While the Lakers have typically been seen as a team that relies on its offense (that Triangle thing they run has led to quite a few championships over the years), we’ve long said that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them. With a top 10 defense this year (based off defensive efficiency – points allowed per possession), the Lakers are a strong (though not elite) defensive outfit that has proven that they can get the key stop if not the ones that aren’t that crucial. This fact has led many to wonder if the Lakers really have what it takes to defend (sorry for the pun) their championship in what they hope will be a run to a third straight Larry O’Brien trophy.
One person that’s questioning the Lakers ability to play the level of defense needed is Laker legend Jerry West. The Logo mentioned that age may finally be catching up to the Lakers and added that “The reason you can’t play defense is because you can’t”.
As we linked to this morning, Land O’ Lakers caught up with Phil and asked him to repsond to to West’s comments:
“He’s right,” Jackson said. He was kidding, of course, but Jackson did elaborate. “We have to do a lot of things right to be able to play defense the way we want to, and most of it is about controlling the tempo of a game,” he said. “There’s something about just speed. Outright speed. We’re not the fastest team on the boards here in the NBA, but we can do it if we control things in the right way.”
These comments had me again thinking about the correlation between effective offensive execution and how that translates to defense.
But before I could get too far down that path in my mind, I came across a tremendous article at SB Nation by At The Hive head man Rohan Cruyff that introduced the concept of a “speed index” as a supplement to the traditional ways that we think about pace and how possessions are played out in NBA games. In the article, Rohan discusses concepts of both offensive and defensive pace, explaining that the pace of a game can not only be explained by how fast one team plays (for example, how the Suns consistently rush the ball up court and take quick shots) but also how the opposition decides to attack that same team when they then have to defend. He uses data from 82games.com to examine at what point in the shot clock an offensive team shoots against the defesne they’re facing and found some great data that he charts out and explains very well. It’s really a tremendous and insightful read and you should go check it out (like, right now).
Relating this back to the Lakers, Rohan found that the team we root for is one that teams try to attack early in the shot clock by shooting quickly. In fact, the Lakers rank third in the league in terms of how quickly shots are attempted against their defense.
When thinking back to Phil Jackson’s comments, this makes tremendous sense. The Lakers are a big team and is only one of a handful of squads that possess two legitimate 7 footers in their lineup (as well as a third big man at 6’10″). This makes attacking them in the half court very difficult because as Kurt Helin said:
Since the return of Andrew Bynum to the starting lineup, the Lakers defense is better when it gets set. They have made a point of keeping Bynum home to protect the paint. The wing defenders have done a better job of funneling players looking to drive toward the baseline and toward the long arms of Bynum (and Pau Gasol).
So, by attacking the Lakers early in the shot clock teams are hoping that they can get a quality look before those trees plant themselves in the paint to contest interior shots and the Lakers aggressive wing defenders have a chance to get offensive players in their crosshairs and force them into their awaiting bigs. This style of defense plays to the Lakers strengths because what they lack in footspeed they counter with sheer size and strength in the both the defensive post and on the wing.
Plus, the fact is that the Lakers, better than anyone else, know what their weakness is. Every game, we discuss the need to get back in transition and build a wall against whatever quick ball handler the opposition possesses. When Deron Williams and the Jazz visit Staples Center tommorow, you can bet this will come up in the same way it does when the team plays the Thunder (Westbrook), Rockets (Brooks), the Suns (Nash), etc, etc.
Getting back to Phil’s comments and what we’ve discussed here many times before, as much as the Lakers must rely on their defense as they advance through the season, remember how this ties back into their offense. Because the fact of the matter is, if the Lakers can control the tempo of their offense by not forcing up quick shots, keeping a balanced floor, and keeping the requisite number of players transitioning back on defense teams will find fewer and fewer chances to exploit this team in the open court. And if the Lakers are able to accomplish that, their defensive efficiency will only get better and they’ll be right on track in where they want to go this season.