Can Luke Walton hold LeBron James accountable for middling Lakers' defensive lapses?
The reality is, LeBron has to do a lot more in the West to even approach the success he had in the East
Last Sunday, after the Lakers were destroyed by the Kawhi Leonard-less Raptors to fall to 4-6 on the season, I made an impulse decision. The Lakers looked so bad in that game. LeBron James was laughably disinterested in playing any kind of defense whatsoever. I went to my iPad, started watching clips to make sure my eyes weren't fooling me in real time and, in the middle of the night, convinced myself that a column calling out LeBron's defense was in order.
I wrote it. Submitted it.
The next morning, my editor checked me. Thought the column as a little too harsh, or at least short-sighted. Reminded me how early in the season it is to be writing a "Lakers are in trouble, and LeBron's defense is a big reason why" hit piece. So I held off. Went back and watched more film. It's certainly not all terrible, which perhaps frustrates you even more because LeBron is still clearly capable of great defense. The Lakers were much better in their win against the Timberwolves on Wednesday. LeBron said it was the best defensive effort of the season.
Still, one game of focus to narrowly edge a bad team isn't enough. So let's be clear: LeBron has, by and large, been playing some Lonzo Ball to switch onto OG Anunoby, leaving Kyle Lowry as James' responsibility. Then watch what he does with that responsibility as Lowry cuts unimpeded to the rim for a layup:. In the clip below, watch how he instructs
Watch here as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets blown by at the point of attack, and LeBron, in position to at least try to slide over and help, instead just stands there, watches a rebound battle ensue that he has no interest in joining, then hangs his head and walks back when the Raptors finally secure the ball and score:
Even when it doesn't appear to be a lack of effort, at least not a blatant one, LeBron is still, too often, just not a focused defender at this point in his career. Look at this next clip, in which the Suns' Josh Jackson throws an entry pass to Deandre Ayton, and LeBron, for some unknown reason, decides to sprint into no-man's land, where literally no offensive player is within 6 feet, leaving Trevor Ariza wide open for a corner 3:
There are plenty more examples where these came from. Yet there are a lot of impressive defensive clips, too. He's blocked big shots. He's cut off penetration plenty. I asked Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson of the Heat what makes a great defender, and they both talked a lot about communication. Winslow said DeAndre Jordan is one of the best at quarterbacking a defense, talking to guys, anticipating actions, getting everyone in the right spot. LeBron is, for the most part, all over this. He's one of the smartest players ever, and he's always talking on defense.
Problem is, he is too often out of position himself, or just not giving 100 percent -- not always, but too often, at least in the early going. I know LeBron's in his 16th season. I know he's pacing himself. I know he carries a huge load on the offensive end. But the defense he's been playing, for the most part, can't continue if the Lakers are going to be a secure playoff team.
In the East, it was fine to go into a six-month defensive hibernation only to pop half-awake in May and roll to the Finals. In the West, one bad two-week stretch in December could land you in the lottery. The margin for error among this good-but-not-great cluster of teams -- the Thunder, the Pelicans, the Spurs, the Jazz, the Nuggets, the Trail Blazers, the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves, maybe even the Rockets and certainly the Lakers -- is miniscule. Pencil in the Warriors, and that's 10 quality teams for seven spots. Last year one game was the difference between being in and out. The Lakers don't have to be elite defensively, but they have to be far better than they've been.
So that's the real question: How do they go from where they are -- 23rd in defensive rating, per NBA.com, entering Thursday -- to where they need to be? Some of it will just take some time, even if there is very little of that to go around in the West. Adding Tyson Chandler, whose auspicious debut helped the Lakers squeak past the Timberwolves on Wednesday, should help. Along with JaVale McGee, who has been brilliant to start the season, that's a pretty nice foundation of size and rim protection to support what should be a capable perimeter defense.
To that point, it's a misnomer that the Lakers are a bad defensive team. Lonzo Ball can defend. Josh Hart can defend. Caldwell-Pope is supposed to be able to defend. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are long and athletic and can defend. LeBron, when he wants to, can defend. But this is also a team that can easily go the way of a track meet, lose defensive principles, and just start trying to score enough to render all defensive lapses moot. LeBron can do that. The other guys can't. And they take their lead from him. There is a world in which a defensively engaged LeBron, especially with the addition of Chandler, could push this Lakers team toward a top-10 defensive ranking. It was 13th last season without either of those guys.
Does LeBron simply have to make up his mind himself to defend on at least a somewhat consistent basis, or at this stage of his career, is it actually possible for a relatively inexperienced coach to hold him accountable? I went down to Miami and asked Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about the dynamics of coaching a star player, about how difficult, how intimidating, that can be when you're thrown into the LeBron fishbowl and asked to sink or swim.
"[My situation] was the opposite. I allowed [the star players] to coach me hard, and tell me what to do, and [I tried to] not get in the way," Spoelstra laughed as he recalled the time in his now decorated career when he was handed LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and asked to go win a championship in just his third year on the job.
Self-deprecating as that sounds, there's probably a lot of truth in that statement. Spoelstra started as a video coordinator with the Heat. As the story goes, he and David Fizdale, now the coach of the New York Knicks, used to study film in the bowels of the arena, and in an effort to keep the rats out of their workspace, they would put a bunch of food scraps out in the hallway. Can you imagine going from that to trying to look Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in the eye and tell them to pick their games up?
"You have to develop relationships," Spoelstra said.
As I asked more people about this general idea of coaching star players (nothing specific to LeBron), that word continued to come up. Relationships. They're everything. A few hours later, I was on the phone with Warriors assistant GM Larry Harris, who is operating in something of a basketball nirvana with a team full of stars who commit defensively and commit to being coached despite the success they've had in the past.
"I can only speak to our guys here [with the Warriors]," Harris said, "but when, for example, Steph Curry isn't playing his best, when he's turning the ball over or whatever, Steve has developed that relationship with him, and with all our players, where now, nothing really needs to be said. Just a little reminder. 'Hey, we need a little more out of you' type thing. 'Let's get back to taking care of the ball.' Two years ago, three years ago, maybe Steve would get a little more frustrated. It takes time to learn how to communicate with different players. ... Every player is their own CEO."
LeBron is nothing if not his own CEO, and the question is, will Walton get enough time to learn how to best communicate with his star? Patience is a game-to-game virtue in Laker land. Before the season, Magic Johnson said Walton didn't need to worry if the team got off to a slow start. That lasted eight games. With the Lakers sitting at 3-5, . Never mind that the Lakers are currently the seventh-best offense in the league with the fifth-best effective field-goal percentage.
The problem is the 3-point shooting.
Even more, it's the defense.
If frustration is a product of outsized expectations, Magic should've seen these particular struggles coming. The Lakers are up to 15th in 3-point shooting, entering Friday, at almost 36 percent as a team -- but numbers aside, this is going to be an inconsistent part of their team because of the roster Johnson and Rob Pelinka have constructed -- particularly the signings they made in the wake of signing James. Rajon Rondo can't shoot. Ball shot only 30 percent from deep last year. Lance Stephenson is streaky. Same goes for Ingram. And Kuzma. And LeBron. It should not come as a shock that 3-point shooting has been an issue.
As for the defense, if Johnson and Pelinka thought James was going to come over and be some kind of super-engaged defender in the regular season, at this stage of his career, they were sorely mistaken. Anyone whoshould've known he was going to be, shall we say, less than interested on that end in November. Changing uniforms doesn't change a player.
Entering Friday, LeBron looks pretty much like the same exact player he was the last few seasons in Cleveland. He hasn't yet had one of those take-over games that remind us he's still the unquestioned best player in the league, but his numbers are what they always are: 26.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game -- all of which is to say, whatever struggles the Lakers are working through right now, they are hardly LeBron's fault. That doesn't mean he doesn't share in some of the blame, or certainly that he couldn't be doing more.
That, in the end, is the bottom line: In the West, LeBron has to do more to have even a smidge of the success he had in the East. If it doesn't happen, he won't get the blame. The supporting cast will. Walton will. Magic has said Walton's job is safe for at least the rest of the season, but we'll see about that if the Lakers go in the tank for a stretch. For now, let's not jump so far ahead. Let's understand the Lakers could be in a lot worse situation. They're 5-6, but they could easily be 3-8. Three of their next four games are against the Kings (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET -- stream on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), Hawks and Magic. It's a chance to get some momentum going, and see if Walton and LeBron can't buy a little bit of that time they need to figure this thing out together.
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