Here’s something that must be a bit daunting for the rest of the NBA, as the Lakers sit with the best record in the league (11-3) in the early going: Limited by a short training camp and preseason, Frank Vogel has not even begun to make his defense what it will be by the end of the season.
And despite that, the Lakers have the best defense in the NBA. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Lakers allow 104.0 points per 100 possessions, tops in the league and a full point better than No. 2 (Cleveland). The team has already shown a defensive improvement over last year, when it ranked third, allowing 106.1 points per 100 possessions.
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Here’s what Vogel had to say about his defense this week:
We haven’t really adjusted too much, to be honest. We’re just really getting everybody tied together with the schemes, you know what I mean? The new guys are learning what we’re doing. We finished up last year defensively very different than the way we started. We grew throughout the year with our package and arsenal of schemes that we can throw at different teams.
I think the biggest challenge this year is to not overcomplicate our schemes in these early regular season games. It’s easy, especially against a team like Portland or Houston, who we played in the playoffs last year, to go to all your Plan B, Plan C, Plan D types of coverages. There’s a risk of being too complicated for a one-game regular season type of night. So we’re striking that balance, but I feel good about what we’re doing on that end of the floor.
Frank Vogel Has Long Been a Defensive Coach
In Vogel’s 10 seasons as an NBA coach (he was with Orlando and Indiana before joining the Lakers), he has gained a reputation for his defensive system, which is characterized by limited switching on pick-and-rolls, keeping big men around the basket, running shooters off the 3-point line and, most importantly, toughness and hustle.
The Lakers lead the league in charges drawn this season, at 1.21 per game. They are also third on loose balls recovered, gaining possession on 60.0% of them.
But, as Vogel said, they are still running a relatively simple defense, without the wrinkles and adjustments in coverages that will come over time. As Vogel gradually installs those into his system, it’s likely that the Lakers defense will get even better.
“What they’re doing now is just a matter of their length and effort,” one NBA scout told Heavy.com. “They don’t play a lot of junk defenses, they don’t use a lot of surprise packages. They’re just so big and long, guys like LeBron (James) and Anthony Davis obviously but also (Kentavious) Caldwell-Pope, (Talen) Horton-Tucker and the new guys like Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroder and (Wes) Matthews. They play long, they can contest shots and disrupt ball movement. When they get better with heir rotations, when they add some of Frank’s things, if they stay healthy and engaged, it is a tough, tough group.”
Lakers Defense Excels Since Anthony Davis Outburst
Of course, there is an emotional element to playing defense in the NBA, which requires players to bring a certain intensity to each possession. For a while, the Lakers did not have that intensity, until Anthony Davis publicly called his team out for it after losing to the Spurs on January 7, when they allowed a season-high 118 points.
Davis said the team’s defense was “s***” and added, “We didn’t play one lick of defense and them guys did whatever they want.”
Since that outburst, the Lakers have dominated defensively, posting a defensive rating of 98.0 points per 100 possessions over four games. They allowed 99.0 points per game and held opponents to 42.6% shooting, and 30.5% from the 3-point line.
The day after the Spurs loss, Vogel said he understood the emotion that went into Davis’ lashing out at the defense, but even in that moment, he kept the focus on the Lakers evolving as a defense over time.
“We had a terrible defensive night last night, so I understand his frustrations,” Vogel said. “I felt the same exact way. But at the same time, it’s early in the season, it’s a process, we’re learning a new group.”
As they learn, they’ll get better. That is not good news for the other 29 teams.