Once the Los Angeles Lakers hired Frank Vogel as their head coach, it was clear which side of the ball would be critical: defense. As early as training camp, LeBron James had stated, “That’s going to be our DNA…that’s going to be our mark.”
Almost ten games into the 2019-2020 season, the Lakers sit atop the Western Conference with a 7-2 record, their defensive rating ranking 1st in the entire league. While Anthony Davis has been spectacular and LeBron more engaged on defense, there have been a few surprise contributors that have shaped the defensive identity of this squad.
The first of these surprise contributors on the defensive end has been Avery Bradley. Before the season began, Bradley boldly mentioned, “I’ll be able to show everyone that I’m one of the best on-guard defenders in the NBA, if not the best.”
Having been inserted into the starting lineup, Bradley has been nothing short of one of the best defenders in the league. He ranks 4th in the entire league in defensive rating at 93.7 (minimum 25 mins/game & more than one game played), behind Will Barton, Joel Embiid, and Al Horford.
On most nights, Bradley has tasked himself with guarding the opposing team’s best player or quickest guard. As a result of his sharp defensive instincts and quick hands, opponents are shooting only 34.3% when guarded by Bradley; some don’t even get a shot off:
On top of having great defensive instincts, Bradley is a high IQ player on that end of the floor. Having understood that the Lakers’ interior defense is protected by the likes of “big men” like AD, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee, Bradley often hounds the opposing players aggressively, funneling them into the paint:
Bradley has been an absolutely critical cog in the Lakers’ defense; the team’s defensive rating with him on the court (93.7) is drastically lower than when he is off the court (101.1). There’s no doubt that for the team to sustain its defensive character, it will continue to require Bradley to be a pest and menace on that end of the floor.
The second surprise contributor on the defensive end has been Dwight Howard. Despite entering the season with no guarantee to stick on the Laker roster and a ton to prove, Howard has provided just what the Lakers asked for when they picked him up: rebounding and rim protection.
Although the Lakers have only played nine games, Howard has heavily impacted multiple games defensively with his activity, energy, and athleticism. His shot-blocking and timing on those blocks still remain elite:
Having had a terrible first stint in Los Angeles, Howard has looked more serious and motivated both on and off the court. His per 36 averages of 13.1 RPG and 2.9 BPG are impressive and both rank in the league’s top ten (min. 150 minutes). In addition, he has had some huge games already for the Purple and Gold against Charlotte (16 PTS, 10 REBS, 4 BLKS) and San Antonio (14 PTS, 13 REBS, 2 BLKS), swinging the momentum of those games with his focus on the defensive end.
Even in games where Howard is not blocking shots, he uses his defensive IQ to put himself in the perfect positions as a help-side defender and ultimate rim protector, continuing to alter shots that don’t necessarily get entrenched in the box scores:
Howard has even surpassed JaVale in the rotation, earning meaningful minutes as an additional rim protector next to AD. There’s no question that for the Lakers to be a defensive wall, the team needs Howard to be everything and more that he has been so far.
Alas, we save the best for last, Alex Caruso. He has become a fan favorite in LA, and has certainly cemented a place in the rotation with his work ethic and defensive prowess; his defensive rating of 97.3 ties him with Avery Bradley on the team.
Last year, Caruso showed that he was one of the better pick-and-roll defenders in the league, and that has carried over to this season as well. Opponents are averaging only 0.727 PPP as pick-and-roll ball handlers against Caruso, which puts him in front of notable defenders like Torrey Craig, Kawhi Leonard, Josh Richardson, and Patrick Beverley (min. 20 possessions).
Caruso has also developed a knack for drawing charges, with his defensive awareness allowing him to be in the right positions. He currently ranks 4th in the entire league for charges drawn (4). See how he realizes where the pass is going after an offensive rebound, and how quickly he slides over to take the charge:
Not only does Caruso have quick feet, but he also has quick hands and terrific defensive instincts that allow him to get into the passing lanes. His per 36 averages for deflections (4.6) and steals (2.3) both rank in the top ten in the entire league (min. 100 minutes), leading Caruso to become a spark plug off the bench on the defensive side of the ball:
It’s clear that for the Lakers to remain among the league’s top tier, the team needs players like Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso to continue to showcase their defensive talents. The world knows Anthony Davis and LeBron James will show up on the defensive end when it matters, but how about the rest?
We’ll have to wait and find out, one stop at a time.