Stat of the Week: 120.5 (Defensive Rating for the Lakers, a statistic that estimates how many points an opposing team will score in 100 possessions. Lakers are last in the NBA.)
The 2014-15 season was supposed to be the start of a turnaround for the Lakers. Mike D'Antoni skipped town after not getting a multi-year extension, and although Pau Gasol was gone with him, there were a few nice additions to the team. Jeremy Lin, acquired because the Rockets mistakenly thought Chris Bosh was on his way to Houston, the always undervalued Ed Davis, and 7th overall pick Julius Randle all looked like great adds on paper. Nick Young and Jordan Hill, the lone bright spots from the 2013 team, were returning (on surprisingly large extensions) and would have a chance to finally play on a decent team. This team should have been better than the 2013 team, and perhaps even compete for the 8th seed in the West. To put it mildly, things haven't turned out that way.
The Lakers have started their season 0-5, hemorrhaging 116 points a game, worst in the league by a mile. Kobe looks exactly like he did in his terrific 2012 campaign. Unfortunately, that also means that like the 2012 campaign, Kobe is spending every game forced to play hero-ball in order to give an overmatched team a shot at winning. Jeremy Lin is missing everything he puts up (shooting 37 percent from the field), turning the ball over three and a half times a game, and offers no defensive pressure whatsoever against ball handlers. Carlos Boozer, signed after Chicago rid themselves of him and his $15 million cap hit through the amnesty provision, looks overmatched or unmotivated on every defensive possession. Jordan Hill has done what he can with a limited offensive repertoire and energetic defense, but really has no business playing 30 minutes a game. No one outside of Kobe can create any space on offensive possessions, and opposing offenses seem to have no trouble collapsing the defense on every trip down the court.
This was painfully obvious in the fourth quarter of the Lakers loss to the Suns on Tuesday. Somehow, the score was very close coming down the stretch. On the Lakers last five possessions Kobe had to fight through a double team to get his shot off, and although he managed to score four times on contested jumpers, there was no semblance of an actual offense. But on the other side of the floor, the Suns were able to create space in the Lakers defense with simple passing and off-ball movement, leading to two wide open threes that ended up clinching the game. If you can't create space on five straight offensive possessions and your defense can't stop the same play call five times in a row, something has got to give. And the Lakers first order of business needs to be the defense.
The stats behind the Lakers abominable defense are shocking. Not only are the Lakers last in team defensive rating (120.5), the seven players with the worst individual defensive ratings in the league all belong to the Lakers! Starters Jeremy Lin, Wesley Johnson, and Carlos Boozer have the fourth, sixth, and seventh worst defensive ratings respectively. Defensive rating is team dependent, so this doesn't mean they are literally seven of the worst defenders of the league, but it's telling that Kobe Bryant and Jordan Hill, whose numbers should also be brought down by the team, have significantly better ratings than these other starters
Coach Byron Scott has said all the right things about trying to create a blue-collar, hard-nosed defense that isn't afraid to get physical. That's what every fan base wants to hear, but the authenticity of that sentiment is up for debate when defensive sieves like Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer are still starting with far better defensive options sit behind them. A coach should be confident in himself and his scheme, but thinking he can turn these life-long one-way (or no-way) players into defensive stalwarts like you'll find on the Pacers or Bulls is bordering on lunacy. The roster is thin and not spilling over with talent, so no one should be expecting a playoff push, but if Byron Scott wants to be taken seriously, Ronnie Price and Ed Davis should be in the starting rotation tomorrow. Those two have the lowest Defensive Rating's on the team (119 and 114 respectively). Price is solid fundamentally on defense and can play caretaker as point guard, while Ed Davis is the athletic shot-blocker the Lakers so desperately need instead of Boozer's slow and low to the ground style of defense.
Clearly fan expectations were too high coming into the season, and injuries to Nick Young and Steve Nash (who shouldn't have been counted on for much anyways) haven't helped the case at all. But the Lakers owe it to Kobe and the fans to keep competing, and this abominable defense won't change if player roles remain static. Hopefully Byron Scott and the rest of the Lakers staff aren't too proud to realize it.