Much was made (including by yours truly) in the run-up to the 2019-20 NBA season about the Los Angeles Lakers’ lack of depth. Yes, they had LeBron James, one of the three greatest players ever, who remains one of the top five players in the league when healthy. And yes, they added Anthony Davis, capable of being a top-five player in the league when healthy. Two true superstars is a brilliant start.
But what about the rest of the roster?
The Lakers traded three useful young players with upside (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and even Josh Hart) to get Davis, and stripped the shelves bare of draft picks to use in win-now trades. Kyle Kuzma was the only prospect from the Lakers’ long winter remaining, and he plays the same position James should play and Davis prefers to play.
LA did win the Danny Green sweepstakes, but other free agent pick-ups were bargain-bin level, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Jared Dudley making up the best case rotation.
The rest of the rotation looked as bad as the superstar duo looked good.
But what we ignored in this assessment of the Lakers as a flawed stew too reliant on the meat and potatoes with too little invested in the other flavors is that those other flavors and the meat and potatoes can all play defense really well, apparently. And the chef, Frank Vogel, is putting the team in a defensive position to win every night.
The Lakers currently have the No. 1 defense in the league, which is not something anyone saw coming. LA ranked No. 13 in defense last year. The major differences: the additions of Green, Davis, and Howard, and the replacement of Luke Walton with Vogel. James is also defending as consistently as we haven’t seen in years. He’s motivated to bring the Lakers to the top of the table and keeping them there. He looks motivated to prove that his championship-winning days aren’t over yet.
The Lakers’ defense has been a revelation, and covers up the wonky offensive roles of ... well, everyone. James has been the de facto point guard all season, and Davis is bouncing between any number of roles depending on the needs of the team on a given possession. The lack of shooting is quite apparent: the Lakers are 28th in the three-point rate and 25th in three-point shooting percentage. That’s balanced by excellent shooting on twos, owing to Davis and James’ mastery in the key. The team hasn’t drawn many fouls this season (25th in free throw rate) — this is like the bizarro Rockets: low threes, low free throws, elite defense.
Focusing on defense has long been the cheapest way to build. If you have a superstar who is a top-flight defender — this is something Davis has always appeared capable of — you can typically build an elite defense around them without totally breaking the bank. A 90th percentile defender is almost always substantially cheaper than a 90th percentile offensive player. This is a key to understanding how the Spurs built two decades of dominance around Tim Duncan’s career: with an anchor like that and a couple of great supplemental scorers, the front office targeted affordable but talented defenders. That was the blueprint.
The Lakers’ blueprint is a lot like that of the repeat Heat champions from earlier in James’ career. Those Miami teams had three stars, but two who qualified as potentially top-five players. Chris Bosh was a perennial all-star, but was never taken seriously as an MVP candidate. James and Dwyane Wade were. The Heat had those three and a really exceptional defense. That was the blueprint. You have stars who can score at will. Everyone else (and the stars themselves) need to defend. Pile up the wins from there.
Arguably, the most recent iteration of the Warriors, with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, follows this blueprint, albeit with two high-level all-stars next to them. The current Clippers happen to have their two superstars as two of the very best defenders in the NBA, so there’s a need for a little more offense in the supporting cast, which they have in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. But the general plan fits: superstars plus defense equals an elite team.
We knew the Lakers had the superstar thing covered. The defense is a surprise, and it’s helping to fuel a shockingly good start for Los Angeles.