Yesterday, we discussed how wild it is that the Cavaliers are the no. 1 team in offensive efficiency. Today, an even scarier concept: The Lakers, who play at the third-fastest pace in the league and score 105 points a game, are the best defensive team in the NBA by a fairly wide margin.
How are the Lakers pulling this off?
Let’s start with the obvious: They have a defensive-minded, freakishly athletic 7-foot center with a shot-blocker’s mentality, quick feet and long arms—the type of player who will bolster your defense considerably. The real shame is the Lakers couldn’t have gotten Bynum back in time for their Playoff run last year, although you can now get from one side of Boston to the other through Andrew Bynum’s knee. Bynum has probably made the biggest difference of anyone for the Lakers’ defense, however you look at it: he’s behind only Dwight Howard in blocks per game, and the Lakers are a full 13.4 points per 100 defensive possessions when he’s on the floor. Bynum made the most of his off-the-charts pure ability to defend, cut-off penetration and amassed copious amounts of blocks while still being able to hold his man to a PER of 10 on defense—well under the League average of 15. Although things aren’t clicking offensively between Bynum and Gasol at this point (blaming Bynum for this may be short-sighted—nobody on the Lakers plays better with Gasol on the court right now, and he may still be waiting at the baggage claim waiting for his offensive consistency to come back from Spain right now), there’s no doubt Bynum’s return has been a hugely positive factor.
The other huge factor is Trevor Ariza getting healthy and shoring up his offensive game enough to stay on the floor—Ariza’s minutes have gone from 25 percent last season to 50 percent in this campaign, and his emergence has allowed Luke Walton’s minutes to go from 50 percent to 6 percent. Not to blow your minds here, but Trevor Ariza is a pretty massive defensive upgrade over Luke Walton, and with Ariza and Bryant able to spell each other, the opponent’s best perimeter scorer now goes through 48 minutes of hell rather than being able to run free for the long stretches of time that Bryant would conserve energy on the defensive end.
Those are the obvious changes—effects of the Lakers’ new zone defensive scheme. The help-heavy defensive scheme that encourages trapping and ball-hawking takes advantage of the Lakers’ extreme length and quickness. The result is the Lakers now force a League-leading 18.5 tov, a full two turnovers more than the second-best team in that category. Lamar Odom is averaging a career-best 1.5 steals and 1 block per game despite playing a full 11 minutes less than his career average. Vladimir Radmonovic, who has the same relative strengths and weaknesses defensively as Odom, added a full half-steal to his average without an increase in minutes and, like Odom, holds his counterpart to a below-average PER despite doing all that ball-hawking. Same thing with Sasha: He added a half-steal to his average to give him a full steal per game in only 15 mpg, holds his man to an 11.1 PER, and still hasn’t been punched out.
The lone red flag: An aggressive zone is vulnerable to penetration, and the only Lakers giving up an opponent PER better than the League-average 15 is Derek Fisher, who is allowing his counterpart to have a PER of 22.5, which is really, really high—only Devin Harris and Chris Paul currently have a PER higher at point guard. The only other Laker giving up an opponent PER higher than 15 is Fisher’s backup Farmar at 17.4. This could signify a possible monkey wrench in the whole scheme—point guards have the easiest time against the Lakers’ scheme, or Derek Fisher sucks at defense, which he kinda does anyway. Still, it’s worth watching when the Lakers play their likely WCF adversary in the Hornets—the first time they met, CP3 had 31 points on 19 shots, 13 dimes and 7 boards.
Oh, and then there’s Kobe. Kobe’s been considered an elite defender and has been a regular on the All-Defensive Team for some time now, but the honor has been more a reflection of Kobe’s reputation and how impressive he looks during his occasional spurts of lock-down defense during crunch-time than his actual production at that end. There’s no questioning Kobe’s defensive ability, but in prior seasons Kobe would understandably conserve energy at the defensive end, often guarding the less dangerous perimeter player and spending much of his time gambling for risky steals rather than locking up his man. Well, this year he’s earned his spot on the team, and I’d listen to an argument advocating the Mamba for Defensive Player of the Year. Here’s why:
1. Defense is a mind-set: Everyone likes to play offense, but it’s a true feat to get a team to but in and give the necessary effort to become a great defensive team. For a team to play defense like the Lakers, everyone has to buy in, and that starts from the top down. If Kobe wasn’t giving so much effort on that end, it’d be reflected by the entire team. But he is, and the defense is working off his example.
2. The scheme allowed him to play the passing lanes with impunity, which he does as well as any shooting guard in the League. The fact that one of the League’s best turnover-creators now leads the most disruptive defensive squad is no coincidence.
3. As for Kobe often forgetting about his man…Kobe’s opponent PER so far is 6.5.
Now, that stat will probably rise, and he’s not the only one who keeps his man from scoring, and he probably checks not-that-dangerous players, but 6.5. That essentially means his opponent performs worse than Desmond Mason on any given night. Any NBA player who plays as many minutes as Kobe and renders the player they’re guarding totally ineffective deserves a whole lot of credit.
Bottom line: Kobe hasn’t been himself offensively this season. (A note on that: Kobe was terrible from the outside in the Olympics. He’s shooting his worst three-point percentage since 2004. His eFG% on jumpers is down from 45.7 percent to a LeBronian 40.5 percent. Even his free throw percentage is lower than it’s been in prior years. Last night, he was 2-15 on shots outside the paint. There are a lot of possible explanations for a lot of this, but does anyone think that finger might finally be becoming a problem?) But his commitment to the defensive end is nearly as impressive as his offensive wizardry in year’s past.
So that’s the Lakers. After retaining the players who made them one of the best offensive teams in history after the Gasol trade last year, they’re playing the League’s best defense. Oh, and they’re 9-1. Be afraid. Be very afraid.