Let’s face facts Lakers fans.
If Kobe Bryant is still able to produce at an elite level, Nick Young and Jordan Hill build off last season, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer prove their doubters wrong, and Julius Randle is who we think he can be, the Los Angeles Lakers still won’t be able to outscore the top teams in the NBA.
If the Lakers plan on turning things around, it must start on the defensive side of the ball. Thankfully that is what Byron Scott has been preaching since the day he was brought aboard as the head coach of the Lakers.
The Lakers suddenly jumping from one of the league’s worst defensive teams to elite level is highly unlikely. But the team does have the pieces to become an above average defensive team, despite some below average defenders.
The top five teams in defensive efficiency last season were the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, and Oklahoma City Thunder. Now let’s look at last season’s most common starting lineups for each of these teams:
Indiana Pacers: George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert
Chicago Bulls: Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah
San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins
Stephen Curry, Carlos Boozer, Tony Parker, Mike Dunleavy, and David Lee. None of these players would make anyone’s list of top defenders, yet they all were important players for the top defensive teams. How is that possible?
Looking at these lineups, a couple of things stand out immediately. The first being the elite wing defender that each team possesses George, Butler, Leonard, Thompson, and Sefolosha are all in the top-10 wing defenders in this league.
Even the teams right below the top-five had players on the wing such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Trevor Ariza, and Tony Allen. If there is one common denominator with every top defensive team, that is it.
This brings us to Wesley Johnson. At 6’7″ with extremely long arms, good lateral quickness, and explosive athleticism, Johnson has all of the physical tools to become the lockdown defender this Lakers team sorely needs.
Johnson showed flashes of defensive potential, but he will have to be able to do this on a nightly basis. No one expects to be able to stop the Durants, James, and Anthonys of the world, but life has to be made difficult on these guys and with all respect to Kobe Bryant, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry, the only player with skills to reach that level on this team is Johnson.
As far as I can see, Johnson is arguably the most important person when it comes to the Lakers success on defense, and as such, the success of the team as a whole.
The other important factor when it comes to defensive success is a rim protector. Hibbert, Noah, Duncan, Ibaka, and Bogut all rank in the top-20 in defensive field goal percentage at the rim according to NBA.com. They all also rank in the top-20 in both defensive rating and defensive win shares according to basketball-reference.
Jordan Hill is a little worrisome at this position. He has a defensive rating of 108 and opponents shoot 51.4 percent at the rim when he is there. Far from where you want your center to be, but there are some positive traits in Hill’s game.
He is an excellent rebounder, and his energy never runs out. He is not the best shot blocker, but being a rim protector doesn’t mean blocking every shot. Hill matched Noah and Marc Gasol in blocked shots per 36 minutes last season. Much like Johnson, his problem isn’t physical, it’s mental.
And this is where Byron Scott can make the difference. Playing under Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers had no real defensive system. The basic principles of defense were nowhere to be found last season, but Scott is a coach who will not stand for average.
From the first day of training camp, Scott will drill the Lakers on every tiny facet of defense. The team as a whole will grasp a better understanding of basic defensive concepts and positioning.
Nowhere will these things be more important than Johnson and Hill (or Ed Davis who posted an impressive 43.8 opposing FG percentage at the rim in limited minutes last season). They are the keys to the Lakers defense.
An elite wing defender and rim protector, inside a defensive system focused on the fundamentals of help defense, can make up for the relative individual inefficiencies of other defenders.
The Lakers projected starting lineup doesn’t have a bunch of great individual defenders, but the pieces are there for a step up and if Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill can make that leap, don’t be surprised to see the Lakers defensive numbers far above what it seems like they can be.[divide]
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