(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Is Defense Even a Thing in the NBA?


On November 10th, the Sacramento Kings honored Armistice Day by unilaterally declaring a cease fire on the Los Angeles Lakers (#23 in defense), scoring almost 28 points less than the team’s average, and marking the first time the Lakers held a team under 100 points in a game.

All kidding aside, how can we explain this statistical anomaly? Did the Lakers suddenly learn how to play defense, or did Sacramento just have a horrible night shooting the ball? I broke down the game in detail to see how much of it was improvement by the Lakers defense and how much of it was bad Sacramento offense. Here are the six factors I found.

#1: The Tyson Chandler effect: rebounding

Having a solid backup center who can defend the paint and rebound makes a huge difference, compared to inviting opponents to an all-you-can-eat buffet of layups, offensive rebounds and second chance points.

Chandler signed with the Lakers on November 7th, and has played 3 games with the Lakers. While it’s only three games, and admittedly against weaker competition, here are the key stats since Chandler joined the Lakers compared to their first 10 games of the season (in parentheses):

Record of 3–0 (4–6)
Point differential (+6.7), projecting to a 60-win season (+.6, 43 wins)
#2 in NBA defensive efficiency (#23)
#3 in Rebounding % (#22)
#12 in Defensive Rebound % (#25)
#1 in Offensive Rebound % (#21)

Even if we eliminate the two disastrous games with Kyle Kuzma being forced to play out of position as a too-small small ball 5, the Lakers were not good:

Record of 4–4
Point differential (+1.8), projecting to a 46-win season
#24 in NBA defensive efficiency
#17 in Rebounding %
#25 in Defensive Rebound %
#13 in Offensive Rebound %

The Lakers’ improvement on the defensive boards translated into fewer second chance points for their opponents, and more opportunities for the Lakers to score in transition.

#2: The Tyson Chandler effect: rim protection

Even though the Lakers’ starter, Javale McGee, is #2 in blocked shots, the Lakers were terrible defending their rim. Chandler created a massive improvement in this area the last three games, compared to the first 10 (in parentheses):

Tied for #1 in Opponent Points in the Paint (#30)

Holy crap! That is not a typo.

For the season, Lakers opponents averaged 54.5 points in the paint (#29). With Chandler, that number dropped to 35.3.

And if we eliminate the two games where Kuzma played small ball 5, the Lakers were even worse (#30), giving up an average of 60.3 points in the paint over the eight games where they used G-League level back up centers.

#3 Bad Style Match Ups

Sacramento has a fast, young team that does a few things really well:

#1 in transition possessions, #3 in transition frequency, #3 in transition points per possession, #1 in transition points, and #2 in turnover frequency, #5 in pace, #4 in points in the paint

They’ve got a really fast point guard in De’Aaron Fox who is playing much better than he did in last year’s system that featured the corpse of Zach Randolph trying to resurrect Grit and Grind in Sacramento.

And, they’ve got some really fast big men who can run the court.

Brandon Anderson wrote more about the Kings in detail and why they looked so good against the aging and unathletic Spurs:

The problem for the Kings is that they are terrible on defense, have a bottom 10 bench (-4.0 point differential), and like to play with pace against a Lakers team that feasts off bad defenses (#2 in points in the paint) and loves to play with pace (#3).

The Lakers are also a young, athletic team with mobile big men who can defend the paint, and are very good at creating turnovers (#7 in steals per defensive play and #9 in block percentage).

The 19 Kings had 19 turnovers, which resulted in a number of Lakers fast break points that blew open a close game in the 3rd quarter.

Finally, the Lakers’ 52–38 advantage in points in the paint meant a lot of possessions where the Kings were forced to take the ball out and play half court offense, further slowing down their attack.

#4 Lonzo Ball is an underrated defender

If Fox is the motor that makes Sacramento’s offense go, Lonzo is the motor that energizes the Lakers defense and transition game. In the first quarter, Lonzo got a few defensive stops guarding Fox. Fox’s only points came off switches, where he torched Kuzma and Ingram for 3-point plays at the rim.

When Fox got a screen, Lonzo fought around it and followed over the top to prevent Fox from getting an open jump shot. On one drive, Fox tried to pass inside, but Chandler blocked a dunk attempt. On another play, Kuzma stole a pass by Fox and dunked on the other end.

Lonzo beat Fox on a mid range jump shot and got into the paint, leading to an assist on a McGee dunk. Fortunately for the Kings, Lonzo missed two wide open 3-pointers, and was taken out of the game at 4:59 in the 1st quarter, with the Lakers leading 19–10.

In the second quarter, Lonzo came back in the game with the Lakers up 38–22, but had no chance to affect the game as the Lakers made bad passes and misses shots that resulted in 3 straight Sacramento dunks and a wide open Fox 3-pointer in transition (Lonzo guarding the corner shooter, LeBron did not leave the paint to contest).

Ingram and LeBron both went into iso mode, which completely killed the Lakers’ offensive flow, resulting in more missed shots and defensive cross swithces in transition. Fox caught fire after his first 3-pointer, hitting a second one on a bad contest by Ingram, and beat Kuzma twice for a short jumper and an assist for a dunk.

The Lakers finally righted the ship with a couple of dunks of their own. In the half court, Lonzo guarded Fox on two of the last three possessions of the half, resulting in two missed three-pointers. On the one switch, Fox hit a 3-pointer over Kuzma. The half ended with the Lakers up 50–44.

In the 3rd quarter, Fox was guarded by Lonzo and missed his first shot. After that, he didn’t initiate much action, as he passed the ball to other players who had some success, as the Kings cut the Lakers lead to 53–51. After that, Fox had two turnovers (one steal by LeBron, one steal by Lonzo, who smartly disrupted the attempted alley oop pass). Fox scored on one drive to the basket, creating contact to prevent Lonzo from blocking the shot to make it a 1-point lead, followed by two Lonzo assists that built the lead back to 61–56.

Lonzo was taken out at 5:44 and never came back into the game, presumably because of his bad shooting night. Defensively, he limited Fox to 1 for 4 shooting, while Fox had 4 turnovers. Against everyone else, Fox was on fire, hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers, and 7 of 13 overall.

#5 LeBron James decided to play a little defense

I have written extensively about how the Lakers’ terrible 3-point shot defense (#20) is the result of LeBron James and the other vets not running out to contest open 3-point shooters. (Last year, they were #3.) As a matter of fact, one can pin a number of the Lakers’ early season losses due to LeBron not contesting shooters who made clutch 3-point shots at the end of close games.

In a close win against Dallas, after the Lakers’ had against blown multiple double digit leads with poor defense, LeBron admitted that he made the cardinal sin of not contesting Harrison Barnes, whose 3-pointer cut the Lakers lead to 1.

Against Sacramento, LeBron James actually played defense. I think the reason was that he was guarding his ex-Cavalier teammate Iman Shumpert.

In one game, LeBron quadrupled his defensive efforts for the season:

  • He ran out to contest 4 shots
  • He played good on-ball defense twice
  • He hustled the entire length of the court to contest an open corner 3
  • He got 1 steal, one deflection, and recovered two loose balls

The result of this effort may have inpsired Rajon Rondo, who also ran out hard to contest a corner 3-point shooter for perhaps the first time this season.

The result of their efforts, combined with the usual hustle of the young players, was a lot more defensive pressure on the Kings, who had a horrible night, missing 19 of 25 3-pointers.

While we can’t say good defense can stop good offense (see Jimmy Butler’s two games against the Lakers, compared to the rest of his season), over time we know that contested 3-point shots are missed more frequently.

#6: The Josh Hart power forward experience

Josh Hart is playing too well on both ends of the floor not to get starters minutes, but there’s a road block at the wings with LeBron, Ingram and Kuzma, to go along with a point guard and a center. Luke Walton has started to find extra minutes for Hart as a power forward, because of Hart’s strength and versatility as a defender.

So far, opposing teams identify what they assume is a mismatch, and it turns into a trap for 4–5 possessions.

In the Lakers’ win at Portland, Hart got a number of stops against Zach Collins, giving JaVale McGee some precious extra rest time.

Against Sacramento, Marvin Bagley tried to dribble as he drove to the basket, and he ended up committing 3 turnovers.

On the other end of the floor, Hart beats opponents down the floor and kills them at the rim or on open 3-pointers. Against Sacramento, Hart played 18 minutes, shot 42.8% on 3-pointers, and had 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 assists for a +/- rating of +16 (second best on the team).

Check out this fantastic video analysis by Pete Zayas of Lakers Film Room:

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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