Speed, Size, and Defensive Efficiency

Darius Soriano —  January 24, 2011

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.

Darius Soriano

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27 responses to Speed, Size, and Defensive Efficiency

  1. Reign on Parades January 24, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Let’s all remember that as far as age goes, Derek certainly has the “worst” combination of age and rotation minutes on the team and yet he’s still one of the best transition defenders in -the league-

    Many times it’s not about speed as much as smarts and determination

    Unfortunately looking at his 82games page about when he takes his shots (a hate article from Silver Screen and Roll summed it up nicely) he also knows his most efficient shots come early in the shot clock, and most of us feel the same about the PUJIT and it’s negative impact on the overall team offense.

  2. About Fisher, I don’t know if it’s my casual watching as much as an actual phenomenon, but it always seems like teams go on runs the moment he goes to the bench. I haven’t tracked it much beyond that (Kobe/Artest sitting at the same times, Bynum in foul trouble, Blake is a much worse defender than we all think, etc.), but my perception is somehow he’s the key to the defense.

    I realize he’s slow laterally and hardly a leaper, but his aggressive bodying-up to the opposing team’s PG, strength, and veteran savvy (by which I mean he knows exactly how much contact he can get away with without being called for it) seems to really confound a lot of offenses, forcing them out of rhythm and into bad shots.

    Mostly I’m just wondering if anyone else has noticed this.

  3. JB,
    I notice this too, but pretty much just in the 1st qtr. By the 2nd qtr and 2nd half the game has developed a flow and Fish doesn’t seem to change this like he does in the beginning of the game. He is usually going out around the 6-8 min mark and that is when flow changes – one way or the other.

    One other thing about this, however. This is also near the time when Pau is currently being replaced by Lamar. I will take your comments and look more closely in the upcoming games.

  4. #2 and #3. Popcornmachine.net tracks such things (here is their game flow from the Denver game) and you can easily see what type of +/- action happens when players are on vs. off the floor. If you really want a good handle on that type of stuff, that’d be a good place to start, imo.

  5. Thanks Darius, however, this also illustrates the limitations of statistics. I looked at Kobe, with 18pts and 13hv. I also followed the game and determined that it was Kobe who directed the action and carried the team, especially the 3rd qtr, and this really secured the win. However the +/-, at -2, is the worst on the team. This would give the impression that Kobe was really the biggest drag when he was on the floor.

    Perhaps I am the one who needs the education, but it does seem people who spout statistics – any kind of statistics – without watching the games are very likely to evaluate players and teams incorrectly.

    I also do recognize the bias we all are prone to when viewing or evaluating teams we have a vested interest in.

  6. Craig,
    I agree that you need to do both (analyze the stats AND watch the games). But, one place where the stats and we saw lined up is what Kobe did in the 3rd quarter. During that stretch he was +11 and when you look at the stats he put up in that frame (14/4/4) you’d know that he was dominant.

    Where the rest of the +/- comes into play is during the other stretches of the game when the Nuggs went on mini runs with Kobe on the floor. However, if you watched the game you’d know that those short stretches didn’t mean as much to the overall result of the game as much as his dominant 3rd period did.

  7. I’ll stay out of the +/- debate and go back to the original point of this piece. The thing that potentially bodes well for the Lakers this spring is that the games almost always slow down in the playoffs, and it’s in the half-court set that the team’s strength’s really show through.

    That’s one big reason LeBron’s had his struggles in the playoffs: he’s not as effective in the half-court as he is in the open floor. Boston uses this against him, as will L.A. hopefully the next time(s) they share the floor with the Heat.

    Defensive balance is the key — no rushed three-pointers, and hold the turnovers down enough to prevent the other team from being able to get out and run, since there’s no way this Lakers’ roster is going to outrun and gun much of anyone. But make them shoot over Bynum and/or Pau, get bumped by a strong PG like Fish, or have to wrestle with Artest and Barnes over 48 minutes — while still trying to hold off the Lakers’ many offensive weapons. Over a series, those things all take their toll on an opponent.

  8. The +/- on Kobe in the first half is fair– his non-defense on Afflalo was the decisive element of the first twenty four, as game-defining as his brilliance in the third.

  9. There’s a lot to think about here, in the post, the links and the comments. I was quite surprised at some of the stats in the piece by Cruyff and how they play into how we normally view teams as fast or not. It does seem a bit of a rabbit hole – stats are hard numbers but analysis of same often tends to cherrypick and shape. I’d be curious to see stat studies on effort, desire and determination. There’s a saying that I like, “speed gets you nowhere, power gets you everywhere.”

  10. Thank you so much for referring to LO as a third big man at 6’10”. I’m sick of people saying the Lakers have 3 seven-footers. We do not.

  11. Interesting theories thoughts and findings, but there is just too much to compute.

    For example, in defense, what is your purpose?

    1. To force a turnover
    2. To force a shot clock violation (not likely)
    3. To force a miss / defensive rebound (in a sense, part of number 1)

    Also, if you surrender a basket, is it better to concede it early in the shot clock or late?

    Teams and coaches will have different opinions on this, and I can certainly see the merit of forcing a shot early in the shot clock as opposed to late, if only to save your team the effort spent on defense (often more tiring than offense).

    So while the speed index is certainly useful, it really needs to be supplemented with some strategic analysis and see if it’s a desired outcome or a forced outcome.

  12. Lakers’ recent DRTG in recent games vs. West teams, pts per 100 possessions:

    110.2 vs. Denver
    126.7 vs. Dallas
    101.1 vs. Oklahoma City
    107.6 vs. the LA Clippers
    118.3 vs. Golden State
    112.8 vs. New Orleans
    106.7 vs. Phoenix
    110.6 vs. Memphis

    This is from HoopData; here is their conclusion:

    “If you “look at the numbers” as Fisher says, but don’t adjust for tempo, it can seem like the Lakers are still playing good defense. Slower paces are artificially lowering scoreboard production. Once you make that adjustment, and toss out their scrimmage against role players wearing Cleveland uniforms, it’s easy to see why West and Jackson were concerned.The Lakers ARE showing their age recently when facing quality in a way that a trained eye is going to catch.”
    ___

    http://hoopdata.com/blogengine/post/2011/01/25/Are-Jerry-West-and-Phil-Jackson-Right.aspx

  13. 8,

    Arron Afflalo has been shooting 43% threes,51.7% twos this season,definitely it is not a fluke, and he was not made into a monster that night.
    This ”Kobe’s non-defense/Kobe’s wandering/freelancing” concept sells very much in Abbottian style I know, but it is way exaggerated for real followers.

  14. 13, I’m confused as to how Afflalo’s season stats contradict the fact that Kobe’s wandering helped Afflalo’s shooting that game. He’s averaging a little under 13 ppg for the season, so 22 is 9 above his average. That’s a pretty big increase IMO. Sure Afflalo shoots it well, but he’s an efficient shooter because he takes good shots, not because he’s a ridiculous shotmaker.

    Kobe’s wandering works great against guys like Westbrook and Rondo (especially Rondo) because they’re poor outside shooters. It bites us in the ass when he’s going against a role-player who only shoots wide open threes, because he gives them tons of wide open threes, like Afflalo, or Battier.

  15. Zephid,
    I think Kobe’s wandering gave Afflalo better looks, but I don’t think it’s a fluke he was making them. So, I think we can all agree there.

    However, I still wonder if the coaches are okay Kobe’s “free safety” style of play. We consistently complain about it, but if the coaches really wanted Kobe pressing up on role players, I’m pretty sure he make a better effort to guard them. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards this being scheme oriented rather than Kobe just going off on his own and compromising the entire defense. There is the line of thought that the Lakers (like a lot of teams) would rather have role players beat you than the best players on each team. Kobe is consistently trying to help off his man and disrupt driving angles or show a second defender to the higher quality wing and post players that the team faces in the hope of limiting their production.

    Now, we can have a discussion on how effective that tactic is but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibilities that this is what he’s doing.

  16. First time poster, been reading your
    excellent work for a couple of years now Darius. I just wanted to say this is one of
    the most intelligent comment threads I’ve ever read. Keep up the good work. Go Lakers!

  17. I was thinking the same thing, Harold. Phil talks a lot about controlling the tempo. The defensive speed index would be most useful if you knew where the coaching staff wanted the team to be, because it would then tell you whether or not they are executing the game plan well or not.

    There has been a lot of talk about the recent emphasis on funneling to the bigs baseline, which makes me think that, just as offensive execution affects the defensive speed index by limiting fast break opportunities for the opponents, this strategy may limit fast break opportunities for us by having the action be closer to the baseline. I know that this still can lead to fast breaks, but it probably leads to fewer than other defensive strategies simply because of positioning. I wonder if our offensive speed index has slowed because of this in the last couple of weeks.

    Artest initiates a lot of our fast breaks with perimeter steals. What if he starts making more of those steals down near the baseline instead of out at the three point line?

    This really does appear to be an improvement over Pace as a metric, but it seems like it can be improved even further. As he states in the article, there wasn’t exact shot clock times, just ranges. But the bigger thing for me would be differentiating types of possessions – after a make, defensive rebound, steal, or offensive rebound. If a team has a lot of steals and offensive rebounds, then their speed index number may be inflated relative to how fast they play in the half court. The other thing that would make it even more useful, of course, would be to attach FG% to various speeds, both offensively and defensively in order to see what is most effective for a specific team so that you could try to do more of that if it’s your team or take away an opponents most effective speed.

  18. 15) Darius,
    “if the coaches really wanted Kobe pressing up on role players, I’m pretty sure he make a better effort to guard them.”
    Kobe has never been one to play within the system on offense or defense as much as he should, and I seriously doubt that that has the coaches’ blessings. This is an instance where Jackson’s technique of letting players figure things out for themselves hasn’t been all that successful.

  19. #18. Where is the evidence that the coaches don’t want him playing this way? Phil has taken plenty of shots at Kobe this year about his offense (whether outright or veiled) and the only thing that he’s said about his defense all season was when Kobe was insisting that he was healthy and Phil said “I don’t think so, you can tell on defense”. But besides that one remark, where is the proof that the coaches don’t want Kobe playing in the style that he is on D.

    I understand the meme of “Kobe doesn’t play in the system” is a popular one, but in this case I’d say that there’s more evidence to support that he’s conforming than what many would like to suggest. Like I said earlier, I think it’s fair to discuss if what he’s doing should be different, I just don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s not doing something the coaches are at least okay with.

  20. 20) Darius,
    Over the years, they have made comments a number of times along those lines, both in regards to his offense and to gambling on defense.

    From a common sense perspective, do you honestly think that the coaching staff is happy with him playing outside the system as much as he does?

  21. #21. exhelodrvr,
    Again, I ask where is the evidence that this is some huge departure from what the coaches are asking him to do? We’re not in the team meetings nor are we privvy to what the coaches discuss with him.

    Granted, we have heard from Phil and the media about implementing a “new” scheme of funneling wing players baseline which also involves wing defenders rotating on P&R’s to help on big man dives rather than always having the other big have to rotate out to cover the wing on ball reversals (this keeps the big men patrolling the paint rather than rotating to shooters). But, we’ve heard nothing about Kobe’s role specifically.

    Like I said before – and no one has yet spoken to this – we can debate whether or not a helping Kobe is better than a sticky-on-wing-offensive players Kobe is the better approach. But to say that what he’s doing now is explicitly *not* what’s been discussed with the coaches is yet to be proven based off the comments that I can recall reading. Maybe that’s because the coaches haven’t said it or because I don’t remember but I do try to keep up with that sort of thing.

    On a related note – the argument could also be made that Kobe playing this style is perfectly in line with what the coaches want based off the assignments that Kobe consistently receives. He’s always guarding a weaker offensive player. Now I see the flip side to this argument (the Lakers have Artest to put on elite offensive players; the Lakers want to save Kobe for offense) but it’s not like he’s proven incapable of guarding elite offensive players (just the other night he was on Carmelo for long stretches) and he uses a completely different approach when guarding stronger offensive players.

    I’m not claiming to know the answer to what the coaches tell him or what they discuss. I’m just looking for evidence of what you’re claiming. If someone can find a quote saying “Kobe needs to guard wing players more closely; we don’t want to give up shots to role players” or something in line with that, I’ll happily go along with what’s being presented as him playing “outside the defensive scheme”.

  22. Tex Winter on Kobe’s defense circa 2005:
    “I’d like to see him play better defense,” “He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense.”
    ****************
    “He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception. “The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team,” Winter added. “Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly.”
    ********************
    “Kobe will overplay and gamble a lot,” Winter said, acknowledging that such a ploy was also a Jordan trait. “But Kobe doesn’t lay back and come up with the basketball.” Tex Winter 2006
    ********************
    “Kobe strangles the offense and more importantly the defense” Tex Winter 2007
    ************************
    ‘Winter also admits that Bryant abandons aspects of the triangle offense with some regularity. But that’s not Winter’s main complaint with the guard:
    “I’d like to see him play better defense,” Winter said, adding that he had addressed the issue recently with Bryant but didn’t come away with the idea that Bryant was intent on changing his approach.
    “You know Kobe,” Winter said with a chuckle. “He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense.”
    Because the Lakers need so much of his effort at the offensive end, Bryant has adopted a save-energy plan on the defensive end, Winter said. “He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception.
    “The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team,” Winter added. “Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly.”’

  23. #23. Ha! Well then. Got to give it up to Tex as he’d usually call it like he sees it. I’d like something more current than 2007 and from someone besides Tex, but your point is well made.

    Like I said earlier too, I’ve got no issues with debating the point if his style is helpful or hurtful to the team (overall, I’d say it’s a wash but there are many games where it does more harm than good).

  24. 24) Darius,
    Kobe is a fantastic player – no question. But what I am most interested in is how the performance of this Lakers roster can be optimized.

    I think the “easy wins” (meaning something that the players are already capable of):

    1) Kobe playing within the systems better
    2) Gasol being more aggressive/physical
    3) Odom being consistently focused

    3) seems to be happening this season

    1 and 2 would have a positive impact of at least several ppg on the point differential, which would be very significant.

  25. #25. exhelodrvr,
    We pretty much agree and I think those things are mostly doable. But, I think #1 on your list has been happening a lot more of late (for the past few weeks) and #2 is mostly about decisiveness (which has been a process for most of the season for him).

    In the end, though, I mostly trust that this team will play the way they need to come playoff time. We’ll just have to see if it’s good enough.

  26. 25,

    Kobe is a class-A defense player if you could just reach beyond steal/block numbers.His all-defensive selections are all spot on against what Dwyer might argue in his own way.