The Los Angeles Lakers continue to reflect a desire of a team that wants to return to its style of the 2019-20 campaign as opposed to last year’s style. This was none the more evident than in the team’s frontcourt construction, abandoning the versatile offenses of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell for, well, just having two big ass dudes in Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan. Although you can argue about the comparison of talent levels between this frontcourt and the championship team’s frontcourt, you can at least admit that physically, Howard and Jordan compare similarly to Howard and JaVale McGee back then.
In that season, the Lakers led the entire league with 6.6 blocks per game. The team still ranked fifth last season even with Davis out for most of the season, but those BPGs fell to 5.4 without the large towering backcourt they had the previous year.
The championship team’s perimeter guards like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Avery Bradley were able to be aggressive and pickpocket some steals, knowing that if they failed in their aggression, Howard, McGee, and Anthony Davis were behind them ready to mop the mess up. This is a style of defense that Russell Westbrook and Davis have already envisioned for this upcoming team after their first official practice together.
“It’s a luxury,” Westbrook said with Davis right by his side, “I actually was talking about it today on just changing my mind, mentality, having those guys as a blanket in the back that you can always count on and I just do my job and make sure I get into the ball and defend to the best of my ability and I know those guys will have my back just like I have their’s.”
Anthony Davis, the player who will definitely need to be at the top of his game this season for this defense to be at the top of theirs, expanded on Westbrook’s idea of the backline of this defense:
“It gives our guards more confidence to press the ball and knowing that we back there. So, the more we can, as bigs, kind of anchor the defense, it gives them enough confidence to go out there and smother the ball.”
Other than Russ, one of the other defenders that will regularly be on the perimeter will be Kent Bazemore, another former Laker brought back to the team joining Howard, Rajon Rondo, Wayne Ellington, and Trevor Ariza. On media day, Bazemore saw Davis, Jordan, and Howard getting together for a backcourt photoshoot and just couldn’t help think about how much they will allow him to perform his perimeter defense to the best of his abilities (h/t LakeShowScoop on Twitter).
“I saw Dwight, DeAndre, and AD taking a picture, those three guys standing beside each other. As a guard, as a defensive guard, that’s all you want. You can be aggressive out on the perimeter, and just funnel those guys to the rim. If they finish over them all night, you live with it. But the chances of that, seven feet at the rim all night…good luck.”
Now, the Lakers saying all of this is good and all, but that still leaves the burden on Davis, Howard, and Jordan to actually execute and protect the rim when opposing guards get past their perimeter defense. In the 2019-20 season, opponents made 55.3% of their field-goal attempts on Davis when 0-9 feet from the rim (57.5% in his injury-plagued last season). Howard and Jordan were just a little off of that number at 55.7% and 58.2% in their seasons with the 76ers and Nets, respectively. However, you can see the slight difference in quality between the more familiar members of the backcourt compared to Jordan. His defense of recent years has been much maligned, and when compared to even JaVale’s interior defense of the 2019-20 season, you can see Jordan is going to have to outperform recent years to truly have the Lakers replicate the defense of the championship team (luckily if recent reports are true, then Davis will start at center which would assumedly cause Jordan to play much less this year compared to the amount of time McGee played in the championship season).
Even though Anthony Davis and LeBron James (who started out the 2020-21 season with a possible All-Defense campaign before he got hurt) missed a considerable amount of time last season, the Lakers finished first in Defensive Rating. For credit, look no further than the head coach of the team, as Frank Vogel has been at the head of some great defensive teams in the past decade of the NBA, going back to his Indiana Pacers days. Although the Lakers did end on top of the defensive leaderboards last season, there were still much fewer questions of defensive talent up-and-down the roster when compared to this year’s team. We know Westbrook will start. It has been reported that Wayne Ellington will as well. Even if those two improve this season, they’ll still be much worse defenders than the likes of Caruso and KCP.
If the Lakers are planning the same idea of defense as the championship year, let’s hope the new backcourt is up to the challenge. As their ship may take on even more water on even more nights than the 2019-20 team’s backcourt.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.