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Projecting and discussing the Lakers defense

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Despite their new coach's best intentions, will the Lakers' defense have more leaks than the Titanic?

We have reached the dead point in the offseason. There are front page stories on basketball websites devoted to Khris Middleton milking a cowvarious players and league officials taking the ALS ice bucket challenge, and breaking down Nick Young's social media postings.

The point is, there's not an incredible amount of tangible basketball news currently, which makes this a good time to take a look back, and forward, at the Los Angeles Lakers' defense. A lot of ink, both real and virtual, has already been spilled on this topic, but the reality is no one knows with certainty what the defense will look like this year. This uncertainty is due to a few factors, but can mainly be attributed to an overhauled roster and a new coach. We do know last year's version of the purple and gold "produced" a putrid defensive rating (how many points scored by an opposing team per 100 possessions) of 107.9 according to NBA.com, which was bad enough for 28th in the league, ahead of only the woeful Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz.

The Lakers defense has become progressively worse in recent years and finally hit a point where it's no longer an issue that can be ignored. Here's a quick look at the defensive ratings for Los Angeles since the 2008 season:

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Will the defensive trend continue, or will the Lakers break out of this slump? Let's break down the individual pieces that will go into making up that defense.

Unless stated otherwise, all on/off court splits are from NBA.com.

Returning Players

Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash

  • The Lakers $33 million backcourt duo is undoubtedly on the way to the Hall of Fame, but both Nash and Bryant will make it in mostly on their offensive merits (especially Nash).
  • Last season, Kobe spent such a limited amount of time on the floor that the Lakers had a higher offensive rating when he sat (102.1) versus when he was on the court (97.4), a trend that most objective analysts would predict is unlikely to continue this year.
  • Kobe only played in 6 games, Nash in 15.
  • Kobe's defensive rating on-court (107.9) and off-court rating (107.9), are the exact same as the Lakers team average. In his last (almost) healthy season ('12-13), LA was significantly better on defense without the Mamba, giving up 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which improved to 100.3 when he sat. Kobe was able to justify this somewhat with his offensive production, as the Lakers averaged 107.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor versus a 99.7 when he sat. It remains to be seen if he can continue that level of production post Achilles tear and left knee fracture.
  • Nash's defensive rating on-court (107.6) and off-court (107.9)
  • Given that Nash at the peak of his powers was never considered even an average defender, it's fair to expect that the minuscule improvement the Lakers posted on defense when he was on the court is a small blip of statistical noise made possible by the small sample size of minutes he played. It's not indicative of anything meaningful or that he will be a plus-defender in his final year under contract with L.A..

Jordan Hill

  • Defensive rating on-court (108.2) off-court (107.7)
  • It was mildly surprising to see that the Lakers would appear to be better on defense with Hill on the bench, given that he's considered a pretty good pick-and-roll defender, as well as a voracious rebounder that can clear opposing misses (he grabbed 24.8 percent of opposing misses while he was on the floor last year). When looking deeper at the lineup data, it's clear this is partially attributed to the fact that Hill's two most frequent big man partners last year were Robert Sacre and Pau Gasol -- both traditional big men who do not pair very well defensively with Hill because of their inability to guard stretch fours. With Hill likely taking most of these assignments, especially when alongside Gasol, it's easier to see why he would struggle. This is something that will probably continue to be an issue this year, because out of the Lakers who might see time at power forward this year, only Ryan Kelly and Wesley Johnson (who probably will be used much more frequently as a 3) can guard those types of stretch fours effectively, allowing Hill to guard a slower offensive player who is moving around the perimeter less. The wildcard here is Julius Randle, but more on him later.
  • Due to this roster makeup, I would predict similar defensive struggles from Hill again.

Ryan Kelly

  • Defensive rating on-court (108.9) and off-court (107.4)
  • These splits seem unsurprising, given that Kelly seems to be seen by most as a one-way (offensive) player, as well as the fact that last year he was a second round rookie getting limited playing time.
  • New contributor Dakota Schmidt wrote this of Ryan Kelly's defense in his player evaluation:

"Kelly's athleticism and quickness easily carries over on defense as well. He surprisingly showed signs of being able to defend multiple positions. His size and quickness are key factors behind that, but Kelly put in clear effort while defending the opposition. This is another huge plus for a rookie forward, and one that could help him gain the trust of head coach Byron Scott... The biggest flaw in Kelly's defensive game rests in his lack of strength compared to the majority of frontcourt players. He does have solid low-post defensive fundamentals, but opposing bigs out-muscle Kelly to get easy looks at the basket. This shouldn't be a huge issue, considering he spends the majority of his time away from the paint, but he needs to be able to figure out a way to match up against stronger opponents in the low post."

  • This, as previously alluded to, leaves the former Blue Devil as one of the few frontcourt players on this Lakers roster who might be better off away from the basket on defense than guarding post-up players. However, he is still a second year player learning to play defense at the NBA level, and he may not be getting many minutes to start the season barring an unforeseen change in the projected depth chart.

Nick Young

  • Defensive rating on-court (107.1) and off-court (108.6)
  • Young has had a reputation for most of his career as being a defensive sieve, so it is worth noting that last year was the sixth year out of his seven years in the league that his team's opponents posted a better offensive rating with him on the bench than with him on the court, per Basketball-Reference. That is not a perfect evaluating tool all on its own, as that statistic likely has a lot to do with him playing against opposing benches for large stretches, but it does show his defense was not so horrific as to make all-stars out of his opponents on a nightly basis.
  • As almost everyone who had watched Swaggy P before was quick to note, he did improve his effort on defense last year. Unfortunately, effort or no effort, Young is yet another player on this roster who will never be mistaken for a defensive stopper.

Xavier Henry

  • Defensive rating on-court (103.7) and off-court (109.2)
  • The eye test made me think Xavier Henry was an effective defender last year, and the numbers somewhat back up that observation.
  • Of the returning players on the roster, X has by far the biggest positive disparity between how the defense fared with him on the court versus off of it, with nearly a six-point swing between the two. For context, that's about the difference between Indiana's No. 1 ranked defense and Toronto's ninth-ranked defense. If the Lakers had sustained that 103.7 defensive rating through the entire season, they would have ranked 12th in the league.
  • This is not to champion Henry as some type of Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as some of that disparity is likely a statistical aberration, but it does mean the Lakers are not completely without players capable of playing solid defense on the perimeter.
  • However, he plays on the wing, and minutes may be hard to come by with Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, and possibly even Ryan Kelly playing some minutes at the 3.

Wesley Johnson

  • Defensive rating on-court (108.6) and off-court (107)
  • The former fourth-overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft was billed going into last year as a potential defensive specialist of sorts, with some even making Shawn Marion comparisons due to their similar body types, along with Wes getting the chance to play in Mike D'Antoni's fast paced system that unlocked "The Matrix" in Phoenix years ago.
  • Suffice to say, Johnson was unable to live up to that hype, and had a mostly mediocre year that could be expected of a player on a minimum deal. He was mostly roasted despite giving effort on the defensive end when asked to match up with traditional power forwards. He also seemed to struggle grasping team concepts on defense. In spite of his new coach's optimism, hoping for any type of drastic improvement from a player with a career narrative of not living up to expectations would seem unwise.

Robert Sacre

  • Defensive rating on-court (107.3) and off-court (108.2)
  • Another player who was considered more of a defensive specialist, and more underwhelming defensive efficiency numbers. Similar caveats to those mentioned in the case of Jordan Hill apply here as well. Sacre is best suited to play the role of a more traditional center, but was asked to take defensive assignments that were outside of his wheelhouse last season.
  • Sacre will be part of a crowded frontcourt rotation, and could be on the outside looking in behind newcomers Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer, and Ed Davis, as well as the returning Hill.
  • The bottom line is that Sacre is more famous than his play would normally warrant due to L.A.'s gigantic fanbase and his exuberant celebrations. He is not the type of player that is going to significantly impact a defense's fortunes .

New Additions

Jeremy Lin

  • Defensive rating on-court (102) and off-court (104.3)
  • This is one of Lin's MANY proponents favorite statistics to cite when people criticize his defense. The Rockets' defensive rating was better when he was on the court, according to the numbers. Part of this is likely due to the fact that during some of those minutes, horrific defense mixtape star James Harden was not on the court, but Lin surely deserves some credit as well. He always gives effort and has good length for a point guard, but unfortunately does not have the athletic ability to ever be a shutdown defender.

Carlos Boozer

  • Defensive rating on-court (99.2) and off-court (96.2)
  • The 96.2 points per 100 possessions the Bulls held opponents to with Boozer on the bench would have vaulted the Bulls into No.1 in defensive efficiency, surpassing the Indiana Pacers. The 99.2 they posted with Boozer on the floor still would have been good enough for second place, where they finished, so Chicago wasn't hemorrhaging points with him on the floor. His reputation and the eye test, however, don't paint a picture of someone who is likely to come in and help the Lakers on defense.

Ed Davis

  • Defensive rating on-court (98.4) and off-court (103.3)
  • Ed Davis likely has the most potential to become a defensive difference maker on this Lakers roster.
  • As stated in my piece introducing Davis for SS&R, he has similar rim protection numbers as shot blocking extraordinaire and all-around defensive menace Serge Ibakaaccording to NBA.com.
  • From that piece:

"Ibaka allowed opponents to shoot 43.9% at the rim, with Davis allowing a similarly sterling 43.3%. Caveats apply, given Davis's more limited sample size (15.3 minutes per game in 63 games versus 33.2 in 81 for Ibaka), as well as the fact he was presumably playing against second-unit players for a larger percentage of those minutes than Ibaka. Regardless of the circumstances those are impressive rim protection numbers at the NBA level, which was one of the biggest weaknesses of the Lakers'' shameful defense last season."

  • Yes, the Lakers front court rotation will be crowded, but despite that, Davis should get plenty of chances to prove his per-minute and efficiency numbers are no fluke. He projects as the only Laker who will rate out as an unequivocal defensive plus.

The Rookies

Lakers rookie draft picks Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson may have had nice, optimism-inducing Las Vegas Summer League performances in many ways, but they will likely succumb to many rookie mistakes on defense in the regular season while they are still adjusting to and learning the pro game. The Lakers should be trying to give these guys all the minutes they can handle (especially Randle) to get used to playing at the highest level, but the consequences of that will be most felt on the defensive side of the ball.

Randle has the athleticism to step out and defend on the perimeter against stretch fours, but he'll have to learn how to use his body and angles to make an impact while sharpening his defensive awareness. He's undersized to defend in the post, but his strength and wide frame may help make up for that. How he performs on defense will likely be a big factor in how quickly Byron Scott will gain trust in him.

Coaching

Lastly, we come to the elephant in the room. Mike D'Antoni has been fired resigned, and his Zen Master-approved defensive coordinator Kurt Rambis has taken his talents to Gotham, leaving the Lakers with probable scheme changes under new head coach Byron Scott.

The worry that comes with those scheme changes is that Byron may not be able to build anything close to a functioning defense without the services of someone like Tyson Chandler or Kenyon Martin in their prime, as he did with the Hornets and Nets. One statistic that has been bandied about lately is that Scott is the only head coach to have a team in the bottom-five in defensive efficiency three years in a row since the league expanded to 30 teams (during his three years in Cleveland). To be fair, that was not all his fault, as he was hardly given a bunch of All-Defensive First Teamers to work with in Cleveland, but he faces a similar outlook in L.A. this season.

The bottom line is it's hard to build a good defense in the NBA. While Tom Thibodeau has the reputation of being able to craft an elite defense no matter who his front office gives him, he has been working for the majority of his time in Chicago with great defenders in Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer Taj Gibson, among others. It is even harder to build such a defense when the pieces all, at minimum, have flaws that need to be covered up.

No matter Byron's supposed "defense first mentality," it would probably be the best coaching accomplishment of his career to get the Lakers to be an average defensive team. Kobe and Nash are going to be active defensive minuses when they are on the floor most of the time, Boozer and Randle could comprise a power forward rotation of revolving doors to the basket and Ed Davis has never played starter's minutes in his career. This team has a chance to be decent offensively, but the old basketball (and sports) cliché still rings true: Defense wins championships. It's hard to find a scenario in which this Lakers team can do that on a consistent basis, and it will most likely be a death knell for any aspirations of success they hold this year.

--@hmfaigen--

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