Since the days of Show Time (and even from the West/Baylor/Chamberlain era), the Lakers have been known as an offensive team. Despite the mantras of “Defensive wins championships” and “No rebounds, no rings”, most fans and all of the press basically ignored these aphorisms as it applies to the Lakers. No, the Laker s are about scoring, and scoring in spectacular ways.
Well if the 2009/2010 Lakers continue at current pace, they are about to shatter this perception. With basically the same personnel*, they have transformed from an outstanding offensive team that played very good defense to a mediocre offensive team that plays outstanding defense.
In 08/09, LAL was ranked 3rd at offensive efficiency at 112.8 and 6th at defensive efficiency at 104.7. The league average was 108.3. This year the Lakers are 19th on offense at 105.5 and 3rd on defense at 100. The league average is 106.0. Had the bench been able to maintain large 4th quarter leads, undoubtedly both the offensive and defensive ratings would be better. However, this marginal increase might have pushed the Lakers to 15 – 17th on offense whereas on defense the Lakers would be 1st.
Even with the spotty bench play, the Lakers would be #1 on defense if they had a higher Defensive Rebounding Rate because of their excellent defensive EFG% . And lthough recently improved, the Lakers’ Defensive rebounding rate is .712 which is 24th in the league. Offensive rebounds create shots at the rim or shots while the defense is in scramble mode (remember Tim Thomas’s back breaking 3 in game 6 when the Lakers couldn’t handle the defensive rebound?) and increases the defensive team’s Ortg.
So the questions that come to mind are:
- Why is the defense so good
- Why are they so poor at defensive rebounding
- Why is the offense so mediocre
The answers to all three points are related. It is no secret that the Lakers have thrived in the paint this year. Using the NBA hotspots designations, last year the 42% of the Lakers’ FGA was at the rim (for a FG% of 58%). This year whilst shooting a slightly lower FG% of 55%(no doubt due to Kobe’s dominance and Pau’s absence), 44% of their shots are at the rim. Both the rate and FG% should increases with Pau’s return.
Shots in the paint act to reduce the opponent’s offensive efficiency. Short shots do not create long rebounds. Long rebounds fuels fast breaks. Transition offense is the easiest and most efficient offense. Reducing this improves defensive efficiency. A made baskets is the best catalyst of good defense as the offense begins by taking the ball out of the rim and the defense can get set. This is where EFG% is misleading. I’d much rather have a team shoot 60% from 2 exclusively than 40% from 3 even though the EFG% is the same because there are 20% less missed shots that could possibly create transition offense for the opposition.
So shots in the paint improves the Lakers’ ability to get back and get their defense set. Bynum, especially has been hustling back – for the first time in his career. In addition, the team seems to have a strategy on defending the screenroll. They do not stick to one scheme. Sometimes the defender goes under the screen, other times he fights over. When he fights over, the big consistently shows aggressively and gets back to his man. The Lakers have been very good this year at reducing penetration. Reducing penetration and the resulting kick out for a wide-open 3, shows in their defensive 3FG% of .297, best in the league. Their overall FG% defensive isn’t too shabby either at .421, second in the league. Fisher’s perimeter defense has been outstanding – not coincidentally aided by Bynum’s improvement on the show and recovery phases of screenroll defense. Farmar has been surprisingly good also, especially at fighting over screens – a skill I thought he would never ever get.
So nearly 71% of the opponent’s 3 point shots result in misses. Missed 3 point shots create long rebounds. Long rebounds’ trajectories are more volatile than short shots and harder to gage. Remember your high school physics? E = ½ mv^2. A long shot by definition has higher kinetic energy and the bounce is both longer and more erratic. Long erratic bounces create more opportunities for the offensive team to rebound the ball. Also, when teammates expect a miss they crash the boards more. Whereas when every shot is going in teammates begin to jog back on defense. Of course, here Bynum’s eagerness the run down on offense to establish the “seal” on offense does not help him in working harder for a tough rebound. He has improved markedly in this arena though in the last few games and this has helped as has the guards’ recent aggressiveness in rebounding long misses (in the Knicks game, Fisher collected 5 defensive rebounds which must be a season high). So as long as the Laker’s deter post offense, reduce dribble penetration, and rotate out to shooter, opponent’s 3FG% will be low. Pau’s return, better guard rebounding, and more focus from Bynum will help, but the Lakers will not lead the league in Defensive Rebounding Rate.
What about on offense. Surprisingly this year’s Lakers have a higher pace than last year’s, 96 versus 94.3 for 6th fastest in the league. So why is the Lakers’ offense so much worse this year than last. Some possible reasons:
1. Pau’s absense. An obvious factor as he is such an excellent facilitator.
2. Abysmal shooting by the bench. (As well as the selfish play, turnovers etc. etc. let’s not go on …)
3. LO has not been posting up. He is very effective posting up on the right block but can’t remember more than a few instances when the Lakers used him in this way. It is as if he expected the spate of 3 point shooting in the finals to carry over. It hasn’t and LO has reverted back to the mean. And it hurts.
Now that he is in the second unit, LO should be the go to guy in the post. This will increase his FG%, creat better floor balance, and generate open perimeter looks. LO will pass out of double teams whereas Bynum has trouble doing so. I look for PJ to set up LO down low more often with the second unit. This will dramatically improve the offense rather than having him floating around on the perimeter taking jump shots. Improved offense, especially low post offense, means better defense. This will help to improve point #2.
4. The lack of free throws. The Lakers have been poor at drawing fouls and going to the line. They are 28th in the league averaging .185 FT attempts per FGA. Free throws are the best quality shots, of course. Free throws also help the defense, for reasons already mentioned. What is odd is that given that the Lakers are the most low-post oriented team and get the most points in the paint in the League, you would think that it would also draw a lot more free throws. Indeed the other teams with low FT/FGA ratios are all perimeter teams; the Knicks, Bucks, Wolves, and Bulls. This is hard to understand. Perhaps the fact that post play is officiated as a wrestling match whereas the perimeter is a dance hall hurts the Lakers. Pau, Bynum, and Kobe can be pounded inside without a call whereas the slightest incidental contact to Chris Paul draws a whistle. Other factors include that the Lakers do not have a single player who aggressively drive to the rim and finish with the exception of Kobe. And even Kobe drives less than he did before. Contrast the Lakers with Denver. Anthony, Billups, Lawson, and even Smith will aggressively drive to the hole and look for contact. When the Lakers drive, they seem to shy away from contact (other than Kobe – and Fish but then he never gets any calls). The Lakers were poor last year too, ranking 21st in the league. However, this year’s disparity with the highest foul-drawing teams is ridiculous. The difference of the FT/FGA rate of the best team (Denver at .29) to LA was .06 (.29 -.23) in 08/09. This means that last year, for every 100 FGA, Denver shot 6 more free throws than the Lakers. A significant disparity but not overly so. This year that difference is .144 (.329 – .185). That means that for 100FGA, Denver (yes it is Denver again) shoots 14.4 more free throws than the Lakers. This difference is outrageous and I think explains more than any other of the reasons above why the offensive efficiency is so low.
*I could write an entire post detailing how good Artest has been on defense but anyone who watched him shut down Joe Johnson and Kevin Durant can’t wonder whether the Artest/Ariza trade was an upgrade or not – at least on defense. On offense he is finishing 50% at the rim which is a worry but not surprising and has not been a over-dribbling ball-hog at all this year as many feared.