The Lakers’ defense is starting to return

Image: Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

Every other week, I will be highlighting a certain trend going on with the Lakers as a part of our “Lakers Lately” YouTube series. I will be going into each trend in-depth with these editorials as a way to supplement the highlights included in the video. Our most recent episode can be seen below. 

After the Los Angeles Lakers lost 118-109 to the San Antonio Spurs, Anthony Davis was not happy. He admitted after the game that he was frustrated, honing up to some violence against a cart while also saying the Lakers’ defense had been “shit” during the game. Davis then missed the following night’s game against the Bulls, as the Lakers won but gave up 115 points in that contest. The game left the Lakers’ Defensive Rating at 106.4, leaving them tied for the seventh-best mark in the league.

In the past week, their defense has really taken a turn for the better. They may be playing inferior opponents (the Rockets twice, Thunder, and Pelicans) but they are absolutely destroying those opponents with their defense, carrying a 98.0 DRTG in the past four games. Anthony Davis has been a huge part of the improvement on the defensive end, averaging 3.6 “stocks” per game (steals and blocks combined) over the Lakers’ four wins in the past week. Davis and the team’s efforts have now elevated them from the seventh-best DRTG last week to the current best DRTG in the NBA at 104.0 (the Lakers also have the best overall Net Rating).

One of the biggest reasons for the improvement is Marc Gasol, as he has finally started to settle into Frank Vogel’s system with the Lakers. Gasol had a rough start to his Lakers career, emphasized by the season-opening loss against the Clippers where Gasol picked up his fifth foul early into the 3rd quarter, causing him to miss the rest of the game. Afterward, Gasol said the following about how his learning of the system wouldn’t happen overnight.

“We have guys that can be a step ahead mentally and physically. They can wait an extra second to react because they’re so long and athletic. I’m not one of those guys. I have to be a step ahead of the play. So that takes a second for it to happen because I have to know and put everything together from recognizing what they’re trying to run, recognizing who they’re running it for, their guys’ tendencies, our guys’ tendencies and where I should be at that moment. That process, my process, is going to be a split-second before. Creating that muscle memory and motor kind of skill set takes a couple of days.”

He may have been overestimated how fast it would take to get acclimated with his prediction of “a couple of days” but he has definitely improved within the Lakers’ defensive system since then and has settled in to show how disruptive he can be within the paint on defense. It seems at times that his hands almost have a magnetized attraction towards the ball as crafty guards make their way to the rim while either being guarded by one of the Lakers guards or even Gasol himself. They’ll go up for a layup or a floater, and before they can even get the ball up to the apex of their release, Gasol has already swiped his hand downwards to cleanly knock the ball out. This ability has led to 2.8 “stocks” per game for Gasol in the Lakers’ past four games, leaving him at second on the team in that span only behind Davis.

While Gasol is an annoyance to the opposing team in and around the paint, the Lakers’ guards have been as equally annoying to other teams on the perimeter. Led by Alex Caruso, Dennis Schröder, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1.8 steals per game in past four games), the Lakers have done a good job lately poking the ball out around the perimeter leading to some fast breaks. A few of these from Caruso and Schröder can be seen in the video, while KCP has shown a possibly improved ability to chase running wings around screens.

The supporting cast can help carry their weight on defense to the best of their abilities, but this defense’s maximum potential will always revolve around the play of Anthony Davis. He’s starting to elevate them as he did throughout their time in the bubble, currently tied for 5th in the NBA in “stocks” at 3.1 per game (players with minimum five games played) as he and the Lakers are showing they still got it.

All stats via or Basketball Reference unless stated otherwise

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