What's wrong with the L.A. Lakers?
We seem to ask the question once or twice a month, when the two-time defensing NBA champs go off and get blown out at home by the Bucks, or drop a game to the Kings, or get embarrassed by the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics on national television. The answers rise to some level of public consciousness, the Lakers go on a winning binge and we repeat the drama in a few weeks. It's become a sport within the sport.
This time, the defense takes blame.
In particular, the Lakers' consistency on that end of the floor leaves something to be desired. Data shows that the Lakers are less consistent in each key defensive factor than they were a year ago. So not only has the team's great shot defense slid a bit, and its defensive rebounding fallen off the table. But increased volatility has increasingly put L.A. behind the eight ball against opponents good and bad alike.
The team's total defense -- ranked No. 4 in the NBA a year ago -- has fallen off this year, ranked No. 10 through 48 games. L.A.'s shot defense, No. 6 last season, has fallen slightly to No. 9. Its turnover creation (always mediocre) and reluctance to foul (always superlative) has maintained, but the team's defensive rebounding has been abominable. The Lakers ranked No. 9 last season, rebounding 74.4 percent of all opponent misses. This year, L.A. is No. 21, rebounding 72.6 percent of opportunities.
But beyond these season-level numbers, a look at the team's game-to-game performance tells a tale of an unfocused team that allows opponents to stay in games and pull out big leads simply because the Lakers aren't at their best every time out. The standard deviations on opponents' total offensive performance, shooting and offensive rebounding have all grown substantially this season, indicating that while the Lakers can crank the screws, they don't do so as consistently as last season.
No one Laker can be blamed for the rebounding slide -- the defensive rebounding percentages of both Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol have slid a bit, but the injury to Andrew Bynum hardly affected things because Odom and Gasol are superior defensive rebounders anyway. Ron Artest has fallen off a bit on the boards, but he was already irrelevant in that sector. (He was a fantastic rebounder for exactly one season as a King, a season in which Reggie Theus demanded his rebound to make up for having a frontcourt of Brad Miller and Mikki Moore. Artest has since given up that part of his game.)
There's a clear blame target for the Lakers' shot defense slide, though: the point guard position. That means Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, who have each seen opposing point guards shoot 51.4 percent (effective field goal percentage) against them. Last season, the Lakers allowed opposing PGs to shoot 48.5 percent. That's a massive regression, and in case you forgot, the West is chock full of incredible point guards.
Artest has taken much of the flak this season, but the team's defense against shooting guards and small forwards -- the positions Ron-Ron usually defends, along with Kobe -- has improved; the Lakers have also improved their center defense, even with Bynum missing much of the season's first half. In terms of opponent shooting, all signs point to Fisher and Blake not doing well enough to keep the Lakers great.
Is there any hope of L.A. tightening that up before a gauntlet that could include Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and/or Tony Parker in the playoffs, and Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose or Mario F'n Chalmers in the Finals? It looks particularly troubling this year.