Correlating Offensive Execution To Defensive Success

Darius Soriano —  September 7, 2010

June 10, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02195832 Boston Celtics player Paul Pierce (C) gets a shot blocked by Los Angeles Lakers player Andrew Bynum (L) and Pau Gasol (R) from Spain during the first half of game four of the NBA Finals at TD Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 10 June 2010. The Lakers lead the series over the Celtics 2-1.

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.

Darius Soriano

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9 responses to Correlating Offensive Execution To Defensive Success

  1. First post; greeting all.

    Although he raises some interesting points, his “volatility of offense” argument cuts both ways. Yes, for offensively-oriented teams, there are days when the shots just won’t fall. But, there are also days when the shots fall like rain, and even the best defense can’t stop them.

    For example, was there really anything the Suns could have done against Kobe in Game 6 this year? The Lakers against Ray Allen in Game 2?

  2. @Philip:
    If I’m not mistaken the Lakers kept things close during game 2 in spite of Ray Allen’s shooting. They even led during that fourth quarter and had the opportunity to win it but just couldn’t make it down the stretch.

  3. Nice post. Defense would always win games. As long as your defense hold the opponents offense no matter how poor your shooting percentage is your team will still be in the game because because both teams are not really scoring that much. And if you can stay close enough through 3 1/2 quarters then your team have a great chance to grind it out and win the game despite poor FG shooting. This theory fits best for the Lakers because they have Kobe Bryant who can turn it up when clutch time is there. As long as you can hold the opponents at striking distance you will always have a chance to win the game. And the best way to do that is to play good defense and not allow the other team to blow the game away.

  4. David Thorpe is nice but can be very wrong. Here is an interesting question… since the game is played on a pendulum how can defense help offense anymore or less than offense helping defense if both teams are equal. If your defense (the other teams offense) helps your offense (hurting the others teams defense) that right there Thorpe is arguing against his point. Because that means the other teams offense being poor is hurting the other teams defense and vice versa equally. So if you are scoring well offensively that means you are hurting the other teams defense meaning you are hurting the other teams offense. get it?

  5. Aaron,
    Thorpe’s point was more about how strong defense often leads to stops and turnovers (especially live ball turnovers) which greatly helps offensive efficiency as it enables an offense to operate against a transitioning defense that is less set.

  6. Darius,
    True… but that could mean the other teams offense was equally as bad. Meaning it is equally important to have a good offense as a good defense… to prevent the other teams defense from turning you over as to not help the other teams offense. See what Im saying? Not that everything Phil Jackson says is right (although he mostly is right) but Phil preaches how your offense is your defenses biggest friend. But this isn’t really a chicken or the egg debate. Its a circular kind of job. Because your offense is the other teams defense… and your defense is the other teams offense in this discussion. If defense is more important overall like Thorpe and many other are suggesting than most of their arguments are contradictory. And I have read that true hoop piece. And let me explain… because if it is more important for your team to play good defense for many reasons (but lets focus on Thorpes point) than it inherently has to be equally just as important to have an equally good offense to prevent your opponent from playing good defense (creating turnovers) and making your own defense struggle because they are attacking you in transition. Its kind of funny… because these guys are some relatively intelligent people… but they for some reason forgot that there is more than one team playing in a game. So logically any data or data algorithm that supports offense over defense or defense over offense simply argues against how that data is being collected or the formula that is being used.

  7. … because in this case we already should know the answer mathematically, that offense and defense are equally as important. And knowing the answer is a great tool to then go ahead and re do how we look at the stats and input that data into any formula. We need to figure out a way to change the data and formula to spit out the correct answer (which we already know)… which logically/mathematically will be that offense and defense are equally as important. Its like taking a multiple choice math test. We just need to plug in a bunch of formulas until the right answer pops up at the end. All their stats just show the imperfection in the currently used statistically used formulas. Its actually pretty interesting that these semi smart people who have stated that they previously assumed offense and defense were just as important thing differently now. When obviously they should be second guessing their formula and not their previous answer.

  8. I am not sure how the stats are calculated, but my gut hunch is that the stats come in favor for defense because of the shot clock.

    That’s where the better defensive teams win out, because offenses naturally become worse towards the end of the shot clock.

    So a good defensive team can coerce ‘bad offense’ from a good offensive team, while a good offensive team can not really create a ‘bad defense’ situation just because time is running out.

  9. Defense is something that can be almost 100% consistent throughout any game. Offense is much harder to maintain than defense because its more skill based than effort. So the mathematics in a uniform world where defense and offense are equally calibrated don’t apply to the true reality which is something thats more skill weighted(offense) versus effort weighted(defense). Everybody has the capacity to work hard(well people that don’t have handicaps) where as not everyone can hit 100 three pointers in a row.

    Vin