Without Anthony Davis, Lakers’ defense has opened the floodgates

SACRAMENTO — As he has a handful of times through the Lakers’ recent rough stretch, Lonnie Walker was kicking himself on Wednesday night.

He lamented his start to the third quarter, a stretch that took less than three minutes but saw him give up four baskets, three of which were right at the rim. Twice, Walker was back-cut: first by Kevin Huerter, then De’Aaron Fox.

“I kind of let them alone, myself, get on like an 8-0 run,” he said. “Going under 3s and backdoor cuts, not being the mid guy. So I just got to be more prepared, play a lot harder, play a lot stronger, play a lot tougher.”

Walker – and the rest of the Lakers – are also learning how much harder defense is without Anthony Davis.

After starting the season looking like one of the league’s best defenses, the Lakers have since reverted: At the moment, they’re 18th in defensive rating (112.7) for the season, a far cry from the elite unit they want to be. It’s not that shocking that the King’s fifth-ranked offense was able to dice them up, especially with the injuries that have riddled the roster. But the 134-120 loss to a team they’re likely going to be chasing in the standings for the rest of the year revealed just how much Davis tied the Lakers’ scheme together.

Throughout his career, Davis has competed for Defensive Player of the Year, even though he’s never won it (in part due to availability). While there were times when Davis seemed to lament his shifting role from Frank Vogel’s defense to Darvin Ham’s, he ultimately embraced it early on, playing a key part in pick-and-roll coverages, and being one of the team’s best communicators on the defensive end to boot.

Davis’ counting stats are rare: He’s the only player this season to average 12 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal per game. Only DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Marcus Camby have done that in the last 15 seasons.

But they still only tell a piece of the story: He bears enormous responsibility in the scheme, routinely guarding both a screen-setter and ball handler rolling to the basket. Davis’ mobility and wingspan make him better than most bigs at switching, and throughout his Lakers’ tenure, he’s been the go-to defender even against guards that other teammates can’t shut down.

Of the regular rotation Lakers, Davis’ on-court defensive rating differential is the highest: The Lakers’ defensive rating improves by 7.1 when he’s on the floor, according to stat site Cleaning the Glass. Davis’ defensive rebounding in halfcourt possessions also significantly helps the Lakers avoid second-chance points (minus-5.9 points per 100 misses with putback opportunities when Davis is on the floor).

Thomas Bryant has been a serviceable offensive replacement for Davis, averaging 14.8 points as a starter on 58% shooting, and his chemistry with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Dennis Schröder have helped keep the Lakers’ front court attack alive. But Bryant’s defense is limited, as Domantas Sabonis demonstrated by drawing out the 25-year-old from the paint and passing to teammates attacking behind him. Bryant and the recently returned Wenyen Gabriel also draw fouls at a higher rate than Davis (who may get some deference as a superstar), and both had five fouls against the Kings.

Defensively, the Lakers’ have had the 25nd-ranked defense (119.6) over the last four games since Davis got hurt against Denver. The Lakers have also allowed 38 second-chance points in their last two games, which Ham himself has cited as one of the key factors he believes is within the Lakers’ control.

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“You’re probably not going to hold any team in the NBA to zero offensive rebounds or zero points off turnovers,” he said. “But if you limit those two areas and try to take care of your business and be disciplined and be forceful in terms of putting bodies on bodies and not giving up second and third opportunities, you set yourself up to have some sort of success and have a chance at it at least.”

But as much as the Lakers can scheme and hustle, there is a size gap that only grows with Davis out. Sabonis’ 21 rebounds underscored the issue, as the 7-footer dominated the glass without a rightful challenger.

Without him, James summed up the dilemma best: “We’re already a team without a lot of length and not a lot of size. And you lose a 6-11 guy with a 7-6 wingspan, 7-7 wingspan, I mean, it’s self-explanatory, so it’s not like it’s rocket science.”

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