Having finished playing some hoops myself, I caught the second half of Wednesday night’s Lakers-Suns matchup, televised on ESPN. The Lakers won, moving to 18-3 on the season, but from the way commentators Dave Pasch and Mark Jackson talked throughout the second half, you’d have figured the Lakers were headed to the lottery.
Don’t get me wrong: the Lakers have issues, as reflected by a pair of losses to second-division teams in the last six games. Namely, Los Angeles’ defense, so stout when I wrote about it early in the season, has regressed dramatically since then. This is most easily shown graphically. Here are the Lakers’ game-by-game and cumulative Defensive Ratings over the course of the season:
It’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ four best defensive outings came within the first five games of the season. Meanwhile, the Lakers have allowed at least 110 points per 100 possessions six times in the last eight games, having previously done so just once all year (the loss to Detroit, natch). While offenses improve over the course of the season, that can’t come close to accounting for the entire difference between the defense we saw from the Lakers early in the season and what we’ve seen lately.
What we have here is a combination of two factors, I think. One is that teams have scouted the Lakers’ strong-side trap and have learned how to attack it. The other is that the Lakers have had limited practice time to make the necessary adjustments (an assessment Phil Jackson himself apparently made to the ESPN crew before the game).
Look, there’s a reason nobody has run a defense this aggressive in the league in a decade. It’s not easy, and when it’s not working the result is a lot of open shots like the Lakers have surrendered lately. It’s possible they may have to chalk this up as a failed experiment at some point and go back to a more conventional style. Another option would be to retain the strong-side trap as one look to be mixed in with a conventional defense.
That said, while we probably got too excited about the Lakers’ strong start (consider me guilty as charged), nor is the team as bad off as it appears right now. One of Jackson’s hallmarks as a coach is his willingness to let his team flounder at times as a teaching tool, and to some extent we may be seeing just that. The Lakers don’t need to be an elite defensive team right now; they need to reach that level in May and June, and one way or another this stretch will help Jackson determine whether the strong-side trap can be a part of that.
What really irked me about the commentary from Pasch and Jackson (and even Lakers legend Magic Johnson, during his in-game interview with sideline reporter Nancy Lieberman) is the notion that this rough patch defensively is indicative of some inherent shortcoming of this Lakers squad, that it doesn’t have a quote-unquote “defensive mentality.” At one point, they called the Lakers out for rarely practicing defense, which–without putting too fine a point on it–is pretty much exactly opposite what was reported by the people who actually covered the team during training camp. It’s an example of the worst of sports coverage in terms of drawing a conclusion and picking facts to support it instead of coming to a conclusion based on the facts.
Even last year, without the benefit of full seasons from Trevor Ariza and Andrew Bynum, the oft-maligned Lakers defense ranked fifth in the league on a per-possession basis. There was room for improvement, which is why the coaching staff tried something very new this year, but the notion that this team only wants to outscore the opposition flies in the face of the objective reality.
While recognizing that the Lakers have some major issues on D, let’s not make them out to be more than they are or read more into them than what is there.