The only worrisome aspect of the Lakers thus far is their inability to defend. But Frank Vogel builds elite defenses so something has to give

Watching the Los Angeles Lakers defenders being a step slow on closeouts and getting blown passed by everyone with a basic dribble package, I couldn’t help but reminisce on the days of Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope looking down the perimeter.

But Caruso got away to Chicago to thrive because the Lakers got cheap, and KCP is doing his thing in Washington as part of the Westbrook deal.

Back in Los Angeles, Ricky Rubio and Lauri Markkanen made the Lakers look like a nursing home while chasing the ball around the court. The Houston Rockets and OKC Thunder, filled will essentially teenagers, ran circles around the Lakers defenders. Now imagine what elite level scorers like Curry, Dame, Doncic and company could do to this current Lakers defense. It will be nothing short of a massacre.

And that is where Frank Vogel’s brilliance will have too shine through.

We may have saw cracks of pride and effort breakthrough during the 4th quarter of the Lakers 113-101 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Vogel watched as the Lakers finally seemed to heed his message. The Lakers were pressuring the ball and scrapping. The big men were pushing up on the Cavs guards and recovering to protect the rim.

All in all, it looked like something the Lakers had very obviously been lacking through their first five games.

It looked like defense.

“Our guys were just tired of how it looked,” Vogel said late Friday night.

Through five games, the Lakers ranked in the bottom five of the league in defensive efficiency. It was a red flag for a roster constructed of many well-traveled veterans without great defensive pedigrees. Or, as Vogel put it following the team’s morning shootaround, guys who “haven’t been in a great defensive system.”

The Lakers have one of those. Vogel implemented it upon his arrival in 2019. His first season in L.A., the Lakers posted a top-three defense. In Year 2, they were the best in the league.

“I really pride myself in being flexible to adjust our scheme based on our personnel,” Vogel said.

But this?

In his third season with the Lakers, this is Vogel’s greatest challenge.

Barely a year ago, the Lakers won a championship with a culture that Vogel described as being built around dynamic playmaking, 3-point shooting, lob threats and, perhaps most importantly, elite defense.

“And the elite defense part is not there yet,” he said.

But can even a great defensive coach turn a collection of poor individual defenders into an adequate team defense?

“I think if guys play hard and play together,” Vogel said, “you can be an elite defense.”

The Lakers have so far been a long way from that, and a narrow October win over a likely lottery team like the Cavs should be taken in the proper context. But on Friday, there were signs of growth.

When he entered the locker room with his assistant coaches at halftime, Vogel said, players were already watching film and calling each other out. Rajon Rondo, who did not log a minute in the game, was exhorting the Lakers to step it up defensively.

And then with 2:47 remaining in the third quarter, it all seemed to finally take hold. Trailing by nine at the time, the Lakers closed the third period on a 12-0 run and proceeded to hold the Cavs to just 16 points in the fourth quarter. Avery Bradley, who was not on the team until the day before the regular season, made an impact defensively, as did undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, who in the final minute of the third quarter forced a loose ball and then, a possession, a jump ball.

Anthony Davis, the Lakers unquestioned defensive leader, puts the Lakers defensive issues on himself. He said that before Friday’s win, injured forward Trevor Ariza told him, “We need you to get us going defensively.”

Davis responded with three blocked shots.

“Our scheme works,” Davis said. “We just have to be committed to doing it and let the team know just commit energy and effort to defense. It’s a mindset: ‘OK, I’m going to play defense. And I’m going to do my job, and whatever my job is, if it leaves my guy open, I know the next guy is going to take the rotation to cover me, because I’m doing my job.’ And that’s a trust thing. We showed it tonight in the fourth quarter, but we’ve got to do it from the start.”

The Lakers completely rebuilt their roster to accommodate Russell Westbrook– a minus-defender throughout his career – losing defensive stalwarts Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso in the process. Their replacements, Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk, are not noted defenders. Of those who are, one (Talen Horton-Tucker) may be too young to be relied upon, and another (Ariza) may be too old.

Both are currently injured.

“We got a lot of guys, a lot of new guys, this year that came from different systems,” said LeBron James, “or who have played defense different ways. So we’re working every day.”

When THT returns from injury, adding additional depth at the wing, LeBron can slide to the 4 on defense, with Davis to the 5. The quickness on closeouts and pressure on ball handlers should ascending exponentially once Howard and Jordan are no longer long term rotation pieces.

But waiting on the reinforcements isn’t a tactic the Lakers should take. Rather they should further develop Monk, Reaves, and yes even veterans like Melo and Bazemore to adapt to this defensive system. They don’t have to be lockdown defenders, just do your part.

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