Lakers coaches will tell you they’re not a bad defensive team, per se. In the half court, the numbers aren’t necessarily dominant, but they’re not awful, either.
What they are, they’ll say, is a horrible transition defensive team.
Looking at the Synergy numbers, it’s hard to argue the point. The Lakers are the league’s 11th ranked half court defense measured by points-per-play at .886. Historically, 11th won’t win a title, but it’s also not a figure leaving the Lakers defense open to the sort of mocking and derision received from fans and media on a near-hourly basis. In transition, though, the Lakers are a total disaster. They rank 24th, allowing 1.167 points per play. Compounding the problem: No team in the NBA has been put in transition more than L.A., who have faced 903 such possessions, over 30 more than the next closest team (Sacramento). Even taking pace considerations away, a league-leading 14.4 percent of their defensive possessions come in transition.
Not surprisingly, then, no team in the NBA has allowed more transition points, at 1,054. Even the slowest teams in the league run on the Lakers, because why wouldn’t they?
Compounding the problem, the Lakers don’t compensate with easy points at the other end. Their half-court offense is the league’s sixth best (.92 ppp), but L.A. is 23rd in transition points (1.086) and have the fifth lowest percentage of transition plays, at 11 percent. So when Kobe Bryant says things like “Transition defense is the most important thing,” as he did following Sunday’s win over Atlanta, he’s not off base.
Particularly Tuesday in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are the NBA’s most efficient transition offense, at 1.235 points per play. Asked what needs to happen for the Lakers to win, he talked about limiting catch-and-shoots for Kevin Durant and crowding Russell Westbrook, but in the end came back to the same thing. “Ultimately, it’s transition defense. If we can keep them in the half court, we give ourselves a much better opportunity,” he said. “We just have got to get back. Almost not go for offensive rebounds at all. Just get back in transition, and try to stop those break points.”
(Maybe the Lakers can run some sort of reverse cherry-pick strategy, in which only three players cross mid-court into the offensive zone, because I’m fairly sure OKC’s pre-game whiteboard strategy will be something akin to “Release the hounds!”)
Which gets to the crux of the problem. The coaches and players aren’t lying when they say the Lakers are a pretty good half court team, defensively. Except it it’s a distinction without much practical difference if they can’t force teams into half court sets, and they’re still not doing it nearly enough.