The Los Angeles Lakers are currently 4-3 after their 95-85 win on Sunday against the Houston Rockets. After a dismal and emotional start to the season, the team will hopefully stay above a .500 winning percentage the rest of the way starting with another game against the Rockets tonight.
They come into the game with the ninth-best offensive rating in the league while sporting the 18th-ranked defensive rating. This is nearly a flipped image of the past two seasons, not surprising when you consider the elite offensive talents that have replaced the elite defensive talents that were traded away or lost in free agency.
Even with a middling offense during the 2019-20 championship season and the 2020-21 season that saw the Lakers reach the playoffs despite missing both of their superstars for two-to-three months of the season, the team’s elite defense kept them afloat. However, although the team found success with one or the other in the past, they’ll need a balance of both this season for them to attain their championship goals.
This is mostly due to the team’s desired identity as one of the best fast-break teams in the league. This goal came into focus with the team’s acquisition of Russell Westbrook, one of the fastest and most dynamic playmakers the league has to offer. In addition to that speed and playmaking, Russ also brings loud weaknesses such as carelessness with the basketball as well as atrocious shooting. Those weaknesses may be even more reason than the strengths for the team wanting to get out on transition often, as Westbrook’s profile presents problems in the half-court alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis (as well as bigs who can’t shoot such as DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard).
Vogel said there was a different type of energy "most of the night." Says it's a result of locking in defensively and getting out in transition.
"That's Lakers basketball."
— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) November 1, 2021
However, to be one of the best fast-breaking teams in the league, the Lakers have to have some sort of efficiency on defense. Causing a lot of turnovers helps, but at the very least they need to make their opponent miss shots so that they can get out on these breaks. There’s no doubt this is firmly in Frank Vogel’s mind, as he essentially described this idea as “Lakers basketball” after Sunday’s win against the Rockets.
The 15 steals in that game were the most the team has had this season by far, leading to 20 fast-break points scored in the contest which is tied for the most they’ve had in a game. Over their last two games (which included their second-best defensive performance in a 113-101 win against the Cavs), the Lakers are tied for sixth in the league in fast-break points per game. Before those two games when the Lakers hadn’t been able to keep any opponent under 115 points, they were far from being the best fast-breaking team in the league as they were ranked 18th in FBP per game.
It’s a balancing act. A true “yin and yang” of offensive and defensive efficiency that the Lakers will have to master over the course of this season if they want to position themselves for a possible championship. Given their personnel, you can’t really have one without the other.
However, just as the “yang” can impact the “yin” if the Lakers can’t get stops or turnovers, the “yin” can also affect the “yang” in a negative way. This happens when the team turns the ball over, something LeBron illustrated after Friday’s game against the Cavs as the team performed much better on defense in the second half.
LeBron linked the defensive breakdowns in the first half to all of the turnovers (15), which he said sapped their energy on that end. He said that needs to be better, starting with him.
First half: 15; second half: 7.
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 30, 2021
This is a fair excuse, but it is also one that the Lakers will probably have to overcome. The team is already at the top of the NBA in terms of turnovers (sixth-most in the league), something that may never change given Westbrook and LeBron were both in the top five in turnovers last season. It’s fine in game number six of the season against the lowly Cavs, but when it’s playoff time against some of the Western Conference’s best, the Lakers will have to find that energy on the defensive end even if they keep losing the ball on offense.
The Lakers will have to walk this tight-rope all season. But if this brand new roster can nail down Frank Vogel’s defensive system, everything else should come into place. If that happens, then there should be no doubt that the team is a true title contender.