TOWER OF TERROR: VOGEL BUILDING A DAUNTING DEFENSE
In the spirit of the Halloween holiday, think of it in terms of your typical slasher flick: You’re out there doing what you do, living your normal life … until someone won’t let you go about your business anymore.
The forces against you actually are not just aggressive; they are maniacally intent on stopping you. You go from moving forward with that carefree air to staggering backward in utter confusion and fear. Who knows what or where is safe anymore? Before you know it, you’re stumbling around—and having to backpedal into playing your own sort of defense.
The Lakers’ daunting defense has been that haunting many times already this season. The Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday went nearly eight minutes of game time without a single field goal. That dominance is exactly what Frank Vogel, with his history of passion and precision with defensive teaching, is hellbent on building to support LeBron James and Anthony Davis in their first season together.
“That’s going to be our DNA,” James said of the defense early in training camp. “Coach Vogel has stressed that, the coaching staff has stressed that, and that’s what we want to do. That’s going to be our mark.”
It might sound ludicrous that a team with the great offensive talents of James and Davis could be marked by its defense, but both superstars have been noticeably present at that end of the floor so far. Davis is leading the league in blocks and in the top five in rebounds. Besides the occasional mind-blowing chase-down block, James’ work has been more subtle—communication in getting teammates in the proper spots for stops (including himself for drawing charges), plus diligent ball denial.
If you stop and think about it, a team with the great offensive talents of James and Davis is not going to stub its toes on offense anyway. Make this is a great defensive team … and look out. We can bank on James’ unselfishness and Davis’ hunger for a title to be primary elements in the team’s identity all season long, but there is no question that Vogel’s defensive imprint can be right up there with those qualities. For all the clamor and speculation that James and Davis are both MVP candidates if the Lakers win, Vogel is sure to get NBA Coach of the Year votes if this unusually sized, inside-out defense rises into a tower of terror this season.
“We just have to make sure we’re a great defensive team as a group,” Avery Bradley said, “and that’s what’s going to make us a great team.”
During one of the Lakers’ early scrimmages this season, Vogel asked defensive players lined up along the paint and awaiting JaVale McGee’s free-throw attempt to “try to guard the free throw without coming into the lane.”
Befuddled looks on faces were followed by some awkward and pretty pointless hand-waving. There was even a hard box-out of McGee at the foul line after he had comfortably let go his shot. It was hard to know what to do.
Duh. There is no defense against a free throw.
“The moral of the story,” Vogel told the players. “Don’t foul.”
Vogel has a lot of messages about defense, and he has found a lot of creative ways to get those messages across. Sometimes the messages have been direct, too.
“We don’t want to give up free throws,” Vogel said. “Those are mistakes.”
To be clear, Vogel is expecting the Lakers to be an exceptionally active and physical defensive team—just up to the brink of fouling. On the very first day of training camp, Vogel said: “You’re coming to play the L.A. Lakers, you’re going to get hit. You’re going to get smashed in the mouth.” If the Lakers are going to keep scorers off their favorite spots and command the glass for rebounds, the other team is naturally going to feel their force.
That is why Vogel blamed the Lakers’ lone loss this season on their second-quarter defensive lapse. For the oft-easy-going Vogel, his postgame comments after losing to the Clippers on opening night were tinged with anger.
“I didn’t like anything about our defense in the second quarter,” he said. “We weren’t good enough on the ball. We weren’t good enough with our help. So that quarter probably cost us the game.”
The Lakers have been much better since. The effort has been more consistent, for one. And Vogel’s “play to exhaustion” mantra should work even better now that Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo are returning from injuries to give the team even more depth for substituting.
The cohesion on defense will improve with more experience together, too. But this group’s veteran stability and focus on winning have helped everyone heed Vogel’s directives.
“I knew when this team was assembled, we started to get close right away,” James said. “We all discussed what we wanted to do this season. Our minicamp in Vegas was great, and we just carried that on. We’re a very close-knit team, even as early as it is in the season, and we’re going to continue to build that trust not only on the floor but off the floor. It will help us be even more dynamic.”
The Lakers weren’t bad on defense last season. The athletic ability of their young players led to a 13th overall finish in defensive rating, but those same players also struggled to execute at key times when defensive stops were imperative.
That has been a common thread in the league for years and years: Young teams don’t defend well enough to win consistently, and the Lakers’ defensive metrics in clutch moments last season supported that idea.
The Lakers’ victory Tuesday was totally different. The team had some lackadaisical moments in the first half of a close game before dropping an absolute hammer on Memphis to seize control, support Davis’ offensive excellence and make it a blowout.
Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, coach of his own young team this season, said repeatedly: “Credit to them,” meaning the Lakers and their defense.
“They picked up their defensive intensity,” Jenkins said. “We got away from really trusting our offense, and I think we forced some stuff.”
In other words, a walk in the park turned into a panic-attack horror movie real fast. “It all started with our defense,” James said.
Vogel’s past Indiana Pacers defenses were well regarded in league circles for consistently getting those clutch stops, sticking with the basics they were taught while remaining as physical as possible in the moments referees might allow a little more to go, either late in games or because of momentum sways. Vogel coached two top-ranked defenses during his time in Indiana.
He aspires for the Lakers to be the best now, and the way he phrases it shows that he takes responsibility for pushing them there.
“There’s no doubt we can be,” Vogel said. “But it’s going to be on me to keep them drilled and prepared with the game plans. It’s going to be on them to commit and continue the care factor through 82 games.”
The near-shutout stretch against Memphis—when a 65-59 deficit turned into a 88-67 lead with the Grizzlies managing just two free throws in that time—lifted the Lakers to fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency. It’s too early to draw a lot of conclusions from the stats, but the immediate challenge is still stay in that upper tier as the Lakers go on the road for the next three games.
W hat figures to help the Lakers now and throughout this season is that their defense is a little more traditional than most, which means it’s a little unconventional in the modern NBA. Offenses are accustomed to a common style of risk-averse defense in which screens are easily switched and the perimeter is more about contesting the shot than challenging the dribble.
No defense today can just camp out inside with how many three-point shooters spread the floor, but with the shot-blocking capability of Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have more rim protection than usual. And Vogel wants whoever is guarding the ball to be more aggressive in taking that ball, trusting the help is there from behind. The reality is also that it’s fundamentally easier to bring outstanding defensive intensity and energy when you know Davis and James are generating most of the offense.
Therefore, go be scary on defense. Don’t just play it safe.
That kind of attack mentality is awfully exciting for someone such as Bradley, who with James running the offense can unleash the ultimate defensive dog from within.
“I’ll be able to show everyone that I’m one of the best on-guard defenders in the NBA, if not the best,” Bradley said.
In a way, it’s a similar freedom for Vogel, who doesn’t have to micro-manage the offense. He trusts James and Rondo to call a lot of plays for a group that will have the majority of its shots created by James and Davis. He expects the Lakers, with James setting that tone, will inherently thrive with “extremely selfless offense.”
Vogel can focus more on this intimidating defense he is committed to building to a championship caliber. He wants to make Lakers opponents feel like they are constantly playing “uphill.” And he knows how important it is that he get that job done.
“How many wins we put in the win column,” Vogel said, “is going to be directly tied to how well we come together on the defensive end.”
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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