Under head coach Frank Vogel, the Los Angeles Lakers have had one of the best defenses in the league over the past two seasons. Last year, the team was actually ranked first in Defensive Rating despite their best defensive player, Anthony Davis, missing nearly three months of the season. Although Vogel showed how efficient his defensive principles are last season amidst some tough challenges, this year might bring even more challenges after Russell Westbrook came into town while players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and even Dennis Schröder were sent packing.
However, Anthony Davis doesn’t seem to have many worries regarding their defense this year despite the perceived loss of talent in their perimeter defense. He had the following to say after last Wednesday’s practice (h/t Silver Screen & Roll):
“Myself, Russ, Bron, Do, Dwight, DJ, TaLo, Nunn, we’ve got some defensive-minded guys and guys who want to play defense,” Anthony Davis said when asked about the defensive identity of this team, “And it kind of just – Baze – and it fits into our scheme that we’ve been doing in the past couple years, trying to be a defensive-minded team, being the number one defensive in the league and even though we lost those guys, we’ll get back to our ways. Even the guys that, over the years, have been known for struggling on defense, buy into the system. Helping them, having their backs and come together as one on the defensive end. I think we can be a great defense.”
You may have some doubt on what Davis is saying considering he’d never throw one of his teammates under the bus for having some poor defense early on in training camp, but it is refreshing to see the latter point of the quote that Davis is making. He points out that there are some guys on the team that have been known for their struggles on defense over the years, a comment that, although true, is a bit of a verbal sub-Tweet to players on the team.
Russell Westbrook was sitting next to him in the interview, and honestly, Davis is almost assuredly referencing him. Westbrook’s defense has been maligned throughout his career as it has for most high-volume, high-octane guards including Damian Lillard and James Harden. The concerns around Westbrook’s defense are definitely valid (20th percentile in Defensive RAPTOR last season according to B-Ball Index), however, he has never had a defensive-minded head coach like Frank Vogel. It’s not like the physique and athleticism to be a great defender isn’t there for Westbrook. He has both of those in insane quantities and qualities. It could be a matter of buy-in and attention to detail, something that is hopefully improving for Westbrook while playing with LeBron James (h/t Silver Screen & Roll again).
And if Westbrook and the other guards fail to keep up the quality of perimeter defense we saw last year from the Lakers, at least they have an insanely large backline of big men to depend on in Davis, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan. That’s something that Westbrook and Davis both spoke about in the same interview, with Kent Bazemore also illustrating that backline defense on media day.
Only time will tell on whether or not Vogel can help these players turn the 2021-22 Lakers into a “great defense”. It sounds like it’s definitely been a focus at training camp, which is all we can ask for at this point.