Since before my time of heading up FB&G, the mantra of this site has been that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them. Because while the Lakers offense (with Kobe being the centerpiece of it all) has often positioned them as a successful team and one of the true glamour franchises, it’s been the Lakers’ ability to get stops that has truly propelled them into contention. No more evidence is needed than what’s been shown in the past three seasons where the Lakers have won two championships on the back of their ability to defend (at least in the key moments of games) and lost a title because their offense was flummoxed while their defense couldn’t secure the needed stops to earn the needed victories.
What’s had me thinking about the Lakers defense in the past couple of weeks are two specific things. First is my re-watching of the Lakers’ game 7 win over the Celtics. In that epic slug fest of a deciding game, the Lakers’ held the Celtics to a 45.1 EFG% while allowing an excellent 95.1 offensive rating from the C’s (stats via basketball-reference). In no quarter did Boston score more than 23 points (and that was the opening period) and the Lakersessentially tightened the D en route to an NBA title. (The Lakers’ offensive rebounding helped a bunch too, but securing stops, I think was just as important. The ability to get secondchance points means nothing if the other team has built too big a lead for those second chances to really matter.)
The second thing that has had me thinking about defense are the series of excellent postsput together by Henry Abbott over at TrueHoop exploring the why in the definitive statement that defense wins championships (give them all a read – they’re well worth your time). For the basis of his posts, Abbott used an article from Neil Paine at Basket Ball-Reference where the past 50 years of data were explored to show that when a team’s defense improved their chances of winning a championship also improved.
One person that provided feedback to Abbott’s posts was David Thorpe (whose basketball insight is always appreciated):
David Thorpe has been reading all this, and loves the idea that good defense may be a marker for team cohesion. However, he also thinks we have been missing a major point, which is that good defense leads to good offense, and the opposite is less true.
And, as usual, Thorpe is right in that good defense typically does lead to good offense. Whether by forcing turnovers (that lead to fast break points and easy baskets) or by forcing misses that lead to rebounds and the ability to transition to offense against a scrambling defense, good defense is a great offensive spark for the team transitioning from defense to offense. One only need to remember how successful the OKC Thunder were against the Lakers when they were able to force misses and then use their athletic advantage in the open court to ram the ball down LA’s throat for easy buckets and trips to the FT line.
However, when Thorpe says that “good D leads to good O while the opposite is less true”, one team that this doesn’t necessarily apply to is the Lakers. You see, the Lakers run an offensive system that is supposed to allow an easy transition to defense. Said another way, when run correctly, the Triangle should allow the Lakers to transition to defense very effectively and set up their half court defense. This is true even without producing a made basket; a made basket that should slow down the opposing offense by forcing them to take the ball out of the net before getting into their own offense.
And the reason for this easy transition is offensive spacing and a balanced floor. The Lakers strive to achieve both of these principles every time they set up their offense andby doing so, they are trying to position players on the court in a manner that leads to success both offensively and defensively. For example, on nearly every offensive possession, the Lakerslike to set up in a two guard front where both guards (I use the term “guard” here loosely as any player – from Odom to Artest to Gasol – can be in this position) are above the three point line and outside the lane line. Even when an entry pass is made and these top side guards cut through, the natural motion of the offense leads to players filling into these spots on the floor to allow for that spacing to remain intact. And with this spacing and floor balance in place, any time a shot goes up the two top side guards can then retreat to the defensive end in order to slow the ball down and allow for the rest of the team to get back and join their defensive mates. Essentially, when the Lakers play good offense, good defense follows.
I’ll use the OKC series as an example again. In that series, many credit the switching of Kobe Bryant onto Russell Westbrook as the major change that increased the Lakers’ defensive effectiveness as a unit. And while that is true, what also made a difference was the Lakers’ commitment to executing their offense at a higher level. As we described in this post, the Lakers return to running the Triangle was a major theme of their Game 5 win. And with that return of the offense we also saw the Thunder’s offense suffer through one of the worst games of their season. I mean, the Lakers focusing on spacing, cutting, floor balance, and inside play directly led to OKC having to face the Lakers’ set defense for the majority of the game andthe results weren’t pretty – a series high 20 3pt FGA, their second lowest point total of the series, and their 2nd lowest FG% of the series.
It’s no coincidence that the Lakers defense has proven to be stronger when their offense is executed better. In fact, it’s actually a testament to the individual defense of the Lakers and their greater commitment to that side of the ball that they were able to maintain a high defensive efficiency this past season (4th in the NBA) even though their offensive execution was not up to the standard of past years. I give a lot of credit to Artest, an improved Bynum, Kobe, and the still underrated-defensively Pau Gasol for helping the Lakers to thrive on that side of the ball this past year. Next season, I hope to see a greater commitment to offensive execution which should only lead to an even better defensive year. And if that does occur, I think we’ll finally see the full potential of this Lakersteam on both sides of the ball – with a win total to match.