In September, I thought I had the 2017-2018 Los Angeles Lakers all figured out. With the addition of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, they would find ways to generate open looks on the offensive end and try to push the pace whenever possible. With the addition of three-point shooting center Brook Lopez, the team would surely rely on spacing and Ball’s laser beam passes to create open looks all over the floor.
Meanwhile, their defense, which finished dead-last in 2016-2017 in defensive rating, should struggle. Every game would be a mad-dash to simply outscore their opponents, and if they could finish perhaps 25th on that end of the floor, then hey, that’s progress.
After all, even with the addition of defensive dynamo Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, rookie point guards like Ball tend to get torched and the rest of the scheme falls apart from there.
Good Lord was I wrong.
This Lakers team is indeed playing at a lightning-fast pace, good for third in the league in that category, but they aren’t the offensive force that I expected. In fact, they have been downright terrible in that area. They are generating plenty of extra possessions by running like hell, but if you remove pace from the equation the Lakers are 28th in points per game, ahead of only the ghastly Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings.
For a team that is supposed to be in the midst of an offensive renaissance thanks to Ball’s contagious passing, they aren’t finding the bottom of the net often. What might be even more confounding is that when they do score, it isn’t because they spreading the floor, pinging the ball around, and bombing away. On the contrary, this Lakers team is 28th in three-pointers attempted and 25th in assist percentage.
Ball helped create a passing utopia at UCLA and in the Las Vegas Summer League, but that hasn’t translated to the pros just yet, and those shooting numbers are a concern.
Ball, who nailed 41 percent of his threes in college, is hitting just 23 percent thus far as a Laker, and it’s not just him. As a team, they are dead last in three-point percentage by a large margin.
At this stage, the Lakers simply aren’t good at shooting threes or creating for teammates, and in the modern NBA, that should be a death sentence.
Yet, these Lakers have found ways to still get by.
Rather than fight against their weakness by continuing to fire away from downtown, they instead have embraced their deficiencies. With threes minimized, the Lakers instead attack the basket relentlessly, and as a result, they lead the league in points in the paint by a healthy amount.
Think about that for a second. Even the New Orleans Pelicans, who boast the twin towers of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, don’t score as many points in the paint as the Lakers do. That’s incredible.
However, it’s not just their ability to attack the basket that is keeping them afloat. After all, scoring lots of twos while their opponents are all draining threes won’t get the job done, so the Lakers have focused on finding ways to keep their opponents from racking up points.
And it’s working.
As of this writing, Los Angeles, who finished dead last in Defensive Rating last season, is currently the fourth-best defensive team in the league. And it gets weirder.
Ball, expected to be a turnstile on the defensive end, has statistically been one of the Lakers’ best perimeter defenders. Outside of 10 feet, opponents have a tough time shooting over Ball, whose 6’6” frame and long arms allow him to bother jump shooters more than most point guards can.
It does have to be noted that Caldwell-Pope often checks the opponent’s most dangerous perimeter player, leaving Ball with an easier match up, but his success on that end is impressive nonetheless. The basketball world has been buzzing with detractors calling out Ball’s poor shooting, and rightfully so, but he’s certainly not getting enough credit for his defense.
When Lopez is on the floor, the Lakers funnel attackers to him, relying on his shot blocking ability to make a difference at the rim. Back up center Andrew Bogut plays a similar role when called upon, but the Lakers may actually be at their best when they go small and use converted power forward Julius Randle at center.
Swapping Lopez out in favor of Randle alongside starters Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma drops the team’s Defensive Rating to 82.4, which is incredible, and frankly, unsustainable. That grouping has only seen 34 minutes of time on the floor together thus far, so there is a huge disclaimer due to small sample size, but there is still reason to believe that they could be very effective.
With Randle in either the starting lineup or second unit in place of a traditional center, the Lakers have defensive versatility all over the floor. In the modern NBA, where the pick-and-roll reigns supreme, the Lakers can counter by switching like crazy, though he is susceptible to being bullied by true centers.
Still, the flexibility is exciting. Need your center to momentarily defend on the perimeter and then recover back to his man? Randle can do it, as can Kuzma from the power forward spot. Want your point guard to help on the glass? Ball is already number three in the league for rebounds for his position.
Meanwhile, Ingram’s limbs allow him to cover the floor like Reed Richards, and Caldwell-Pope takes legitimate pride in his ability to frustrate opponents. He’s particularly good at the chase down steal, tracking back and swiping the ball from an opposing player just as he’s starting his upward motion for what he thought was a breakaway dunk, like a below-the-rim version of LeBron’s chase down blocks.
Speaking of blocks, these Lakers are currently fourth in the league in blocked shots, which is evidence of the buy in the team has had with Walton’s defense-first approach to the season. There is real effort on the defensive end, which wasn’t always the case last year.
Unfortunately, thanks to their struggles to shoot and create, the Lakers are currently only 6-9 on the season. Stellar defense only goes so far; the game is still about scoring more points than the opponent.
That said, consider this: how good could this team be if and when the offense starts to catch up? What if, as the season wears on, the shots start falling a bit more frequently? If the defense stays as good as it has been, it wouldn’t take a massive offensive swing to change their fortunes drastically.