Improving The Defense

Kurt —  September 24, 2007

All summer long, it’s not just that knowledgeable Lakers fans have been waiting for a roster move — they’ve been waiting for something specific. I don’t mean a move for one particular player, I mean a move that focused on improving the Lakers biggest weakness:


And nothing happened. No shot-blocking powerhouse for the paint came. No additional shutdown perimeter defenders came. There was very little roster movement at all.

So, how do the Lakers get better on defense?

That needs to be question number one and two for Phil Jackson and his staff when the team opens training camp in Hawaii. Last year Jim Clemons was brought in as an assistant coach with a defensive reputation, but the Lakers went from giving up 105.5 points per 100 possessions in 04-05 (15th in the league) to a horrid 109 points per 100 last year (30th 25th in the NBA).

Where did the Lakers get worse last year? In the paint.

Yes, defense at the point (or whatever it was that Smush played) was a favorite whipping boy of this site, and it was bad last season. To use a broad measure, the average PER of an opposing point guard last year was 17, the equivalent of having Kirk Hinrich playing against you every night. But that is actually lower than it was the year before, when it was 17.9.

What changed for the Lakers last season was how much worse the interior defense got. In 05-06, the average power forward playing against the Lakers had a PER of 16.8 and shot 45.8% (eFG%) from the field — last season that jumped to a PER of 18.7 and 51.6%. It was even worse at center, where the 05-06 numbers of 15.3 (PER, right at the league average) and 48.1% shooting jumped to 18.4 (PER) and 51.5%.

Part of that was injuries, to be sure. A young Andrew Bynum, who at times looked more confused than Rex Grossman, had to play big minutes. And while Laker fans often talk about Chris Mihm as an apparent foul sponge on defense (soaking up every foul near him) the fact of the matter is when he played in 05-06 opposing centers had a PER of 15.2. And he tried to come from the weakside and help on penetration, which led to many of those fouls he absorbed.

But will a healthy Mihm, an older and more experienced Bynum and a Kwame Brown in a contract year make the Lakers a better defensive presence inside? And what about at the four, will having Lamar Odom healthy and available for more than 56 games make a difference?

Personally, I feel better about the point — last season Jordan Farmar fought through picks in a way Lakers fans haven’t seen in years. Farmar’s effort was reflected in the numbers — an opposing PER of 15.2 (right at the league average) and shooting 47.7%. A summer in the weight room to make him stronger and that year of experience makes him better. And with Derek Fisher — not a great defender anymore (opposing numbers of 16.9 and 50.2%) but a veteran who can make plays when needed — and Crittenton the Lakers should be better out top.

But in the NBA, where top scorers simply cannot be covered one-on-one, it is going to come down to something we saw little of last year — team defensive play. Good rotations. Smart switches.

The poor performance in those areas last season begs the question: Was it the coaches not getting through or the players not listening or caring? My guess, based on Phil’s history as a coach, was that this was more on the players. Then again, it is the coach’s job to get through to them and make them listen and care.

And right now, getting them to listen, to care, and bottom line play better on defense should be what keeps Phil Jackson’s mind occupied.

50 responses to Improving The Defense

  1. confusedindianguy September 24, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Kobe’s one on one defense has improved. He’s lost some weight which has led to an improvement in his quickness. A lot of the complaints last year began with some of the issues Kobe had on defense. If he becomes the best player on both ends it can only help the team.

  2. Spot on as always, but the Lakers were 25th out of 30 at, and 24th at Knickerblogger.

  3. 2. Correction made, I wrote down 30 in my notes for some reason. I blame the cheap crystal meth I’ve been using, I’ve got to spring for the good stuff.

    1. Kobe’s defense should be better, he’ll be healthy all season. But his defense was never the problem.

  4. Kurt, I like your optimism, but let’s be honest that this is basically the same team as last year. The paint was touched up a bit, but this team is still in need of an overhaul under the hood.

    I have three quick points.

    On the big men: Really not much of a change. Mihm’s biggest contributions will be on the offensive end. Bynum will get increased minutes because the team needs to see what he can do before he is due for an extension, but at this point he’s still all potential. Kwame is the teams best big defender and will be through 2008.

    On the points: We cannot place too much hope for Java and Farmar this season. Phil won’t have them on the floor for long. Fish will have the vast majority of the minutes at the point this season. Fish hasn’t played much effective D since guarding Stockton in the late 90s. I seem to remember a few point guards getting big contracts thanks to lighting up Fish in playoff series with the Lakes.

    On the health: We as fans need to realize that the team is stock full of injury prone players. Odom, Mihm, Brown, and Walton have all missed significant stretches in the last few years. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a season where none of the significant contributors does not get injured. Cross your fingers and hope for stars to align.

    Let’s not get our hopes up too high here. Maybe I should start my own pessimist Laker blog.

  5. the other Stephen September 24, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    given how democratic the playing time is on this team, you’d think that everyone except Kobe, Odom, and Walton would be bursting with hustle and energy.

  6. 4. I’m not all that upbeat about this team, unless you consider predicting about 46 wins upbeat. And I have little faith in the three at center putting together a great year, I’d be thrilled with solid.

    But I do think Farmar will get run at the PG and that Phil trusts him — he had to last year and by the end of the season Farmar earned that trust with pretty good play. I hope and think Phil realizes he can’t ride D-Fish hard for 82 games.

  7. Interesting! Kurt points to the fact that Chris Mihm did a good job defensively in 05-06 and the first thing out of the box is that Chris Mihm’s contribution will be offensive, not defensive — weren’t you listening to/reading Kurt?

    Also, the assumption that Phil will ‘wear out’ Fish during the season to avoid playing Farmar or Crit would seem to fly in the face of history. Phil always starts out the year experimenting until about the half-way point, and then starts thining out his substitutions. One reason is that he doesn’t want to wear out players before the playoffs.

    Paul, It would seem you are tailoring your analysis to some preconceived views of the team. We all do this at times, but this year we really have to back of and see what goes down. There have been so few changes that fans are going to be more impatient. With Phil’s offense (sorry, Tex’s) familiarity is a great asset. I suspect this year players will be concentrating on defense because they don’t have as much to concentrate on on offense. Even Crit has 4yrs experience running the triangle.

    Yes, Odom and Walton are somewhat injury prone, but remember this was Chris Mihm’s first real injury. Brown is in a contract year and if he doesn’t bring it he may be out of the league next year — and he knows that.

    There are some things to be optimistic about too! A balance is what we need.

  8. Being concerned about Odom (and others) physically is very legit, by the way. According to the OC Register (I was saving this for news and notes tomorrow or Wednesday) Odom will be limited in camp because he is not 100% back from the surgery, and both Mihm and Kwame are not yet 100%.

    We’ll see how all this shakes out in camp.

  9. Phil Jackson obviously knows what hes doing. But I dont think he’s free from blame. Look at a team like last years houston rockets, and see a team that is well coached in defense. Is JVG a better coach then PJ? Not overall, but in terms of defense, you could make such a case. More then that though, the Lakers just do not have smart defensive players. You could tell Kwame to rotate a million times, but in the heat of the moment, when the speed of game is blinding, some people will just never get it. And lets face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with the most basketball savvy of players here.

    AK-47. Would be nice.

  10. My two cents on Kwame is he is just not a guy who loves basketball or is focused much. All reports last year were he was a joker in the locker room that took little seriously. That why I think he could be better in this, a contract year. Not that I want to keep him, I just think the thought of the next paycheck could keep him more focused.

  11. Is there a way to analyze opponent’s PER by the team’s lineup as a whole at the time? Perhaps frequent annihilation of Smush by opposing point guards led to easy points in the paint (if this kind of data is available maybe you could look at the opponent’s assists vs. Smush and Farmar) I refuse to let Smush off the hook for bad Laker defense/inability to close out games/failed trade for KG/Kobe’s trade demand/all of the problems from last year/the Iraq war/and the fact that Santa Claus isn’t real

  12. Bynum people is he really the only young guy nobody thinks will be a great player? at times last year he was a force!

  13. Goo, I guess it could be done but nobody is doing it (and I don’t have the time). 82games does +/- and win percentage by five man units:

    And I don’t want to let Smush off the hook, the Lakers are better by subtraction there. But if everything else remains the same Farmar (or Fish or Crittenton) can only make so much of a difference.

  14. Good update, but just an FYI since I know you don’t use IE at work. Whatever you did in this update broke the page for IE again.

  15. I think the biggest reason for the dropoff is the lack of Kwame for a big chunk of the season. Say what you want about his offensive game–I’ll probably agree with you–but his D is solid. Like Phil has said, he’s a horse in there. He can affect a game. He’s pretty powerful, and tough to get around. Replacing him with Bynum in there will considerably affect the numbers.

    I actually always want Bynum and Kwame to play together, I think that could be a solid defensive combo because they are so different in their strengths and weaknesses.

  16. 14. Sorry, will work on fixing it. Not sure what I did.

  17. the other Stephen September 24, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    4. paul typed out everything i was struggling to say. it doesn’t matter that we’ve recovered from an injury-depleted roster because the healthy roster was already very average.

    9. i also agree here. team defense takes alot of quick and sound judgement. it takes anticipation and understanding, and generally is not something that you can work on like you work on your athleticism and one-on-one abilities. farmar has that, but i don’t think he can improve his physical ability to the point that he dramatically improves the backcourt defense.

  18. All you IE users. I suggest you switch to Firefox, if only for the added system security and Microsoft intrusion functionality. It also follows the international browser standards and, best of all, it is free.

  19. Not to get way off topic, but I use both Firefox and Safari (I’m Mac based). I love Firefox but was having crashing issues when I closed a window then tried to open a new one, which is not a problem (and I get faster page loading) with Safari. Frankly, I’m not sure there is a perfect browser.

    That said, I want this site to work for everyone. The tech guy should have my IE fixed in the next 24 hours or so. Sorry for the problems.

  20. About Safari, the only problem I have with Safari is I can’t see what number comment it is. On my browser at home, it always lists a “1” for all of the comments. So when you see me responded with an actual number being directed at, it means I’m using my FireFox at work or on my other PC.

  21. 10.

    Kwame had to have reconstructive surgery on his ankle and had to have a friggin’ bursa sac removed from his shoulder right after last season ended. The bottom line is the guy was hurting bad and he gave it a go for the team anyway (like Luke and Lamar). I think he deserves a little more respect for this than he has gotten from Lakers fans this offseason.

  22. 21. Glad to see Kwame has supporters.

  23. pietrus? anybody?

  24. I like Kwame too. Suggesting thst the Lakers get rid of him had moire to do with needed a large expiring contract to entice another team and make the salaries match up.

    That said, if Kwame is going to ever fulfill my expectations for him, he needs to stay healthy all year and give the Lakers a solid 13-10 or 15-10. He needs to do something like that. Even if it’s just 10-10, he can provide the toughness down low that the Lakers sorely lacked last year. He’s a pretty good defender and as I’ve been saying to my friends for the last couple seasons, as Kwame goes, so do the Lakers. That may be placing an unrealistic expectation on Kwame but if he doesn;t patrol the middle and impose his enormous size and athleticism on the opposing Center/Forwards, the Lakers aren’t going anywhere. I think Kwame’s absence last year was missed more than people want to admit.

  25. I think my point would be this: Saying Kwame was key to the Lakers defense last season and saying Kwame is a good defender are two different things. He is good against big, power players on the block but if the other center can step outside Kwame is in trouble, he’s not great on the high screen pick-and-roll (although you could argue better than Shaq most of the time) and his defensive rotations are spotty.

    That said, I hope he steps up this year and stays healthy, but for me he is still more valuable as a trade bait because of the expiring deal.

  26. If we have to talk about defense, we have to talk about Kwame.

    Kwame is our best interior defender. Not to say he is exceptional in the league or anything close to that, but on our team, he is. That is why its hard for advanced LA fans to imagine trading Kwame for a guard or SF (Artest) since it would really widen that hole in the middle. Its close to saying, we only trade Kwame if we could get a better interior defender back.

    Two choices: Ben Wallace or Marcus Camby. Perhaps only these two qualify to improve our interior defense dramatically by trading out Kwame, but remember there is an 8-yr gap in age and several millions in salary as well. Both teams that own them are also in win-now mode so these 2 are not really available. If ever he is, no team in their right sanity would also trade former DPOYs for a butter-fingered expiring contract – regardless of tax.

    For some reason, something deep inside me suggests this: If we keep Kwame, we re-sign him next year for MLE-type money. I think this is Kwame’s fair market value. If we do trade him, perhaps we could still sign him the MLE next year. I’m pretty sure a long list of suitors is not what he has heading into the summer of 08 but I also know there are scouts who know his defensive value if ever he comes in cheap. The Suns could definitely use him to bang Duncan down low. Not that he would shackle him to the ground, but at least another wide body to throw at him. If he could save those fouls up till the 4th, the Spurs are toast.

  27. 1. Although Kb24 has lost a good 20odd pounds.
    His one -on -one defense wouldnt probably his main focus with the lakers, specially with this roster. The reason kb was as focussed with defense with USA, because he realized it easiest scoring that’s laborious, you had plenty of other guy’s to light up the points..though no one does it as kobe…
    The thing i’ve always marveled about him is that he is always the first soldier to to raise his hand and say..I want it…i want the toughest assignment you got for me.
    The most problematic with USA basketball being defense, not points.
    With the lakers he might have to turn back to old ways again, yet i am curious as to what his agenda. I wouldnt want bet on reading kb’s mind,you’d be broke even before you actually started. Is it SPITE, RECORDS,or a different propaganda this year?

    2. Lakers ask a lot of odom defensively,specially with the western teams. A healthy L.O, would help.
    I dont know how much fish’s d would help us,If only d-fish passion would count as defense.
    The less said about kwame the higher his stock rises.
    Brown is a modest man, who has got much to be modest about.

    3. Lastly, im not sure how much phil’s mind would be occupied with defense, notice how slyly and surprisingly collaborating with his lone ranger, after years of making him the goat.
    I’ll probably be how to guile his superstar back to lakerland for more than year.

  28. No offense Warren but does every comment you post have to revolve around a trade. I am begging you to give it a rest. Head over to Laker Ground you’ll have a blast.

  29. Anonymous, none taken. Actually, fan sites are overly exaggerated on trade proposals. I keep it to a rather realistic level that actually have some (though remote) way of actually happening.

    The “trade-centered” mentality also emanates from Jim Buss promising that “big splash” for the offseason. Now it has become clearer that that promise will have to wait for January or the deadline or not at all to materialize. Other than that, I have already conceded the fact that this is our team for this year. Yet, the optimism and hopes do not cease…

    If you see where we are coming from, the ability to enjoy the NBA is limited. We can only watch around 20 Laker games all season and we want to make the most of it. Not to mention that Laker games are almost the most televised games already – imagine if I was a fan of Memphis or Charlotte. I’d be lucky to see 5 of them all year.

    I was hoping I could somehow subscribe to a videotaped coverage all-year long or an NBA league pass-type of subscription even if I have to shed extra cash on them. If anyone here happens to know someone who can, please let me know.

  30. Oh and I also want to clarify that one of the many ways I see this game is thru the business side of things. While we may all be “game-inspired”, its the business side of things that lead you to conclude that sometimes, if not many times, business-decisions outweigh game-aspect logic. For instance, the Philly-Denver trade. If only we could just make it all about basketball…

  31. Misaal,
    Thanks for the ‘soldier’ view on Kobe. We all get so caught up in discussing his ego and requirements that we forget just how willing he can be to ‘take a bullet for the team’. Kobe is one thing outside the game, but when the game starts I’ll take him on my side – regardless who you pick.

  32. George,
    Hey Laker fans cant wait 4 another loosing season 2 start soon, you know were finishing in the 6-8 spot, that really makes me look forward about the upcoming season. This corp of management we have right now is a JOKE, I mean, yeah we solved the PG position but we still haven’t done anything on the PF position, and forget about Lamar Odom playing at the PF position, the guy is fragile all season long and he may put up the points but they’re blank points, they come when it’s no longer needed and he’s our biggest problem and offcourse our #1 problem is Klamzie Brown. Well, let’s hope Kwame plays good cause we all know all these athletes play well when they’re on their contract year, like 30+ mil wasn’t enough for Kwame, what a JOKE.

  33. George,
    Sorry you really hate the current Laker team. If we have all those problems we probably will finish at the bottom of the Western Conference, not at the 6-8 spots. If that is true there is nothing any FO could do about it this year.

  34. I ran across this story on Hoopsworld. It is an interesting take on the AK situation in Utah – and money in general. A well thought out article.

    The Laker part that really interested me was the statement by Deron Williams that he intentionally ignored passing the ball to AK when he was open last year. If this statement has any legs at all, the Jazz are going to have to trade AK, or face a real, ugly situation in their locker room all this next year. Given, what AK did this summer for the Russian team, I wonder if Kobe, Fish, or Farmar would refuse to pass AK the ball – were he on the Lakers.

    This is one thing the FO could follow up on.

  35. Opps!

    I didn’t leave the link in the last comment. Sorry.

  36. Nobody is talking about how we started the 06-07 season when the only injury was Mihm. The first month the lakers were playing like a top 5 western team. Lamar was unstoppable and the team was playing pretty good defense. Lakers beat the nuggets, spurs, and played the suns very tough at the beginning of the year. but then injuries brougth the team chemistry down. If Lamar can play the way he showed in the second half of the last playoff game against the suns, lakers will be pretty good. the problem I see other than working on the defense at training camp is how Kobe’s teammates will react to him after the comments he has made.

  37. 36. While the injuries played a part, the Lakers were winning a lot of close games early in the season. If you go by points scored and given up early, their overall numbers were not those of a team that had as good a record as it did (I couldn’t find the numbers on a quick search). Yes, they were playing better than before the injuries, but even if healthy I don’t think they would have maintained that pace.

  38. 36 and 37)

    They also had a very home heavy schedule. I think the team overachieved (record wise) at the beginning of the year and the injuries caused them to have a worse than normal record at the end. I thought they were (and still are) a 45 win ballclub.

  39. I agree with Kurt and Drew (37, 38). I think they lakers are a 46-48 win team though that number can go up or down a few games depending on a lot of factors (injuries (both ours and other teams, chemistry (both ours and other teams [utah]), defense).

  40. Kobe wasn’t all the way back in shape from his surgeries at the start of last year either. He missed some games too during that stretch.

    I have a real good feeling that we’re going to be pleasantly surprised this year. Well, at least some of us. This is only the start of year FOUR of this rebuilding project. No one really should be crying and moaning about there not being another championship here just yet. Not even Jerry West was good enough to engineer a turnaround that quickly.

    50+ wins.

  41. When Kwame is healthy, he can be a very effective post defender. He has all the tools–strength, quickness, agility, decent footwork.And, he’s gotten better every year. If Phil can get him to focus on D in a Ben Wallace/early Rodman kind of way–maybe even pump his ego up around it–I think you will see a big improvement in the paint. And really, there’s nowhere to go but up. Bynum will be a better defender by virtue of experience and superior conditioning (if the reports of his gymrat summer are to be believed). He’s already an above-average shot blocker. And, if the group can stay healthier, Kobe won’t have to carry the load so much offensively, which will allow him to play his “tournament of the America’s” style defense.

    For all the press the triangle offense gets (even though it hasn’t been run correctly since the Bulls heyday), Jackson’s biggest contribution to a team’s success has always been his emphasis on defense. If the team listens to him and shows a bit more hussle, they have the potential to be right in the middle of the pack defensively (say, 14th or 15th overall). Combine that with an above average offense (courtesy of Kobe and Lamar), and you have an improved, if not dominant, group. I don’t think 50 wins is out of the question. Optimistic, maybe–but we’re all Lakers fans here, right?

  42. Since day one, hasn’t the book on Kwame been “if he lives up to his potential?” At this point in his career I just don’t expect that kind of leap forward. I hope he proves me wrong.

  43. Kurt-

    I agree, but I also think his “potential” has always been grossly overestimated. He doesn’t have the hands or the head of a premiere center. He never should have been the #1 overall pick, nor should he have gotten the big contract. But, the fact is, he has shown considerable growth under Phil Jackson. His health has held him back, and may continue to do so. But if his body holds up and he’s willing to stop chasing the pipe dreams of overzealous scouts, there’s no reason why he can’t become a defensive specialist and lock down the middle.

  44. Heard a radio interview with Mitch about an hour ago and a question about Bynum was asked. Mitch said he WAS in the facility practicing every day this summer, except for a 2 week vacation in July. He also said he looked very good and much improved. Let us all hope.

  45. Though Mitch isn’t exactly a neutral source, I don’t doubt that Bynum has been working hard. And, not to change the subject too much, but how tough has HIS summer been? I mean, Kobe Bryant called him out in the first week of vacation (via youtube). And much of Bryant’s very public frustration with management has been centered around their perception of Bynum’s talent level. That is a lot of pressure for a kid who (in another life) would be getting ready to start his junior year of college. If his response has been to live in the training facility, vowing to prove everyone wrong while quietly working on his game, then maybe he possesses the character of a player who shouldn’t be traded before his talent peaks. I’m not saying that passing on Jason Kidd was a managerial coup or anything, but I have heard some pretty nearsighted Bynum trades tossed around. Personally, I’m excited to see what he looks like once the season is under way.

  46. I think Bynum could take a leap forward this year. Not counting on it, but it could happen. Last year, if nothing else, he saw what it takes.

  47. Bynum expectations history:
    First year: We were really ‘bummed out’ about the draft pick because the team wasn’t getting immediate help. Result: We saw flashes that the kid could be a player, but he really didn’t help the team.

    Second year: Now that he had a year under his belt, we expected that he would give us our punch. Result: Injuries forced us to play him too much for his own good and we overlooked the fact that he was only 19, with a 19-yr-old’s maturity, physical development. He did improve a lot over his first year, but we expected Dwight Howard.

    Third year: We wanted him traded because of our disappointment with his 2nd yr. Result: Don’t know yet, but it does seem probable that he will make another noticeable jump in his progress.

    Hey people, this is still a very young center we are talking about. There have been only 3 centers who have exploded on the NBA scene in their 1st yr: Russell, Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. They were all four year collage players with championship type teams. Shaq was good, but he didn’t dominate the game like these three.

    This is not a guy we trade, unless we get a championship caliber team in return – which we can’t get at this time.

  48. Kurt- I just gotta ask, since the story has somewhat been going out all over-

    Would you swap Lamar for the Matrix?

  49. Jeff, this is the topic in the next post’s comment thread. Here’s a sort of answer, and feel free to jump in:

  50. And I’m a complete idiot, and realised it on my way out the door that I had asked in the wrong topic. that’s what I get for staying up WAY too late…