Time to Mix it Up

Bill Bridges —  December 15, 2008

NBA 2008 - Lakers Beat Timberwolves 98-86
Every Laker fan is also a Laker critic. It is a divine right of the Laker fan to complain if the team does not meet lofty expectations and blow out each opponent. Much has been said and written about the new Lakers defense. But the switch in performance and the magnified switch in fan sentiment regarding the Laker’s defense is probably unparalleled. At the beginning of the season, the new “strong-side zone” defense masterminded by the new Defensive Coordinator Kurt Rambis had lifted the team to #1 in total defense prompting national media attention and admiration. Recently, the same SSZ defense is prompting ridicule from the likes of perennial all-defensive-team stalwart, Mark Jackson: “The Lakers are a bad defensive team…”

It is as if the ’74 Steel Curtain transformed into the ’08 Detroit lions in the span of 4 games. So it is time to strip away the rhetoric and opinions and try to examine this defense objectively and render a fair critique. In so doing, there are at least 3 separate components.

1. The strategy. The over-all structure of the defense. What is the scheme? What is the objective? 

2. Execution. Are the players executing the strategy with effort?

3. The personnel. Do the players have the skills to execute the strategy?

The Strategy.  The goal is to take advantage of the new zone defence rules to create a hybrid defense. The strong-side players actually play man-to-man. Ball placement in the wing area draws the weak-side post player to the strong-side mid post who zones off that region, preventing penetration and help either to the high or low post. As Frank Hamblen recently said, each player is playing his man and ½ of another by being ready to provide help for his team-mates. In the beginning of the season, the help was more judiciously applied such as when the opponent had picked up his dribble, or in the corners. This is a trap. The offensive player is put under pressure resulting in sub-optimal results such as errant passes. More recently the help has been coming at all times. This is doubling – not trapping. Doubling John Salmons when he is still has his dribble is not smart. This help is easy to beat with a quick pass out to the top, resulting in defensive scramble, and invariably, an open shot. 

The result of this constant helping? Reduced steals, open looks and wide open lanes for dribble penetration. If the strategy is of the defense is to pick and choose trap opportunities, the team has not been executing it.

On high screen and rolls, the strategy seems to be, with no regard for the opposition, a hard show by the bigs with the man covering the ball (usually Fisher or Farmar) NOT fighting through or going under the screens but covering the zone between Bynum/Pau and their men until the bigs begin their retreat back to the basket at which time, Fisher/Farmar re-engage with their men.  Because they have constant “show” help, Fisher/Farmar are playing their men very tight, trying to disrupt the offense.  

There are two issues problems with this strategy. Any move played without variation, whether in chess, or baseball pitches, will be beaten. The bigs should sometimes NOT show, just to change the rhythm. Second, the tight play by Fisher/Farmar (not the quickest of guards anyway – more later) only make them easier to beat off the dribble even without the aid of a pick.

My observation is that if you had to pick one strategic move causing the Lakers the most problems is their tight-coverage/constant-show on the screen and roll. This strategy is the wrong one for this team and because of it the entire defense breaks down due to the resulting dribble penetration. Dribble penetration exposes the bigs who have to help, bring their man toward the hoop and whether the outcome is a layup, foul, open 3, or offensive rebound, the chances are that the results are not good.

Execution. I don’t believe that the execution has really changed much throughout the year. Defensive execution is about coaching and basketball IQ. By the time a player has made the NBA and he still has not learned to keep between his man and the hoop while keeping an eye on the ball, it is probably too late for him to learn. There are several Lakers who apparently have not learned this simple skill. One of the reasons for the benching of the stronger, quicker, taller Vlade for Luke is that Luke has these fundamental skills while Vlade does not. Farmar never had these skills and Lamar seems to have lost his. 

As far as effort, I actually think the players are trying harder than they were at the beginning of the season. But to quote the Wizard, “don’t mistake activity for achievement”. Constant doubling demands a lot of hard work. Unfortunately such indiscriminate activity puts the defense in easy-to-exploit scramble mode. More lazy, but discriminate trapping would be far more effective.

Personnel. No matter the validity of the strategy and degree of execution. These two factors have to fit the characteristics of the personnel. For the most part, an aggressive trapping defense fits well. In Kobe, Ariza, and Odom, the Lakers have disruptive wing players who can both provide trap pressure and intercept errant passes.  Although even here recently (perhaps spurred on by the wager made by several players on highest steals totals) too many steals attempts are being made on passes to the middle rather than cross court. A missed steal on a cross court pass gives team mates a chance to rotate over. A missed steal to a pass to the free throw line to the top of the key creates a wide open lane.

Where the strategy does not fit with the personnel is the idea that the wing players should constantly funnel their man baseline to the bigs and the aforementioned hard show on the screen and roll. Funnelling the man to the hoop requires having a big that can change the shot without fouling. A Zo, Wallace, even Chandler.

Against the Kings recently, Bynum showed he has simply has not learned how to defend a small attacking the basket without fouling. Bynum’s best defense is against other bigs (Amare, Bogut, Jefferson), not help defence against smalls. He has to decide whether he is going to block the shot, make a hard foul, or get out of the way. Doing none of the three results in feeble denial attempts that results in an and-more often than any 7’ 285 pound center who can dunk without jumping should ever give up. Kwame has shown (and Roy Hibbert of all players has echoed) that merely standing straight up with arms straight in the air is an incredible deterrent. Bynum has to be coached to play help defence with intent and purpose. Surely he must be tired to making a half-hearted attempt to block a small’s layup a step too slow only to be charged for a foul. I know that I am. As I am tired of his inevitable whining about the unjust call.  Maybe the wing player should just play good defense, move their feet and draw a charge (heaven forbid) instead of letting their man go base line.

Also, whether it is due to lack of quickness or desire, Bynum simply is unable to show hard and get back to his man. 

If you are watching the defense intently, the sheer lack of defensive skills and instincts of Farmar is quite shocking. I wrote in the Kings game thread that the defense would be better without Farmar at all and the Lakers playing  4 on 5 as at least then his man might be tempted to shoot the open jumper instead of abusing Farmar at will and driving to the hoop. It is as if his coach had not taught him to watch his man’s belly instead of his eyes or the ball. Every twitch of the ball handler had Farmar jumping until his man decided to take him out of his misery and blow by him. Farmar might be that rare athlete who is fast when running straight with the ball to the hoop while being slow moving laterally, and explosive  and strong when rising for a dunk but not when fighting through a pick. 

Both point guard’s inability to keep their men in front of them and the scramble that the hard show creates should result in the Defensive Coordinator adjusting and changing the strategy.

My suggestions on what this change could be are:

1. The default defense for screen roll should be for the bigs not to show and the guard to go under the screen. I would much rather have Udrih taking long jump shots or trying to initiate the offense from the three point line than having a straight line to the basket. Show occasionally to mix it up.

2. If you show, rarely do it with Bynum. And never do it if a Bynum/Farmar combo is the defense.

3. Do show with Lamar. He is the best show help defender on the team. His screen and roll defense against Tony Parker 2 seasons ago was a revelation. When Lamar is on the floor, put him against the big that usually sets the high screen and roll. 

4. Whatever you do. Change is up. 

5. Consider putting Ariza on the point. Much like San Antonio, make the point guard shoot over a taller quicker player who can play off him as a result of his size. Considering the dearth of wings who can play from the post, if Parker isn’t exposed on defense neither will be Fisher.

6. Play straight man defense sometimes. Again, change it up. The current defense is akin to an all out blitz. This works for a while but then the offense will screen pass you to death and eventually figures out a blocking scheme to kill you over the top. The triangle is fluid, changing and morphing to adapt to the defense. Why can’t the defense adapt to the offense?

Despite the “sky is falling” laments from the fan base I think we should take heart in the performance so far. Think of the first 23 games as practice for a new kind of hybrid defense. Constant practice has made them better at it but constant use has made them vulnerable to the opposition. Now it is time to use it as just one of their many options in a multi-dimensional, adaptive defense that leverages the strengths of their personnel whilst hiding the players’ natural weaknesses.

—Bill Bridges

Bill Bridges

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