From the start of the preseason, Lakers Coach Luke Walton made it clear that his young team will take incremental steps in the right direction.
Walton's measured approach has not wavered through 14 games, and what promises to be a drawn-out learning process has been most visible on the defensive end. Since he was introduced as the Lakers' new head coach in June, Walton has preached defense first, defense leading to offense, defense being the backbone of the perennial contender he is looking to build.
So far, not so much.
The Lakers (7-7) are allowing 109.6 points per game, the fourth-most in the league, a reasonable statistic with Walton implementing a new defensive scheme. But while much of this year's start feels like a departure from last season — the ball is moving and the Lakers are well on their way to surpassing 17 wins — the defense is still treading water. And with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder (8-6) visiting the Staples Center on Tuesday night, there is little time for adjustments before another tough test.
The Lakers are also allowing opponents to shoot 47.5% this season, which is the highest in the league.
"You can't just ask people to play defense and all of a sudden everyone starts playing the right way the whole game," Walton said after the Lakers gave up 118 points in a loss to the Bulls on Sunday.
"And we see glimpses of it, but it's, you know, you see guys doing it more and more and you see them talking about it. They acknowledge when they do something wrong, but it's just… be patient and I'm pretty confident that we'll get there."
Through 14 games this season, the Lakers are allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions. Through 14 games last season, with Kobe Bryant shooting his way to retirement, the Lakers were allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions.
That makes this year a slight digression as the team adjusts to Walton's new system. Basketball-Reference.com has tracked defensive ratings since 1982, and this is the fourth-worst defensive start for a Lakers team in that 34-year span.
Walton pinpointed fatigue as the biggest factor behind the Lakers' defensive inconsistency. He sees his players reverting to old habits when tired. The defense will loosen up, the players commit stupid fouls, they stop tagging cutters, they are slow to close out on weak-side shooters, the guards forget to help out on the glass, and so on.
This all leads to open shots, offensive rebounds and a lot of points for opposing offenses. But Walton is still more focused on process than results.
When the Lakers gathered Monday to watch film of their loss to the Bulls, Walton called up a play in which Jimmy Butler scored two of his 40 points. Nick Young chased Butler over a screen, pressured Butler without fouling and the help-side defense was in place. Butler nailed a 12-foot fadeaway, but Walton pointed to the good habits Young and the rest of the defense showed.
It was one of those glimpses Walton often references, when his defense moves on a string, contests perimeter shots and clogs all lanes to the rim.
"It's beautiful," Walton said. "We get stops. We keep guys in front of us."
The next step is to turn those fleeting moments into regular form. Fixing the defense, like all things with these upstart Lakers, is going to take time.