The Lakers trailed by 17 points at halftime in Chicago on Tuesday, and by 13 points after the third quarter. A loss wouldn’t have been a disaster—no defeat this early in the season is—and the Lakers could have been forgiven for a letdown at the end of a road trip, having already won five games in a row.
But these Lakers weren’t content to capitulate. After pouring in 93 points over the first three quarters, the Bulls managed just four in the first eight minutes of the fourth, as L.A. embarked on a 29-4 run to steal a 118-112 road win.
What sparked the comeback? A surprising scoring surge with Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the bench—and a defensive improvement that, based on the first two weeks of the season, isn’t much of a surprise at all.
“As they were up big and we were trying to climb back in it,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “our guys on the bench were talking about, we’ve got the no. 1 defense in the league, and when you’ve got the no. 1 defense in the league you can string together some stops.”
A few days later, the Lakers still have the no. 1 defense—a pleasant change after a decade of average (at best) and dreadful (at worst) units.
Opponents have scored only 97.9 points per 100 possessions against L.A., nearly 10 points lower than the league average of 106.4. According to Cleaning the Glass, which strips out garbage-time minutes, the Lakers boast the league’s best half-court defense, force the third most turnovers, and induce the third-worst effective field goal percentage. And just seven games into their first season with an overhauled roster, they are already immensely confident in their defensive strength.
“We are a defensive team. We want to be that—we want to be the best defensive team in the league,” James said on Tuesday. “And we can hang our hats on that no matter if we’re playing well offensively. We know that we can string some stops together. That can allow us back into the game as long as we don’t turn the ball over.”
Entering the season, it was assumed that L.A.’s other team would vault into championship contention because of its defensive chops. In NBA.com’s preseason survey, 52 percent of general managers named the Clippers as the league’s best defensive team; the Lakers received zero votes.
That Clippers menace is still a work in progress—Paul George has yet to return from injury to join Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley to form a rangy, quick-fingered wall on the perimeter. Even dribbling against that lineup will constitute a workplace hazard. But for now, the Clippers rank only 16th in defensive rating, while their Staples Center roommates top the leaderboard.
The Lakers’ surge arises as defense has fallen well behind offense across the league. With the 3-point revolution well under way, the past three full seasons represent the three best offensive seasons, as measured by points per possession, in recorded NBA history. (This season lags behind so far, but offensive efficiency tends to rise as the season progresses.) It’s an extreme challenge for any team in 2019-20 to, say, hold an opponent below 100 points, a feat the Lakers have accomplished three times already this season.
Yet as Justin Verrier wrote for The Ringer last season, two of the most important factors on defense now are experience and rim protection, and the 2019-20 Lakers are built around both. L.A. has five players who have previously been named to an All-Defense team (plus Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played yet because of injury), and only one of those five was on the team last season. The Lakers are the second-oldest team in the NBA, which means they’ve had plenty of prior exposure to all manner of offensive sets.
James, for instance, helps the Lakers defense in two ways. The first is his size and IQ, which have been put to better use this season as James looks more engaged after a sputtering season he blames on a groin injury. The second is his experience; before Tuesday’s game, Vogel explained why James’s 16-plus seasons in the league helps the entire defense. “This is Chicago, right?” he said. “So everybody knows Mike Singletary and what the value of having that middle linebacker on your defense is. Obviously [LeBron] has physical tools to dominate, but his mind on that end of the floor is not spoken about enough. He’s able to recognize coverages before they happen and just be that middle linebacker.”
Vogel himself has played a role in the Lakers’ turnaround, as a defensive-minded coach thrust into a potentially uncomfortable situation. The Lakers hired Vogel before trading for Davis, and with noted social climber Jason Kidd as his top assistant—reportedly the highest paid in the league—jokes abounded about how long Vogel would last in the position.
Thus far, Vogel has allayed all concerns, and L.A.’s stingy defense is the main reason. The Lakers wouldn’t be his first top-ranked unit—when Vogel coached in Indiana, the Pacers ranked in the top 10 on defense in every full season, and no. 1 two seasons in a row.
Vogel’s elite Pacers defenses built outward from Roy Hibbert’s rim protection, and though the league has evolved considerably since Hibbert’s plodding verticality represented the presumed future, the same idea permeates Vogel’s newest charge. Unlike the Clippers, whose defensive strength appears on the wings, the Lakers start in the frontcourt.
No big man has guarded the rim better than Davis this season, even though he plays most of his minutes alongside a traditional big man. He leads the league with three blocks per game, and among 148 players who have defended against 20 or more shots inside 6 feet, Davis ranks first in opponent’s field goal percentage (7-for-29, or 24.1 percent).
“The length and the instincts defensively is maybe [Hakeem] Olajuwon—can block shots with both hands, can move both ways,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said of Davis. “I think he embraces being a stopper, embraces shutting down the paint. ... He’s like [Kevin] Garnett a little bit where he can cover the whole side of the floor by himself. He’s a one-man zone.”
In the long run, particularly in the postseason, the Lakers might be best suited to play with Davis as a lone center, allowing for a more spread offense around the two stars. But in 72 minutes with both Davis and fellow big man Dwight Howard on the floor, the Lakers have a plus-35.4 net rating, second best in the league among 585 pairings with at least 70 minutes. (No. 1? Howard and Quinn Cook, at plus-37.1.) Opponents have scored only 85.3 points per 100 possessions against a Davis-Howard front line.
Indeed, Howard’s resurgence is real (for now, at least), and his teammates are quick to credit the backup big for inspiring their stout defensive play. “His length, his athleticism, and his communication has been very good, to be the anchor on our defense,” James said.
Dwight Howard picks up Coby White on the switch... pic.twitter.com/gfbrCdI5fW— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) November 6, 2019
Despite serving as a backup, Howard still ranks in the top 10 in blocks per game, and perhaps most importantly, he has served as his typically springy, swaggering self on defense while not compromising his utility with overeager offensive play. He’s collected only four post-up touches this season, and he ranks near the bottom of the league with a usage rate that’s less than half of his career total.
Howard seems happy with his role, despite career-low averages in points and shot attempts. “When I get on the floor, my job is to help this team get stops and be a force on the defensive end,” he said. “Talk loud, be aggressive, and bring a lot of energy. We’ve got some great scorers on our team, so my focus is not on how many shots I can get up, but how many times we can get stops.”
The “great scorers” bit is a key element for the Lakers holistically, as they search for the right offense-defense balance to contend. The former is not Vogel’s forte; other than his first lockout-shortened season in Indiana, the Lakers coach has never commanded an offense that ranked in the top half of the league.
Frank Vogel’s Team Rankings
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Yet when LeBron and Davis are capable of collecting 50-plus points each night by themselves, their skills reduce the burden on Vogel to scheme for scores, and on the rest of the team to overextend their abilities. Instead of the sort of high-octane outfit that has come to permeate the league, the Lakers resemble a nostalgic kind of contending team, built around comprehensive defense, a few stars on offense, and a slower pace.
As that Vogel chart shows, the coach isn’t a defensive panacea all by himself—for two seasons, his Magic teams struggled to secure stops, while Orlando has since matured into an elite defensive group under Steve Clifford. Nor can Davis push a team defense up the leaderboards all by himself. The Pelicans’ best defensive rating with Davis was ninth, in 2016-17; they were typically in the 20s in other seasons. But pair the two, and surround Davis with smarts and versatility and a simple, executable game plan, and all the positive pieces can flourish together.
The overperforming defense will certainly regress somewhat as the season continues. Offenses tend to heat up after the first weeks, and no defense has posted a rating below 98 in a non-lockout-shortened season since the Spurs in 2004-05. Last season, the Bucks led the league with a defensive rating seven points higher than the Lakers’ current mark.
But at the same time, none of L.A.’s underlying stats seem flukish or particularly lucky. Opponents aren’t, for instance, making an unsustainably low percentage of their open 3s, nor have the Lakers played a particularly soft schedule, having already faced the second-ranked Mavericks offense and the fourth-ranked Clippers offense.
Given the Lakers’ lack of depth, an injury to James or Davis could undercut all of their success so far—the team doesn’t have much scoring in reserve, barring an unexpected leap from Kyle Kuzma, and it doesn’t appear to have the wherewithal to trade for another star, either. But it does already have an identity, and that’s more than most teams can say this soon after a roster rejuvenation.
Team rankings are through Wednesday’s games.