On paper, the Chicago Bulls looked woefully unprepared to defend Anthony Davis on Monday. Starting center Nikola Vucevic was out due to the NBA‘s health and safety protocols, leaving seldom-used reserve Tony Bradley as the only true big man available and former Laker Alex Caruso as the nominal power forward. Only a day earlier, Davis shredded a similarly undermanned Spurs team for 27 points in the first half alone. The first two quarters weren’t nearly as kind to Davis on Monday. He didn’t score his first points until the final seconds of the first quarter. He finished the first half with seven, and though he ended the game with 20, the game was no longer particularly competitive when he racked up those second-half buckets.
I wish I could tell you that the Bulls came up with some innovative and sophisticated approach to covering one of the NBA’s best big men, but they didn’t. They doubled him. Constantly. They did it on the first Laker possession of the game…
And the second…
And the third…
And the fourth…
The doubles came all night long in every which way. Davis was doubled in the post. He was doubled off of the catch. His pick-and-rolls were blown up before they could ever come close to the rim. All told, ESPN tracked 15 doubles on Davis for the night. That’s the most of his career despite being ejected in the third quarter. Over the past two games, Synergy Sports has tracked 11 hard doubles in the post. Only nine other players in the NBA have seen that many all season. The Bulls, with a backup center and a 6-4 power forward, suffocated one of the NBA’s best interior scorers on their way to an easy victory.
Lonzo Ball provided the double on three of the four clips above along with several other plays throughout the night. Not coincidentally, Ball was guarding Russell Westbrook. Teams have been using Westbrook’s man to double the ball since his Houston days, but what made Chicago’s doubles so effective was that Westbrook doesn’t have quite as much shooting around him as he did with the Rockets. The Lakers didn’t just start one poor spacer in the backcourt on Monday. They started two.
There are, of course, different kinds of negative spacers. Westbrook is a known commodity. He’s attempted over 3,500 3-pointers in his career and made only 30.5 percent of them. Defenses are never going to respect him off of the ball until he starts cutting consistently. Talen Horton-Tucker is more of a mystery. He’s never been all that accurate from behind the arc. In college, he was only slightly better than Westbrook at 30.8 percent. In his first two seasons as a Laker, he fell to 28.5 percent.
Young players often improve as shooters. Horton-Tucker still might, and the fact that he’s attempted 14 in his first two games suggests he’s at least grown more confident. But given his track record, it would be irresponsible of defenses to assume he’s going to make even wide-open attempts from deep. Take a look at that first attempt again. Yes, Horton-Tucker drills the 3 from the corner, but it was his man, Caruso, who helped against Westbrook off of Davis’ pass. That’s the middle ground Horton-Tucker gets to occupy so early in his career. For now, defenses are willing to let him shoot, but they’ll at least close out on him. The more he makes, the less they’ll be willing to sacrifice those shots. The more he misses, the less they’ll bother with him at all from behind the arc.
That standard goes up in the playoffs. Defenses are far more interested in keeping Davis and LeBron James away from the rim than they are deterring even mediocre jump-shooters. Mediocre would be a positive outcome for Horton-Tucker and a pipe dream for Westbrook. Remember, the Laker offense has struggled to accommodate even a single non-shooter in the half-court since Davis got to Los Angeles. The Lakers scored 97.5 points per game in the half-court last season with James in the game and Davis at power forward, according to Cleaning the Glass. Move Davis to center and that number bolted up to 108.4.
One non-shooter on the floor makes life harder on James and Davis, but playing two of them together takes things a step further and inadvertently weakens those non-shooters as well. Westbrook and Horton-Tucker are both at their best as attackers. Attacking becomes significantly more difficult when the other’s man can so easily help against their drives. Through two games together, Horton-Tucker and Westbrook have combined to attempt 25 shots in the paint… and 38 outside of it.
Defenses haven’t turned them into jump-shooters. The Lakers have done that to themselves. They’re inviting doubles in the post. They’re begging for help defenders to kill pick-and-rolls at the nail. They’re deoptimizing their own players. Those players are talented enough to make lemonade for regular season stretches. Horton-Tucker scored 28 points against the Bulls, and thanks in part to some unsustainable success on those jump shots, the Lakers are scoring well when he shares the floor with Westbrook. But it’s bad process, and over a significant sample, it’s eventually going to lead to bad results.
The Lakers almost certainly knew this was coming when they assembled this roster. Whether retaining Horton-Tucker was a hedge against age-related decline for James and Westbrook or a genuine bet on talent above all else, the theory of this team was always to replicate the 2020 championship formula of elite defense and transition scoring making up for half-court deficiencies. Well, the Lakers rank sixth in fast-break points per game and 15th in transition efficiency. The defense that ranked No. 1 a year ago has fallen to 15th as well, and starting two non-shooters in the backcourt necessitates a spacer in the last available slot. Right now, their only option is Carmelo Anthony, who isn’t going to help much defensively. Neither, frankly, has Westbrook thus far this season. These were problems the 2020 Lakers didn’t have to deal with. They were optimized.
There’s no easy way to do that with this roster, but an easy starting point would be staggering the two non-shooting perimeter players as aggressively as possible. Surrounding them with jump-shooters is the easiest way to prevent them from becoming jump-shooters. Separately, they’re both awkward fits for James and Davis. Together, they lead to the sort of overwhelming defensive attention that Davis got against the Bulls, and as long as the Lakers keep the two of them together, their best players are going to keep facing the same problems.