The Los Angeles Lakers have become a terrible, horrible, not good, bad defensive team in the month of December. Their opponents know it, anyone watching at home knows it and the team knows it’s something they have to fix.
The problem is that they might not be able to just yet, at least not entirely, for a few reasons.
For one, the Lakers were always due for some regression after a Fort Knox-style start that saw them put the clamps on teams for the eighth-best defensive rating (102 points per 100 possessions) in the league through November.
A year after finishing as the worst defensive team in the entire NBA and without adding the entire Golden State Warriors roster over the offseason, the Lakers were always due to get worse, it was just a matter of finding out how much.
The answer, at least so far in December, has been a bottom-10 defense once again. Although at 22nd in the league while allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the Lakers have at least avoided bottom-five, laughing stock-status defense in the final month of 2017.
Admittedly, this regression has come amid the toughest stretch of the Lakers’ schedule. It wouldn’t be fair to say the team was never as good as it showed in the first two months of the season and then say this December stretch is the “real” Lakers given the context of who they’ve been playing.
Still, it remains to be seen which version of the Lakers defense is closer to reality.
Lending some hope that the team could see a bit of a bounce back, other than the schedule clearing a bit, is that the Lakers will also eventually get back Brook Lopez from his ankle sprain.
It’s become fashionable to criticize Lopez, and his flaws are easy to point out. He can often look like a plodding relic of the 80’s and 90’s despite his 3-point shot, can’t stay with guards on switches and is often the largest player on the floor, often making his foibles easier to spot when they jump off the screen than other players.
Still, the Lakers clearly miss Lopez, and not on the end of the floor most might think.
The team is actually slightly better offensively with Lopez out, scoring 101.2 points per 100 possessions compared with 100.6 him in, but their defense is almost never worse than when he’s off the floor.
The Lakers are at their worst when Lonzo Ball is out, allowing a defensive rating of 105.9 when the rookie guard sits, but Lopez isn’t far behind, as the Lakers let opponents score 105.7 points per 100 possessions when Lopez hits the pine compared to 102.7 when he plays.
A three-point swing per 100 possessions may not seem huge, but it’s the difference between a top-five defense in the league and a middle-of-the-pack one.
This isn’t to paint Lopez as some defensive savant who turns the Lakers into a lockdown team, as some of his absence has coincided with a stretch where the Lakers faced tough opponents, which has saved his metrics a bit.
Still, the numbers also make it glaringly obvious that Lopez’s length makes a difference for L.A.
Lopez ranks second in the NBA behind Karl-Anthony Towns in contested twos per game with 10.6, and first in the league in contested twos per-36 with 17.1. Since he went down with his ankle sprain, the Lakers have seen their contested twos per game drop from 46.9 (which would rank first in the league) to 40.6 (which would rank 10th).
Contested twos don’t necessarily turn a team into a defensive juggernaut, but it’s worth noting that the 109.3 points per 100 possessions the Lakers are allowing since Lopez went down is worse than their overall December mark of 108.7.
The other context here, and Lakers head coach Luke Walton pointed out after a loss to the Clippers, is that Lopez being out forced the Lakers to make another defensive downgrade in the starting lineup in the form of Larry Nance Jr.
“When he went out, not only is that the starting center, but it’s also the starting four man because Brook provided the spacing for us. It allowed Larry, who’s a very good defender, to make plays for us. But then we needed Kuz’s shooting in there. It’s got a ripple effect,” Walton explained.
For all of Nance’s faults and no matter how much Kuzma still deserves to start, the Lakers do give up 1.3 points per 100 possessions more with Kuzma on the floor than they do with Nance.
Lopez’s timeline hasn’t changed, and it will still be about two weeks before he’s able to return and help the Lakers.
He won’t fix all of their woes, but he’ll have a ripple effect. Along with their schedule lightening, Lopez’s return might be enough for the Lakers to look like a decent team again in the new year.
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