LOS ANGELES — Over the last four years, defense as been an almost unsolvable dilemma for the Los Angeles Lakers.
They finished each of the last two seasons last in the NBA in defensive rating, and in the bottom three the two years before that. This all despite coaching staffs stressing the importance of that end of the floor.
But through the first half of the 2017-18 season, the Lakers have made significant strides on that end of the floor. They currently sit at 11th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 105.1 points per 100 possessions. At times the season, the team has spent time among the top 10 in that category.
Perhaps one of the most significant indicators of the team’s improved defense is the way it consistently contests shots. The Lakers lead the NBA in contested shots per game at 68.5. The Boston Celtics, who have the league’s top-ranked defense, are seventh in contested shots per game.
Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said the team tracks shot contests — among other statistics — on an application. Each player can see how many shots they have contested as individuals, and Nance said that tracking could play into the team leading the league in that particular defensive category.
“I kinda think that has something to do with it,” Nance said. “We can check our progress and It makes guys want to see that number keep going up.”
Although the team does not drill it every day, Lakers head coach Luke Walton said the coaching staff emphasizes contesting shots daily. The coaches teach the players to not jump at an offensive player until he jumps.
In scouting reports, the Lakers also identify what the staff calls “run-off players,” Walton said.
“If you’re a run-off, we’re gonna do whatever it takes to run you off the 3-point line and not let you get that shot,” Walton said. “If you’re not, we drill that as a defender we do not jump until the offensive player is on the way of leaving the ground. And then from that point on, we’re jumping as hard and high to make him feel us and make him miss.”
Nance detailed the difference between guarding different players and how knowing the personnel on an opposing team is the most difficult part of staying consistent when it comes to contesting shots. When the Lakers played the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 19, Nance said Al Jefferson’s preferred use of pump fakes made the team think about its discipline in deciding when to jump with his shot.
But with Marcus Morris of the Boston Celtics, who Los Angeles played Tuesday, the Lakers were able to crowd his airspace because he is not a player that uses many pump fakes.
Assistant coach Brian Keefe pushes each player on the team to make their opponents miss because that type of defense allows the Lakers to get in transition and keep their pace up, Lakers guard Corey Brewer said. Los Angeles currently leads the NBA in pace.
“For us to run, we gotta contest shots and be able to make them miss,” Brewer said.
NBA players use different techniques to contest shots. Brewer said the most effective way is to put a hand directly in a shooter’s face.
“If you have a hand in the face, it’s always gonna make a guy think about you,” Brewer said. “He knows you’re there if your hand’s in his face.”
Nance, on the other hand, thinks just getting an offensive player to second-guess a shot is enough.
“If they’re going up for their shot, make them think about it a little bit,” Nance said. “Stunt at them. Make them pass-fake first. If you make them hesitate, then oftentimes, guys’ percentages drop drastically.”
Walton said the key to the team performing so well with contesting shots simply comes down to effort.
“Guys get shots because you’re scheming and you’re helping the helper, and then it’s about getting back to your own man,” Walton said. “It’s not easy to do. It takes a lot of energy. But if you’re doing it right and you’re doing it well, you can get the job done and that’s what kinda goes into contesting other team’s jump shots.”
Brewer agreed wholeheartedly.
“It’s all effort,” Brewer said. “Contesting shots is all about effort. Anybody can contest a shot. It’s all if you wanna do it.”