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.