Opening night in the NBA is a window. We see at a distance how some recent acquisitions might fare with their new teams, gauge contenders on first glance and ogle the potential of some player or another. This year also offered a glimpse into a spectacle of a different sort: the 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers, in all their glory, botching defensive sequence after defensive sequence.
This much was to be expected, especially in an opening matchup against the Rockets, one of the better offensive teams in the league. L.A. was outmatched against Houston -- perhaps hopelessly so. Yet their individual matchup veiled the much larger question that looms over the Lakers' season...
Just how miserable might this defense be?
The root of that inquiry has less to do with our first look at the Laker turnstile than the setup of this team in concept. Kobe Bryant actively caused defensive problems for his team last time he was in the lineup. Now he's back, only older and bearing the scars of multiple major injuries. Bryant will push himself to carry this team offensively in a way that does his already sloppy defense on favors, and his compulsion to go far out of his way to gamble for steals has not yet been curbed. Alongside him on the perimeter to start the season are Jeremy Lin, Wesley Johnson, Ronnie Price and rookie Jordan Clarkson, all liabilities in their own way. The best that can be said of their collective defense is that they try -- perhaps more credit than can be given to the sidelined Nick Young.
On the back line are a collection of cast-offs, not one of which has the build to defend bigger post threats nor the chops to protect the rim. Jordan Hill is energetic, but too often loses track of plays as they progress. Carlos Boozer's best defensive skills are pointing and yelling. Robert Sacre has yet to redeem his size for any consistent defensive value and Ryan Kelly is a walking net-negative for his lack of lateral mobility and shortcomings in influencing shots. Whatever defensive potential Julius Randle had is now tabled by the unfortunate injury suffered in his debut. All of which leaves Ed Davis as this roster's lone player of any established defensive value.
To surround a single quality defender so fully with defensive incompetence will breed disaster. There is no mystery in whether the Laker defense will be bad -- only in whether it might be historically so. It's been years since any NBA team made a run at posting the worst defensive efficiency in history. The 1990-91 Nuggets currently hold the honor with 114.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. Last season's 30th-ranked Bucks, by contrast, rank 48th all-time with a mere 111.7 points allowed. It would take some doing for the Lakers to slump their way into being the worst defense ever, though at this point their potential to put up a decent challenge cannot be ignored.
Their credentials for misery come in the intersection of awful individual defenders. Every team in the league employs lacking defenders of some sort. There are plenty in the league who justify their roster spot and salary to other means, and so long as a rotation can remain balanced a single poor defender makes for an acceptable burden. When one lacking defender is working alongside four more, however, their weaknesses compound in a way that allows for truly awful performance. Too often we think of defense as a proposition of the individual: Stopping your man, blocking a shot, standing your ground. NBA-level strategy is too rich for that, as every possession involves exchanges that require the coordination of multiple players. Pick-and-rolls must be navigated. Off-ball screens must be handled cleanly. Routes to the rim need be blocked off and easy passes prevented. The best defenses in the league take intuitive, athletic players and have them pound those nuances until they become instinct.
The Lakers have neither the personnel to offer a constructive baseline nor a coach capable of redeeming basement-level defensive talent. Lin's problems in getting around screens will be overlaid with Boozer's slow feet. Hill's shortcomings in defending the post will be accentuated by a perimeter cast all too eager to help and leave shooters open in the process. Bryant will either demand to guard top perimeter opponents and wear down or cede the responsibility to his wing counterparts and watch them flounder. There are no real options for the Lakers, for whom defensive adequacy would register as a genuine miracle.
This is a team that will struggle to keep up on the perimeter, doesn't seem to understand the value of the three-pointer and lacks the kind of interior presence that might make life simpler. They also field a roster so light on rebounding that many defensive possessions will drag on until a basket is surrendered. L.A. was the single worst defensive rebounding team in the league last season and over the summer saw its two most effective defensive rebounders (Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman) leave in free agency. Those positioned to fill their minutes rate either similarly or far worse (the seven-foot Sacre, for example, rebounded as well as small forward Caron Butler last season), especially now that Randle will be out of the rotation for the foreseeable future.
It speaks volumes about the Laker lineup that the loss of a rookie power forward could be a terrible omen. Without Randle, this team is without hope. There is no player left in the Lakers' midst who might surprise defensively, only those who have proven over multiple seasons on several different teams that they project a negative defensive influence. Young's eventual return should only make the team defense that much worse, and a brewing sense of discontent won't much help the Lakers' coordination. The playoffs are an impossibility. Yet if everything breaks just so for L.A., they could just make history.
Statistical support for this post courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.