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Lakers’ search for that edge on defense begins on first day of camp

Lakers' Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis chat during media day.
Lakers’ Russell Westbrook, left, and Anthony Davis chat during media day at the UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo on Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Davis groaned. Russell Westbrook sighed. The two had just sat down Wednesday, the first practice for the new Lakers team in the books after two-plus hours.

Unlike a season ago, the Lakers are fresh and enthusiastic about the season ahead. They are no longer dragging the weight from an absurdly condensed offseason with the burdens of trying to repeat as NBA champions. They’ve added stars, believe they’ve fixed their shortcomings and enter the preseason with as much firepower as they’ve had during the LeBron James era.

But there might be one problem — they’re going to need to defend people too.

For all of their star power in Frank Vogel’s two-year tenure as the Lakers’ coach, it’s been their defense that’s most directly impacted winning. With the perimeter defense of Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schroder scattered around the Eastern Conference, the Lakers are going to need to figure things out.

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“We lost some strong perimeter defenders. But we have great two-way defenders, and no one that we feel is really a liability. We have a smart scheme that I think our guys will come in and compete in,” Vogel said Tuesday during media day. “And yeah, we’re going to set a high standard for what we can accomplish on the defensive end. Are we going to be the No. 1 defense in the league again? I don’t know.”

While much of the NBA ran from the COVID vaccination discussion, the Lakers embraced it, the league’s oldest team acting like its most mature Tuesday.

The best weapon they’ll have is Anthony Davis, a do-everything defender who the Lakers have touted as the NBA’s best two-way player since trading for him in 2019. And he says such additions as Kendrick Nunn, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan are the kindof players who should excel in the Lakers’ plans.

“It fits into our schemes, what we’ve been doing the past couple years, trying to be a defensive-minded team, trying to be the No. 1 defense in the league,” Davis said after practice. “Even though we lost those guys, we can get back to our ways. And even the guys that, over the years, have been known as struggling on defense, buy into this system — helping them, having their backs and coming together as one.”

Davis’ presence should help players like Westbrook be more aggressive in their pressure, even if that doesn’t mean more defensive gambling.

“It’s a luxury,” Westbrook said. “I was just talking about that today, changing my mind, my mentality, having those guys as a blanket in the back that you can always count on. Just do my job and make sure I get into the ball and defend to the best of my ability. I know those guys are going to have my back, just like I have theirs.”

Media day for the 2021 Los Angeles Lakers included Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and newcomers Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard.

The Lakers cannot afford another season like last year’s from Davis, who was hampered by injuries and a slow start because of the shortened offseason. Already a major factor on defense, he’ll be asked to be even better with less defensive talent around him.

“He’s very motivated to have a bounce-back year from what happened last year,” Vogel said of Davis. “And we were all disappointed that he wasn’t able to be at his best due to the injuries and the lack of the offseason. But he’s definitely put in the work this offseason, he looks really good and we’ll all be pushing each other.”

That’ll mean plenty of trash-talking in practice, Westbrook and Davis said. Even on Day One , competitiveness was high. In his first official day on the court as a Laker, Westbrook impressed with his passing ability, getting into the paint and kicking the ball out to wide-open shooters or tossing it up to the rim for lobs.

LeBron James says “he always figures it out” when meshing with new teammates, and that will be his task after the Lakers brought some big names aboard this offseason.

“He’s just a blur out there,” Vogel said.

Westbrook said he had ideas of what things could look like on the floor with James and Davis. The three were together for most of practice, Vogel said, the other two “starting” spots being rotated. But seeing it come together in person? That was eye-opening.

“I see a lot more now, a lot more things we can do for each other and just so many different options,” Westbrook said. “We’re going to figure it out.”

And they’re going to have to defend.


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