The Lakers have traditionally been highly regarded as a great offensive team (think Showtime, Van Exel/Jones/Ceballos, Shaq/Kobe), but our defense has always been called into question. Well, the Lakers broke out of the gate this season with a suffocating defense that forced turnovers and humiliated lesser teams in the league. However, as any Laker fan who’s been following every game this season can tell you, something’s been slipping. It seems that our defense has been steadily going downhill. Is it that teams have figured out how to beat it already? I don’t think so. I’m starting to think that the Lakers are simply beating themselves.
It’s funny. People don’t seem to understand exactly why the Celtics’ defense is so tough. I usually hear, “The Celtics’ unwavering commitment to a team-oriented defense…”, “These unselfish players quickly help the perimeter guys who get beat off the dribble”, etc. People seem to go on and on about Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes and how quickly the Celtics’ embraced them, but they’re neglecting a very simple point. Every player on the Celtics’ team is not only willing to play a very physical game, but because of a tremendous pool of athletic players, the Celtics’ can push their physicality onto the rest of the league and literally crush their opponent’s offense. You’ve seen it with the hard picks from KG and Perkins. How players like Tony Allen, Paul Pierce, and Leon Powe closely body up on their man. Essentially, the Celtics’ play a team oriented defense fitted with a set of great one on one defenders. They’re great one on one because they’re athletic and physical. This brand of defense would be shunned by a lot of other teams, because it sounds like a very foul-prone system. That’s not necessarily true, though. The Celtics can get away with playing defense like this because, again, of their athleticism. As long as you’re fast enough to stay in front of your man, then you can body up on him as long as you want and it’ll be an offensive foul.
Now let’s be honest. After Ariza, Kobe, and possibly Bynum, who else on our team can you call physical/athletic? Don’t even try to say Farmar; a vertical leap doesn’t mean you’re athletic. In the game of defense, I believe athleticism should be specifically attributed to a mixture of quick feet, quick hands, length, and weight.
On to the Lakers’ brand of defense. Kurt Rambis has implemented a “swarming” defense. It makes sense on paper. A lot of spacing issues we all thought about with both Gasol and Bynum on the team would actually help us on defense, in this regard. If we crowd the court strong side, then we can double up on the ball handler on the wing, block the passing lanes to both the post and the top of the key. Well, wait, you say, wouldn’t doubling mean we’re leaving someone open? Yes, but this guy’s going to be on the other side of the court, on the opposite wing. With both Bynum and Gasol patrolling the middle, the ball handler will be hard-pressed to find anything with a very limited little court visibility.
Like I said, it makes sense. On paper. Here’s where it can potentially break down.
It starts with the ball handler. What the Lakers are trying to do is pressure him into making an ill-advised pass. This has led to our inflated turnover and steal statistics. Well, two problems here. The ball handler can potentially recognize the double team early and swing the ball around the perimeter. Guess who’s wide open? Someone on this site said that it looks like opposing point guards and small forwards have looked like All-Stars against us. Well, guess who’s usually wide open on the opposite wing? Their small forwards. Leads to an easy 3. In fact, sometimes, their SFs swing to the top of the key as they recognize the double team and get open shots. That’s how Granger got so many open looks at the 3 in the last game. Sometimes it seems like our defense is simply underestimating other teams’ offense. When you have players like TJ Ford or Jose Calderon who have great assist to turnover ratios, you can’t underestimate them like that. That lead to open 3′s or, because of a fear of the open 3, an open lane for the PG to slice through.
As far as leaving a guy open on the other side of the court, there’s a simple way for the opposing team to break this defense. Run it along the baseline and pass it to the opposite corner. Open 3. It’s so simple. As long as you can break free around Fisher or Farmar (which seems increasingly easier and easier as the season continues), you drive baseline and kick it to the open shooter in the other corner. Or, as we saw the taller ball handlers do, just pass it over the defense. Jump up and pass it over the defense. It’s a risky move, but with more capable ball handlers, it’s not too hard.
Still, this defense can be effective if our players are willing to rotate quickly to recover and contest the long range jumper. But come on. This is as tiring a defense as you can write up. As the season rolls on, players are getting lazier and slower to rotate. Maybe we can chalk it up to fatigue. Well, no we can’t. There’s no excuse for poor play in the NBA. There just isn’t. Trevor Ariza doesn’t need an excuse because he’s been hauling butt on every possession trying to cover for the other guys. Shoot, right now, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum (Bynum to a lesser extent) have been closing out better than Kobe and Fisher. Good job, backcourt.
Obviously, our squad doesn’t employ this press on every possession. We usually employ this when our guys beat the opposite team down the court on transition. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Best example? Bounce pass by Troy Murphy leading to the easy dunk for Rasho last night. It still works more often than not, though. But without every single player on our team clicking, HUGE mental defensive lapses result in easy layups and decreased morale, not to mention a shift in momentum.
There won’t always be opportunities for us to scramble and try to double, clog the passing lanes, etc. Why not? Well, let’s look at the inevitable Boston/LA matchup. Look at their starting lineup. There’s Rondo, Allen, Pierce and Garnett. Which one of them can you honestly say can’t handle the ball? Which one of them can’t pass? Which one of them are you going to single out and try to pressure them into bad passes?
But like I said, we don’t employ this press on every possession. What are we doing in a half court set? A lot of the times, we’re gambling. We’re pushing to get the ball into a less capable ball handler so that we can pressure him into a tough pass. We force them to pass it into specific lanes where we have either Ariza, Farmar, or an equally quick player to pick it off and score in transition. In which case, we tend to funnel.
Funneling. Yes, funneling. So does anyone remember our buddy Smush Parker? His favorite way to play defense was to funnel to the left. Are we really going to take tips on defense from Smush Parker?
So why do you guys think we’re being beaten by all these point guards? Funneling. Here’s the scenario. The opposing team sets a pick, and Fisher funnels the PG straight into the pick. Why do you suppose he does that? Ideally, what should happen is that our secondary defender (sometimes Pau, sometimes Drew) is supposed to stop the PG, Fisher comes over the screen to help double, and during the time it takes for the PG to pass it back to the screener, Pau should be able to recover.
Problems with this? In a pick and pop scenario, a PF with a decent midrange game (i.e. Garnett) has relatively ample time to take a shot. Or, the PG breaks the double team and has either an easy layup or a short bounce pass for an easy layup. This could be solved if Fisher would JUST GO OVER THE SCREEN. For some reason, he just runs straight into it. Farmar is even worse. He seems to avoid contact but still gets caught as he tries to go under the screen. Being a little undersized is really starting to take its toll on our PGs.
Every once in awhile, as long as the opposing team runs back fast enough on offense, we have to resort back to good ol’ man to man defense. This is where we suffer the most. Fisher, when he’s not being rocked back and forth by screens, seems to have lost a step. Farmar’s never been able to keep up with his man. Everyone was saying that with an improved interior defense, all this dribble penetration was going to be a thing of the past. But that’s under the assumption that dribble penetration lead solely to layup attempts. C’mon now. Dribble penetration at its finest breaks a defense down, and the point guard then has a bevy of choices. He can pull up and take a mid range jumper. He can drive and dish for an easy dunk. He can pull his defender away from the perimeter and pass it back out for an open 3. All this funneling and hoping Bynum’ll clean up mess just won’t work if we continue to leave our guys the way we do.
Personally, I’ve never been an advocate of working the passing lanes. It just doesn’t pay to gamble. I’ve always liked teams that play a grinding defense, with a lot of bodying up. Double only in the post. Double only when you see the ball handler crumpling under pressure from his man.
Best example. Think the Celtics. Their goal on defense? They try to force more long ranged jumpshots than any other team in the league. Now think the Lakers. Their goal on defense? They try to force more long passes than any other team in the league, in an effort to pick off the pass. Which one sounds more defensive oriented?
One last note. Our guys, if they continue with this defensive scheme, need to be more aware of the shot clock. Sure, play this scrambling, uptempo defense for 20 seconds. But when the clock’s down to 4, just man up. Get up close. Move your hands. Contest the shot. Every time. Just get up closer and closer as the clock counts down.
I think I’ve got more stuff to address but I’m sure that with some comments from you guys, I’ll remember it and bring it up. Sorry for the length, but there’s a lot of defensive kinks we need to work out before we go into the playoffs. Better now than never.