Via AllinOne Sports
Last season, the Los Angeles Lakers ranked last in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions at a ghastly 109.3. In terms of actual opponents’ points per game, the Lakers were only better than the Philadelphia 76ers and the Pheonix Suns who were about a half a point worse than the Lakers at 106.9 points allowed per game. All of this was “accomplished” under former head coach Byron Scott who prided himself on a tough defensive mindset and claimed multiple times that he was going to improve the Lakers’ porous defense. While some of the blame can be put at the feet of Scott, the Lakers also did not have the personnel to be a good defensive team. The only players capable of being good defenders were Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown, and Roy Hibbert. Nance performed well defensively in comparison to his teammates, but Brown never got much time on the floor and Hibbert was extremely underwhelming. As the team now transitions out of the Kobe Bryant era and into the future being built around Luke Walton and his exciting young core, the front office is doing a much better job of creating a team that can succeed defensively. With a better head coach and a stronger foundation in place on the less glamorous end of the floor, improved performance on defense is something Laker fans should be looking forward to in the near future.
This offseason, the Lakers had the most cap space in the league at about $65 million. Rather than spending that money on top tier free agents, the team went after second and third tier players that would complement the team’s young core. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov got a combined $136 million from the Lakers, and while neither of them will turn the purple and gold into Western Conference contenders by themselves, both players have the ability to significantly improve the team’s defense. Deng has been a defensive stopper at small forward throughout his career and even though he is beginning to slow down at 31 years old, he showed that he can also be a very effective defender when playing as a stretch four. Mozgov may not be an upper echelon defensive center like players such as DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside, but Mozgov is a solid defender that was called the “best verticality guy in the league” by his former head coach Tyronn Lue. While Deng and Mozgov’s contracts may be overpaid, both players have a good track record of a level of defense that will be a significant upgrade on the players they are replacing in L.A.
Combined with the team’s free agent acquisitions, the Lakers have drafted a number of players that have good upside defensively. Jordan Clarkson has struggled on the defensive end throughout his brief career, but at 6’5” with a 6’8” wingspan, the Missouri product has the length to be a disruptive wing defender. Plus, this offseason he has put in a lot of work towards improving his defense both in the weight room and the film room. The same can be said of Brown, a second-year small forward who showed solid defensive potential in the Las Vegas summer league. Brown was drafted out of Stanford as a player with “3 and D” potential written all over him, and with the work he has put in towards adding muscle to combat stronger wing players, he has all the physical tools to make a big step forward on that end of the floor if he can crack the rotation consistently (much of that is reliant on how much he improves his jump shot). Larry Nance Jr. is another player entering his second year that has the physical attributes to be an above average defender in the NBA. Last season Nance was arguably the Lakers best defender, and at only 23 years old, he still has potential that is yet to be unlocked.
While each of those three players are from past drafts, the Lakers also added a couple prospects in the 2016 draft that look poised to be good defenders at the next level. Brandon Ingram, the team’s number two overall pick, looks like a Kevin Durant doppelganger with his slight frame and tremendous 7’3” wingspan. Although he does not have the strength yet on his slight 196 lb. frame, his length will instantly become a weapon he can use to challenge shots against just about any player on the floor. As he matures and begins to fill out and add muscle to his length, Ingram has the potential to be a very good wing defender even if he never becomes big enough to guard bigger players on the post. The more intriguing defensive prospect drafted by the Lakers this past June though is young center Ivica Zubac. Standing at 7’1” and a sturdy 260 pounds with a huge 7’4” wingspan, Zubac is an excellent rim protector that averaged 2.6 blocks per game in this season’s Las Vegas Summer League. Zubac’s defensive aptitude has been compared to that of Marc Gasol who has earned an NBA defensive player of the year award as well as a second team all NBA defensive team honor. Zubac may still be raw at only 19 years old, but his defensive potential is obvious. As he continues to work with the Lakers’ coaching staff to improve the rest of his game, the Lakers may be looking at their defensive anchor of the future.
Between free agent acquisitions and clever draft picks, the Lakers are beginning to build a strong defensive core. In contrast to years past where the Lakers have had nobody that could qualify as a good defensive player, the team could now have upwards of six this season if some of the younger players take another step forward. In order to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, the Lakers must be competent defensively and the team is starting to build towards that goal. The purple and gold may still be a below average defensive team in 2016-17, but rather than placing in the upper 20s, a realistic goal would be to rank in the range of 20-25 in team defensive efficiency. Immediate results may not be there this season, but for a team that is built around youth, small steps forward can be expected. For the first time in a few seasons, the Lakers have the defensive talent to be a good team on both ends of the floor in the near future. The Lakers have a good mix of young and more experienced options to improve the team’s defensive performance and as those two components work to build off each other, Laker fans should be very optimistic about the defensive potential of the roster in the coming seasons.
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