Here’s how the Los Angeles Lakers can take the next step in their rebuild

You can forgive Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton for sounding like a broken record, since the message is so important.

Regardless of whether his team wins or loses, Walton has the same response to reporters: Defense.

When the Blazers roasted the Lakers earlier this week, Walton pointed to his young players breaking from the defensive script, allowing Portland’s guards to run freely over and around screens. When the Lakers blitzed the Heat on Friday night, Walton credited his squad for playing as a group, covering for each other’s mistakes and communicating like their lives depend on their ability to get stops.

And for all intents and purposes, that might as well be the case. With the Lakers reeling and the playoffs becoming a longer and longer shot as we head into 2017, Los Angeles has a chance to establish an identity that will carry them for years — as a hard-nosed, defensive-oriented team.

I know; on the surface, that seems preposterous. Who looks at D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Young — Nick Young! — and sees a defensive-minded squad? The Lakers are 28th in the NBA on that end of the court, and they’re only that “high” because the Blazers and Nuggets are fighting each other to see who can reach the bottom of the standings faster.

Yet this isn’t about the Lakers becoming a top-10 defense overnight, and it’s certainly not a matter of questioning the Lakers’ intensity. (I’m not Byron Scott, after all.)  Too often, people conflate defense with effort. Just try harder, the thinking goes, and you’ll prevent the opponent from scoring buckets.

Of course, slowing an elite offense is infinitely more complicated than such wishful thinking, but there is a kernel of truth to that armchair coaching. Being mindful — that is, making the correct decisions, being in the right place at the right time, and yes, exerting the right amount of effort to leverage an advantage — is the key to individual defensive play.

Some players are born with that mindfulness, but most everyone can learn, with the right teacher. That’s why Walton preaches defense no matter the situation, as he drills the importance of that discipline into his team.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

For that, Los Angeles’ young prospects should be thankful. The Lakers have a coach who wants to install an effective scheme and athletic, smart players who can grow and execute that strategy. The problem is their freelancing. 21-year-old first-round picks are often keen on gambling for steals or trying to shut down their opponent one-on-one; it takes time to learn the nuances of NBA defense.

More than time, such growth takes a fierce commitment to improving on defense, as well — a task made all the more difficult by the need to maintain that focus for 48 minutes a night. A skilled scorer might cover for a blown play on offense; when a team is out of sync on the other end for even a second, they will be exploited.

You have to commit to letting the moment pass in the game, moving onto the next play, while using those errors to learn in the film room. And for a young team, mistakes are inevitable. Until “icing” a pick-and-roll becomes second nature, or until Russell is locking and trailing point guard counterparts like it’s his job, there will be astoundingly boneheaded missed rotations and miscommunication galore. Such is the nature of building a foundation out of the muck.

Still, the Lakers — these same Lakers — are fully capable of approaching league-average on defense. There are loftier goals in this world, to be sure, but progress compared to perfection is a fool’s game. One day at a time is the best approach for the purple and gold in 2017. That mental duality isn’t easy; neither is succeeding in the NBA. You have to go out and earn victories, and you stake your claim in this league on defense.

After all, the Lakers do not want for offensive talent. As long as the young guys keep working on their fundamentals in practice, they’ll have no issue scoring in the years to come. If they want to become true contenders, though, the path forward is as clear as it is arduous. The franchise that birthed “Showtime” needs to hang its hat on defense, playoffs be damned.