Seven games of defense: Inside the numbers

From Ed Fugate of Arcadia, CA:

"Am I the only one getting a bad sense of deja vu when it comes to the Lakers good showing so far? I mean, doesn't this seem all too familiar to the 2007-2008 season which ended so badly to the original "Big 3"? An unstoppable offense, a so-so defense, a new big 3 in the east relying on defense, a hyped-up bench, etc? Or am I just being paranoid?"

While Ed's note found its way into our inbox before Sunday's defense-rich demolition of Portland -- the Blazers scored only 36 points on 36 percent shooting in the first half -- his concern is a common one among fans through L.A.'s first seven games. Particularly after Friday's underwhelming effort against Toronto, in which the Lakers opened up the paint like a red carpet and couldn't have been outrebounded more handily had I been playing power forward.

You're not alone, Ed, but I have welcome news! You really are just being paranoid.

While the Lakers aren't in top form defensively yet, a look inside the numbers (love you, HoopData!) shows things haven't been all that bad. With one glaring exception, that is.

Perhaps the most repeated criticism of the Lakers' defense is the 101.4 points per game they've allowed. Toss out the 83 points surrendered to Golden State and the best the Lakers have done is Sunday's 96. The other numbers: 110, 106, 105, 100, 103. Points allowed, though, isn't really the best figure to measure team defense, particularly this early in the season when the schedule can skew things rather dramatically.

Six of L.A.'s seven opponents (all but Portland) are in the top half in the NBA in pace (average number of possessions over 48 minutes). Five of seven (Phoenix, Houston, Sacramento, Portland, Golden State) are in the top half for offensive efficiency (number of points scored per 100 possessions). In a nutshell, the Lakers have seen a lot of high speed and high efficiency offenses over the first seven games, sometimes in the same night. Still, the Lakers rank a respectable 10th in defensive efficiency, at 101.1 points allowed per 100 opponents possessions. This, by the way, mirrors exactly their defensive efficiency from last season, and we know how that movie ended. Granted, stats fluctuate from year to year, meaning what was good enough a season ago might not be good enough in '09-'10, but the first seven games have hardly been a train wreck.

It's certainly reasonable to believe the Lakers will improve as the schedule evens out, the team continues to gel, and Andrew Bynum returns to help shore up the paint.

Moreover, the Lakers have, to some degree, been a victim of their own dominance, insofar as defensive numbers are concerned. Memphis scored 59 points in the second half during their visit to Staples because the Lakers were up 27 at halftime and the game, as blowouts will in the NBA, grew sloppy. The same can be said for Portland's 60 points over the final 24 minutes Sunday night. If either game is closer, the Lakers almost undoubtedly allow fewer points.

One more reason some are a little spooked? Miami leads the league in defensive efficiency. The "big 3 in the east relying on defense" Ed references. Look, Miami is going to be a monster on that end of the floor. They already are. But just as the Lakers have played a disproportionate number of high quality offenses in the early going, the Heat have played a disproportionate number of bad ones. It's easier to post otherworldly defensive numbers against teams that don't score much anyway.

All of this stuff evens out over a year, and the gaps will shrink.

More encouraging figures: The Lakers are a very reasonable ...

  • Fifth in opponent's true shooting percentage.

  • Eighth in shooting percentage (the regular kind) against.

  • Second in opponent's free-throw rate (FT's per field goal attempt).

  • Ninth in opponent's turnover rate (percentage of trips ending in a TO).

There's always room for improvement, but none of these fire off alarm bells.

Now, if you're a doom-and-gloom type begging to accentuate the negative, there is one place to focus. We've mentioned it before in one form or another, but the defensive rebounding has been awful. Sunday was a great step in the right direction, as the Lakers held Portland to six offensive boards, including only one in the first half. Overall, though, the Lakers' glass has been about as secure as a stack of hundred dollar bills left on the sidewalk. Even accounting for Sunday night's improvement, the Lakers own the sixth lowest defensive rebound rate in the NBA.

Turn more trips into one-and-done's, and the rest of the defensive numbers will rise.

While I'm absolutely sure the Lakers will continue to improve on that side of the ball, it's harder to believe the offensive numbers they've produced are totally sustainable. Just as the Lakers have played a lot of good offensive teams, they've also played a ton of poor ones. Toronto, Phoenix, Sacramento and Houston are all in the bottom 10 for defensive efficiency. The latter three are in the bottom four. And while I think the Lakers, thanks to better depth, a more reliable bench, and a fantastic chemistry will generate more good looks from downtown than last year, I doubt they'll finish the season with their current 45 percent mark from beyond the arc

They do, though, have every opportunity to again be an elite offensive group, something they clearly weren't last year.

So in the end, the sky high offensive numbers will slip a little, the somewhat depressed defensive figures will rise, and when the smoke clears the Lakers ought to be near the top on both ends of the floor.

Don't worry, Ed. We've got your back.