After the Los Angeles Lakers ranked dead-last in defensive rating over the past two seasons and were in the bottom three in the NBA for the past four, there wasn’t much optimism that head coach Luke Walton could get the team to improve much beyond getting out of the bottom five prior to the season.
The Lakers have soared over those modest expectations, however, using the league’s 12th-best defense to fuel an unexpected run towards the outside fringes of the playoff race and their most wins since the 2012-13 season.
According to Walton, that improvement started with the players. “We have players in here that are willing to work. Defense doesn’t work without effort, and you’ve got to have people that want to play defense,” he said.
“We have a nice group of guys that are into that, and we came into training camp this year with that being our No. 1 priority.”
Walton had the team spend an estimated 80 percent of their practice focused on the defensive end during those training camp sessions and early-season practices, and he feels like it paid off.
“Like anything else, you do something enough, you get better at it. We still have a lot of room to grow and get better. We pretty much do our basic coverages every night,” Walton said. “There’s a lot more advanced things we’ll get to in the future. But it’s about hard work, repetition and guys wanting to play (defense).”
Walton also wasn’t criticizing his roster last year for not buying in on defense. He acknowledged there were logistical issues caused by him and his new coaching staff’s arrival with a new roster that kept the team from improving as much as this year’s roster did.
“Last year we talked a lot about defense but we were trying to put in a new offense, new plays, and get to know everyone. There’s a very limited amount of practice time,” Walton explained, while also again crediting his players for buying in.
Walton specifically praised assistant coach Brian Keefe as well for how he’s been “holding players accountable” for their defensive rotations during games. He also thinks the Lakers have room to get better as they continue to grow alongside each other.
“The really good defensive teams, in my opinion, are normally the teams that have been together for a while. They play off each other and they’re really good at their coverages. They know where to switch, where to be for each other,” Walton said.
“As our guys spend more time together playing, they’ll naturally get better. As some of our young guys get stronger — Brandon, Zo, Kuz — and grow into their bodies, we’ll get better defensively. It’s more just about time together as a group and for young guys physically getting stronger and mentally understanding the game more.”