settle for a contested Bosh three. Then as James drives on their final possession against George, Hibbert slides over because he trusts Hill is ready to rotate to the corner to contest Bosh's other three-point attempt.

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There are no nights off in the Western Conference. One night it will be Harden and Russell Westbrook, the next night Kawhi Leonard and George, another night Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and so on.

For the Lakers to meet their championship expectations, Vogel's primary focus has to be their defense. Installing his defensive philosophy and getting buy-in early will be critical to their success.

Vogel has the credentials to be the architect for a tough Lakers defense, as his Pacers teams were good in all the areas the Lakers struggled in last year.

He may not have been L.A.'s first or second choice for the job, but Vogel could well be the perfect person for it. 

              

Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

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