Matt Scribbins provides insight and analysis throughout ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, including at HoopData and Magic Basketball. He graduated with distinction from Iowa State University last spring, where he was also a member of the Cyclone football team. In the fall, Matt is part of Football Outsiders’ Game Charting Project. You can also find him on twitter: @mattscribbins
Location, Location, Location
The switch has flipped. The swagger of the champion is back. The Lakers are 15-1 since the All-Star break, and poised for another journey to the ring. Some people think Kobe’s jutting of the jaw sparked the run. Others credit Gary Vitti for working miracles in the training room. I tend to think it’s the Lakers ability to play traffic cop.
Have you ever left a stadium with intentions of driving home, but the traffic cops forced you into a gridlock? You just wanted to make one right turn, but instead you were waved through and ended up in pure misery. Well, the defending champs are playing traffic cops on the hardwood since the All-Star break. The Lakers are routing frustrated opponents from high percentage shooting areas, and forcing them to jack up shots from BFE (beyond fifteen, every time).
This article will use the following designations: Zone 1 (within 2 feet of hoop), Zone 2 (3-9 feet), Zone 3 (10-15 feet), Zone 4 (16-23 feet), and Zone 5 (three point shots).
At the Rim
According to Hoop Data, 63.8% of shots in Zone 1 are successful, on average for all teams. Through fifty seven games, 28.24% of shots against the Lakers were attempted in this area. In the last sixteen games, Laker opponents are afforded 1.31% fewer shots per game at this distance. This may not look like a key transformation, but any reduction in the highest percentage shots is significant if the goal is to score points. Nearly a third of the Lakers last sixteen contests have been close (five points or less). In games decided by a bucket or two, it’s critical to get to the rack.
Opponents cannot be thrilled with a reduction in attempts, and compounding this problem is their shooting percentage near the cylinder. Before Staples Center hosted the All-Star Game, teams were making about 62% of their shots in Zone 1. Since February 22nd, the Lakers imposing front line has forced opponents to shoot a little worse within two feet of the rim. The Lakers field goal percentage allowed in Zone 1 since the break (60.9%) would be the best in the West if they played this way throughout the season.
Unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, shots at the rim are a highlight. Before the break, teams were making an above average percentage (39.3%) of shots in Zone 2 versus the Lakers. Phil Jackson and his staff must have placed an emphasis on defending this space during the stretch. Opponents’ shooting percentage has plummeted nearly 22% in Zone 2, falling to below 31%.
Laker opponents are actually making three point shots at higher rate than shots in Zone 2 since the All-Star break. This year, the Bulls defensive field goal percentage of 33.2% in Zone 2 is the best in the NBA, and it’s not even close. It is extremely impressive the Lakers have blown that mark out of the water since the middle of February. Los Angeles may not maintain this absurd rate through the playoffs, but the defensive commitment along their front line suggests they could keep it dang low.
Riding #17 to title #17
The man in the middle, Andrew Bynum, deserves much of the credit for the success inside. If opponents enter Mr. Bynum’s neighborhood, he greets them with a headache instead of a handshake.
No one will mistake Marcin Gortat for Hakeem Olajuwon, but the big man was a beast against Los Angeles recently. Gortat has averaged 4.5 shots per game at the rim this season with the Suns. When Andrew Bynum sat out the recent triple overtime game, Gortat attempted twelve shots in Zone 1, and he made 75% of them. (To the Triple Overtime Conspiracy Theorists – the vast majority of Gortat’s attempts were in regulation). Furthermore, the Suns, who average the third fewest Zone 1 attempts in the West, shot a whopping 36 times within two feet of the hoop. Clearly, Phoenix tried to take advantage of #17’s absence. In the team’s previous meeting, Bynum was in the lineup and Gortat only attempted five shots at the rim. As a team, the Suns attempted half as many shots in Zone 1 when Bynum played.
Want further proof of Bynum’s status as a Do Not Enter sign? During the pre-All-Star slump, the Lakers visited Amway Center on February 13th. In 39 minutes of action, MVP candidate Dwight Howard made 12 of his 13 shots within nine feet of the rim. By the final horn, the Magic had attempted 22 shots in Zone 1 and sent the Lakers into Valentine’s Day with heartburn.
Dwight Howard strolled into Staples Center and faced a vengeful Bynum one month later. This time, Howard only got off eight shots in Zones 1 and 2, and he actually played four more minutes than the previous matchup. More important, he only made four shots within nine feet. The Lakers won by 13 and Howard scored 16 fewer points in Zones 1 and 2. Fairness in conversation, Howard did make three shots from Zone 3. However, you don’t need the Zen Master’s acumen to realize it’s better for Los Angeles if Howard attempts jumpers instead of dunks.
We could provide examples all day, but this is the final one. On December 12th, the Nets hosted the Lakers for Part I of the Kardashian Bowl. This was Bynum’s last game on the bench before he made his season debut. The Nets attempted 36 shots in Zone 1, and another 16 from Zone 2. On January 14th, Bynum was in the lineup for round II. New Jersey attempted 25% fewer shots at the rim, and 20% fewer shots overall within nine feet.
Other factors may have played into the skewed shot distribution with Bynum in and out of the lineup, but the big man is definitely a driving factor in the discrepancies.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles redesigned their pick and roll defense, as described by Kevin Ding. The Lakers wanted Bynum to stay in the lane, instead of helping on guards near the key. Ding said “the concession is the Lakers will let opponents take mid-range jumpers from 15 to 19 feet.” This is an extremely favorable concession for Los Angeles, as long jumpers drop less frequently than shots at the rim.
NBA Playbook’s Sebastian Pruiti has great video examples of this change in philosophy. The best example is this one, when Atlanta’s Joe Johnson works off a screen, sees Bynum in the lane, and is forced to launch a low percentage jumper with Ron Artest in his face.
Pick Your Purple Poison
Would you rather get pummeled by 1986 Mike Tyson, or 1987 Mike Tyson? This is basically the decision opponents face when deciding where to shoot against the Lakers. With Bynum’s dominance inside, teams are actually electing to take on two of the best defenders in history, Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers’ defensive goal since Christmas has been to force long jumpers, and now they are. Before the break, teams attempted 24% of their shots in Zone 4. During the 15-1 stretch, challengers have increased their percentage of long jumpers by about 7%. Historically, this is a horrible zone from which to shoot.
Since the break, Los Angeles has forced opponents to shoot more than 15 long jumpers (16-23 feet) in all but three games. In the games that teams shot fewer than 15 (@Miami, vs. Orlando, vs. Phoenix), the Lakers are 2-1, and one of the victories was the two point win versus Phoenix.
So, why are players still attempting shots from Zone 4 versus the Lakers?
One easy answer – the Lakers hold teams to a lower three point percentage than anybody else in the West. Since the break, the Lakers’ opponents have slightly increased their percentage of attempts beyond the arc. Even better news for Los Angeles is that teams are making 6.2% fewer of their shots in this zone.
With defensive stoppers all along the perimeter, it’s basically free money for Los Angeles if teams launch it from beyond the arc. Factor in Matt Barnes return to the lineup, and this facet of the defense is a sure bet to wreak havoc in the playoffs.
The Lakers improvement on defense makes them the favorites to win the NBA Finals, again. It is important to note the champs haven’t made their money beating up poor shooting teams during this run. Using effective field goal percentage as a barometer, they have faced five of the top six shooting teams in the NBA (Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Orlando, and Miami) since the break.
It won’t be surprising if Kobe grabs his sixth title this summer, and Phil takes home his twelfth. What is surprising is they will lean so heavily on a kid to do so. Andrew Bynum, who is younger than Minnesota rookie Wes Johnson, is anchoring the Lakers defense in their quest for three-peat.
The dominance Bynum has shown recently makes the trade talks around the All-Star break comical. Obviously, adjustments would have been made, but it’s hard to believe the Lakers would be surging on the defensive end if Bynum was playing home games in Denver.
Critics, and players, can continue to take shots at Bynum and the Lakers all they want. Just remember – the shots won’t come from close, and the long range attempts will be off the mark.