Defending point guards has long been an issue for the Lakers. Derek Fisher is a good defender is several ways – he’s a bulldog fighting through screens, he’s still a master at drawing offensive fouls, and there are few players I’d trust more as the last man back in a 2 on 1 or 3 on 1 situation for the opposition – but man on man/on an island defense against the PG’s of the NBA is an area where Fisher struggles.
And there’s no shame in that. This is a golden era for point guard with names like Paul, Williams, Rose, Westbrook, Rondo, Nash, and Parker on the docket on any given night. You throw in less established/young players like Curry, Lawson, Brooks, Jennings Evans, and Wall or veteran leaders like Kidd, Billups, Harris, Nelson, Baron, Miller, and Calderon and there’s really not a night off for guys what have to defend this position.
The fact is, though, that the Lakers must do better when defending these players. PER isn’t a perfect stat, but it is a very good all encompassing one for measuring a player’s efficiency (mostly on offense). The league average PER for PG’s is 13.74 (per HoopData). Derek Fisher allows PG’s to sport a PER of 19.7 every night. Steve Blake allows a PER of 17.9. For comparisons sake, Paul Pierce has a PER of 19.5 and Danny Granger has a PER of 17.9. Both of those players are recent all-stars at their respective positions and the Lakers allow PG’s to perform at that level of efficiency nearly every night.
The question then is what do the Lakers do about it?
In certain instances, the Lakers have found a solution. They use Kobe Bryant to defend PG’s. Just yesterday Kobe marked Russell Westbrook whenever they shared the court. Since the 2008 Finals he’s been deployed the same way against Rajon Rondo. Throughout his career he’s been used to guard Jason Kidd, Deron Williams and Tony Parker in stretches and if the Lakers need a stop or want to switch up their scheme, I wouldn’t doubt if we see this tactic resurface. So, should the Lakers go to this more often?
Answering that question isn’t as easy as you might think. First, the cons:
- Kobe is older now and can’t be expected to chase around the waterbug PG’s of the league. Having to do this will force him to expend energy that is better directed towards offense.
- Kobe’s never been the best player in fighting over screens and the P&R is the predominant set that PG’s use in order to initiate offense when they’re the best player/playmaker for their team.
- Kobe is known to wander on defense and some of these PG’s represent the better shooters in the league.
Now, some pro’s:
- Kobe, when engaged, is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. He’d need to be engaged if guarding the opposing PG and thus we’d see higher quality D.
- Kobe’s a master of using angles in basketball and his ability to funnel ball handlers is a given direction is an underrated part of his individual defense.
- Kobe has very good size and thus can lay off PG’s while still being a defensive presence in contesting shots and passes.
- By putting Kobe on the opposing PG’s the opposition must account for Kobe on defense in a different way than their normal game plan would dictate.
That last point, to me, is a major plus in the argument for this to happen. One of the smarter writers out there is Zach Lowe at SI’s the Point Forward. Here’s a note he made about Russell Westbrook and the Thunder offense from yesterday’s game in his Monday Musing’s column:
The Thunder were clearly confident that Westbrook could attack Kobe Bryant on pick-and-rolls, and they ran that play to death in the first half. And you could see Durant becoming frustrated; at one point during a Westbrook-dominant stretch, Durant came open at the top of the arc as Westbrook dribbled on the wing, and he began hopping and waving his arms to get the ball. Westbrook didn’t pass, and Durant stopped hopping, deflated. Having two great players is fantastic, obviously, but the Thunder are still figuring out how to find the tricky balance between a scoring point guard and a scoring wing player.
And this is from a column Zach wrote following the last Lakers/Celtics game:
And if you look at every Boston possession over the last five minutes of the game, you’ll see that the Celtics had essentially given up trying to run their normal offense against this strategy. The Celtics took the ball out of Rondo’s hands and had their veteran players initiate the offense down the stretch. The Lakers, in other words, turned the point guard into a finisher rather than a creator, and Boston’s offense is built around Rondo serving as the creator.
You see, when the Lakers put Kobe on the opposing PG, an adjustment occurs. The Thunder tried to attack him more often and thus went away from their scoring champion SF (who, if fully disclosing, was being handcuffed by Ron Artest) in order to try and get baskets. Meanwhile, the C’s inverted their entire offense by having Pierce initiate and Rondo become the spot up shooter. Ultimately, neither of these approaches worked and the Lakers – who have been using this tactic against these teams for the past year (or more) - won both games and have also defeated both teams in last year’s playoffs.
So, it’s obvious that this is a technique that works. Should the Lakers go to it more? Do the pros outweigh the cons? I don’t have a definitive answer here and there are other considerations not mentioned (is there a non offensive threat for Fisher/Blake to guard?) but this may be an issue that needs further exploring. I know that Phil is big on roles and that disrupting the defensive identity of the team may not be needed at this point in the season, but if the Lakers end up facing elite PG’s in the playoffs (which is almost a given) don’t be surprised if we see this switch occur. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.