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The Lakers' Defensive Demise

Paolo Uggetti |
December 5, 2014 | 2:02 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

When the Lakers hired Byron Scott earlier this summer, the move made some sense on the surface. What better way to erase the struggles of the Mike D’Antoni-led Laker teams that brought nothing but disappointment to the demanding fan base than by appealing to the Laker faithful with an old “Showtime” star?

Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott may be getting along, but their team's performance on defense is struggling. (@BostonGlobe/Twitter)
Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott may be getting along, but their team's performance on defense is struggling. (@BostonGlobe/Twitter)

The support for Scott was widespread and though a few wondered if the Lakers could nab a bigger name, to a franchise that desperately needed it, the hiring brought some sort of stability.

Or maybe not.

Over a month into the NBA season, as the small-sample size caveats begin to fade away and the trends start to fabricate, early observations about teams’ strengths and weaknesses can now have substance and validity.

To the Lakers’ demise that harsh reality is that of their incompetence. And that glaring weakness is that of their defense.

Much has been made about the counterproductive show Kobe Bryant is conducting on the hardwood and how that is affecting the Lakers’ offense. The seemingly uncooperative, disjointed play that the Lakers have come to embody so far is not all Bryant’s fault, but taking over 22 shots a game in an attempt to save an untalented squad is a losing battle. Couple that with the fact that the Lakers have been demonstratively better on defense with the 6-time All-Star off the floor, and you get a vitriol of criticism thrown Kobe’s way. 

But the reality is that the biggest detriment to any slim hope this franchise had of scratching contention in the death gauntlet of the Western Conference is their defense. Or lack thereof, to be more precise.

Only one team in the NBA is allowing more than 110 points per game, and no, it’s not the one-win 76ers, nor is it the recently humiliated Timberwolves. It’s the Lakers.

The team with the worst defensive rating in the league yielding an awful 112.4 points per 100 possessions? The Lakers.

According to basketball-reference.com and their own formula for defensive efficiency, if this pace continues, it would end up being the worst defensive rating by a team ever since data allowed for the statistic to be kept track of in 1980.

Here’s where a retrospective look at the Scott hire becomes incredibly ironic and almost comedic.

When Scott was hired after the umpteenth interview, he imparted some of the mantra and game plan that he hoped to introduce at Staples Center and even went as far as to speak of it in the frame of winning an NBA championship.

Scott affirmed the media and the fan base of his belief in the ever-living cliché that defense won championships and was vocal about the focus he was going to devote to that side of the floor.

“I think that’s the first thing we got to get better at, the defensive part of basketball ” he said. “You got to work on that every day, and it has to be a team’s identity and a staple.”

So far, the whereabouts of that defensive identity are about as unknown as Carmen Sandiego’s, while the only apparent “staple” in their game is allowing their opponents to score over 100 points; a near-formality that has occurred in 13 out of 17 games so far.

According to an ESPN article where the above quotes can be found, Scott is said to have “promised to bring a defensive focus back to the Lakers as they ranked 29th in the league in opponents’ points per game (109.2) and 28th in defensive efficiency allowing 107.9 points per 100 possessions.”

Those numbers under D’Antoni’s final regime couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Well, as the aforementioned statistics show, they did get worse. The Lakers now rank 30th (dead last) in opponents’ points per game (111.1) and 30th in defensive efficiency (112.4 points per 100 possessions).

At the time nearly everyone from the fans at Staples to Magic Johnson wanted D’antoni out as head coach, and though the reality is that a change of the guard was due no matter what, Scott has not come in and by any means fixed what D’antoni was most criticized for: The defense.

Numbers aside, this case may still be even worse. D’antoni at least acknowledged his disinterest for the defensive aspect of the game. Scott, on the other hand, was hailed as a “defensive kind of genius” by Lakers legend James Worthy when the hire became official, but has done nothing, now or before, to even spark hope that that may in fact be an accurate statement. 

I’m sure Worthy is hoping nobody remembers that lauding description now.

Like in any circumstance, the caveats abound. The Lakers lost Pau Gasol to free agency and their roster composition this year, barring the Kobe return, is—to put it kindly—below average.

But Gasol is not exactly a defensive stopper, and the rest of the roster, though poor, is not an excuse for a coach who was thought to bring in a much-needed defensive mindset, and instead has reaped potentially record-breaking awfulness.

It seems like Scott was simply talking the talk, and for those who believed him, the only necessary facts needed to disprove his claim lay in his track record. As the Cleveland Cavaliers coach from 2010-2013, Scott led—or rather misled—the Cavaliers to three straight years of ranking in the bottom five in the league for defensive efficiency.

So, if you believed that Scott was indeed a  “defensive kind of genius”, well, don’t hold your breath.

All this traces back to the larger scheme of things and the mindset that keeps behooving and harming this franchise in its most recent years.

In an effort to abruptly and hastily fix things, they’ve eradicated who they believed to be unfit for the job for someone who simply sweetens their ear with talks of the “Showtime” Lakers, supposedly great defensive mindsets, and of knowing how to win in the Laker colors. Whatever that means.

Moreover, this problem goes deeper than Mike D’antoni and his maligned tenure as head coach of the purple and gold. Remember Dwight Howard? The center that many Lakers fans did not want and hate to this day 

Turns out Howard might not be too shabby at this defense thing, as his defensive efficiency ranks second-best among all players who have played at least 15 minutes per game in the league. 

Given that the Lakers are one of the three worst teams in allowing points inside the paint, where Howard usually resides, they could sure a defensive stopper in the painted area like him nowadays.

It’s clear that the roster is not the only thing that’s flawed in Laker Land right now. From Kobe’s shooting frenzy, to the front-office mindset, to the historically bad defense and to the questionable decisions, don’t be surprised if the Lakers’ Christmas wish is a time machine.

Until then, they will keep looking for that defensive identity, wherever it might be.

Reach Staff Reporter Paolo Uggetti here or follow him on Twitter. 




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