LeBron James defense.
LeBron zeroes in on Luka Doncic in a Lakers road win.
Joseph Sherman

Lakers Defense Leading the Way

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

A lot has to go well for an NBA team to open the season 6-1.

In posting the league’s top early-season record, the Lakers have gotten contributions from many places, but there’s been one outstanding factor: their defense.

In fact, Frank Vogel’s squad has the No. 1 defense in basketball, with a rating of 97.9. That’s carried them to the No. 2 overall net rating despite the offense coming in at No. 15 (106.7) as players learn how to gel with one another on that end.

“I love the commitment we’re showing on the defensive end,” said Vogel. “When you do that, you have the ability like we did in the fourth quarter (at Chicago*) to string together stops, and either stay in a game, or blow open a game.
*L.A.’s second unit started the fourth quarter on a 16-0 run, and outscored the Bulls 38-19 in the period to erase a 19-point first half deficit.

“They’re enjoying that end of the floor, and what it feels like to be a unit that’s very difficult to score on. It feels good. They’re buying into that, and I’m happy with it so far.

The effort, execution and example of 17-year-veteran LeBron James on defense has very much led the way. He’s been closing out to shooters, sprinting back in transition, standing up his man on drives, rotating off the ball and even taking charges.

“(LeBron is) working really hard ... I couldn’t be more impressed with his commitment on that end and his intent to set a tone with our group, which it’s done,” said Vogel. “Everybody is buying into that end. In every film session, every player is coached hard and held to a high level of accountability. And he’s just been unbelievable with his commitment on that end.”

LeBron’s certainly gotten help and buy-in from his teammates. The rim, which Frank Vogel said in the offseason remains the most important part of a defensive scheme even with the evolution of 3-point shooting, has been very well protected. Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard are combining for 5.1 blocks per game, towards LAL’s team total of 8.4, well above No. 2 Miami’s 6.7.

That’s allowed strong defensive guards like Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to push up on the perimeter, and L.A. are conceding only 32.1 percent from three, good for 7th in the NBA, while also allowing only the 7th fewest points in the paint per game (42.6). It’s not easy to do both.

“We’re hoping to invert our defense as little as possible, and keep our bigs in the paint as much as possible, and when you have that type of rim protection or length at the basket, you ask your guards to be more aggressive on the perimeter,” explained Vogel. “That’s what we’ve been able to do so far, is swarm to the paint, but be a multiple effort type of team. Still spray back out and get to shooters.”

It’s been working.

“I think I can speak for all the guards, it just gives us the opportunity to gamble a little bit more and push up a little bit more, be more aggressive on the defensive end,” said Bradley. “Try to force everyone, funnel them into the basket because we have some great shot blockers and guys who can change a lot of shots.”

On this week’s Official Lakers Podcast*, my co-host Aaron Larsuel and I were talking about LeBron’s defensive impact, when our guest, Lakers radio analyst and Showtime Legend Mychal Thompson, referenced Bradley.
*You can subscribe to get the pod in your iTunes feed every Monday, plus the occasional bonus pod midweek depending on what’s going on with the team.

“You guys are overlooking Avery Bradley,” Mychal said. “The defense starts on the perimeter, and he’s been their best perimeter defender. When guys get funneled into the paint, the Lakers have the best collection of shot blockers in the league, but it all starts with Avery Bradley as we saw the other night in Dallas when he came out and got into Luka Doncic’s chest and started competing on that end right from the start to let the Mavs know they’re in for a long night.”

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Bradley did not play in Chicago after getting kicked in the knee in San Antonio, but said he feels better and is hopeful to start the Miami game after completing everything but the contact portion of Thursday’s practice.

While he’s feeling good about the team’s start on defense, he sees plenty of room for growth on the other end.

“We’re not used to each other yet,” said Bradley. “We’re still learning how to play off each other. Kuzma just came back, he’s an amazing scorer, he’s still learning (what) opportunities he can have to not only make plays for himself on the offensive end but others as well.”

Indeed, Kuzma just got back – and went for 11 points in the 4th Q in Chicago – and LeBron and AD are still learning the best ways to utilize one another’s copious offensive skills. The shots have yet to fall on the perimeter, but it hasn’t much mattered so far.

After all, when you play the type of defense we’ve seen through seven games, the wins come along.

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