Dictating On Defense

Darius Soriano —  March 30, 2011

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.  

New Approach

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.

Final Horn

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.

-Matt Scribbins

Darius Soriano

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to Dictating On Defense

  1. Great read. I loved it even more than learning that LBJ had to potty rather than listen to the boos from his former fans in Cleveland last night.

    This is a key difference between he and Kobe. Remember last season, when Matt Barnes did that fake pass an inch from Kobe’s face, and Kobe didn’t even flinch? There’s a guy who’s not afraid of the moment.

    LeBron’s a guy who mailed in a playoff game vs. Boston when he knew the Cavs were done, a guy who’s too scared to face some pre-game boos.

    Not to see he’ll never win a title — noted shrinking violets like David Robinson managed to overcome their own shortcomings to tag along on someone else’s coattails for a ring — but I just don’t see LeBron ever leading a team to a ring. He shrivels up when the money’s down.


  2. Statistical Breakdown!!!


  3. I want to thank Matt for putting such an in-depth post together. These numbers really show the Lakers’ scheme working in the manner in which they’d hope.

    I mean the drop in number of FGA’s for shots inside 10 feet combined with the drop in FG% for those same shots tell me that the Lakers’ desire to have soft “show” on the P&R in order to keep penetrating guards in front of them is really working. Now, when guards come into the lane they’re tasked with either shooting a contested shot over a big man (normally Bynum) and that’s a losing proposition. The fact that those shots aren’t falling mean less shots overall and a shift towards taking the shots that are available – long two pointers.


  4. Great breakdown, Matt. Awesome to see how much better Chuck Person’s defense is than the one Kurt Rambis designed. Maybe a little unfair to Kurt, seeing as how Bynum has blossomed, but even when he was healthy in the first half of the 08-09 season, Kurt had Bynum showing on the pick-and-roll far from the hoop and then trying to recover back into the paint, leaving the team vulnerable and scrambling.


  5. great post– why i love (and live at) FB&G.


  6. Fantastic post. Just another reason why this blog is hands-down the best out there. Darius, Matt, Reed, et all- keep it up!


  7. Great simple stats. This is one of those few times when the numbers clearly show eyes don’t lie.


  8. Best team + Best blog = WINNING!

    But seriously, awesome article/post. It’s dramatic how well the defense is and where the shots are now coming from compared to before the all-star break.

    I sort of knew it was happening in the games, but to be laid out like that is something else.



  9. Very good stuff.

    I’m interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on any counters that teams have employed with any success.

    I’d imagine a team like Dallas with a pick-and-pop player and wing-cutters would be better equipped to take on this scheme rather than a San Antonio team who relies on collapsing defense and three point shooting.

    What do you guys think of OKC’s strategy against this, in terms of their strengths/weaknesses?


  10. I would agree that Dirk, Terry, and Marion would do better against our defense than other teams. Now about their defense…


  11. Wow, what an article indeed, yes FB&G is the greatest place for Lakers information breakdown. This explains a lot as to what has been happening with Bynum’s success.


  12. wow, nice to see a post like this here instead of it being linked. not that the quality wasn’t there before, but as with all presentations, a few graphs work miracles 😉


  13. So easy to read. Thank you Matt.

    Darius, just a friendly suggestion–would you consider adding headings to your writing like Matt did? Sometimes I find it a little difficult to follow.


  14. Phenomenal post, thanks. Really helps break down the effects our defensive changes have had on opposing teams.

    Completely off-topic, but this post ticked me off a bit. I’ve heard commentators (and now this writer) constantly ascribe the “rip-through” move to Kevin Durant. Durant’s trademark, Durant’s cleverness. Didn’t Kobe develop and perfect that move first? Wasn’t he doing it long before Durant? Or do I have an awful memory?



  15. 4) The Dude –
    Rambis didn’t have Artest to work with.


  16. @14. I don’t think the absence of a defensive stopper like Artest was the determining factor in the decision to adopt the SSZ defense.


  17. 16) Keeping Bynum inside is a much more viable option when Artest is locking up the opponents top wing player. I guarantee that Artest’s presence is a factor in the decision to switch to this defense.


  18. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, ex. I think it’s more of “we give up, Fish can’t stay with that PG on the pick and roll so might as well have Drew stay home” than it is Ron’s presence 😀


  19. My new goal for this Laker team is the #1 seed, with the Mavs falling to 4th behind the Thunder. IT CAN HAPPEN.


  20. Snoopy – yes; absolutely. I’ve seen Kobe use it hundreds of times since 2003, which is when I think he really kept it consistently in his repertoire. And that post coming from Kurt (who’s probably seen more of Kobe than I have) too, surprised me a little.

    NVM – that wasn’t by Kurt.


  21. 19 (Dude) – Another one of your 2001-esque predictions, eh?


  22. Off-topic but topical: with the Bulls clinching the tiebreaker for homecourt in a potential Lakers-Bulls finals, seems like a good time to wonder what, if any is the rationale for the NBA’s tiebreaker rules…

    First a bit of history. Remember back in ’06 when the Nuggets clinched the West’s #3 seed by virtue of securing the West’s 7th best record? The upshot of which, was San Antonio (#1 record) had to face Dallas (#2 record) in the second round (and lost), while Phoenix (#3 record) got to the WCF by facing the Lakers (#6 record) and Clippers (#5 record)? That was apparently enough of a (completely predictable) clusterf*%k that the NBA changed it the rules the following season, though of course, this being the NBA, not to anything that made sense.

    So now, the Lakers have the tiebreaker over Dallas, because they won their division and Dallas didn’t. Let’s unpack this:
    1) the Lakers are better than 4 non-playoff teams
    2) the Mavs aren’t better than the league-leading Spurs
    3) hence, in Stern logic, the Lakers’ achievement merits the a potential playoff series-swinging HCA.
    [nevermind that the Lakers also aren’t better than the league-leading Spurs, and the Mavs matched the Lakers’ achievement, by also being better than the 4 non-playoff teams.]

    Meanwhile, the Bulls have the tiebreaker over the Lakers by virtue of having a better record against West teams than the Lakers have against East teams. If you think about this apples-to-oranges comparison for a minute, you’ll realize that the Bulls’ supposed merit here, namely its record against the West, is, by the very construction of the tiebreaker, owned by the Lakers, and in greater measure. If the two teams have the same overall record, having a worse record against the East means you have a better record against the West. By the same token, the Lakers’ failing, its (relatively) poor record against the East, is owned by the Bulls in greater measure, again by construction.

    In other words, there’s about as much sense to it as a referee’s interpretation of a game-deciding final play …


  23. I didn’t say it was the only factor, but I don’t think it works with Ariza and Walton instead of Artest.


  24. Blizzard – It would make more sense, and be more fun, to have Kobe and Rose play a game of HORSE to determine HCA …


  25. 23, *nothing* works with ariza and walton.

    hence, 2008/09:

    ‘trevor, just try to steal the ball whenever you can. if you do, look for jordan who will be cherry-picking under the basket.’

    ‘luke, guard pierce. hopefully he’ll be laughing so hard he’ll miss his mid-range Js’


  26. I thought Ariza did a pretty good job as a defensive SF in that first championship season. Even against Carmelo in the WCF, he did a progressively better job on him as the series went on. Kobe, of course, lights Trevor up like a Christmas tree.


  27. Well, my dream of Dallas falling behind OKC was predicated on them losing to the Clippers tonight, so never mind 😀

    Now I’m pulling for the Spurs against the Celtics!


  28. I guess a Steve Nash PNR with Nash stepping behind the screen for a long bomb is about the worst scenario for this PNR scheme, but we will not be facind too many of that kind of threats in the playoffs.


  29. The tiebreaker thing. How about going with scorin-margin (if winning percentage and head-to-head series is tied)?

    You have that in a lot of other sports. Reward teams for playing hard through out the season, for playing their best against crappy teams.

    It would also make it possible to determine from just looking at the standings, which in turn makes it easier and clearer to the fans.


  30. Dane:

    1) That won’t happen too often – our PG’s usually fight over the screen, and that delay causes us to cede the mid range J. So let’s just pray that Fish doesn’t bump into Nash if he pulls up, and we’ll be fine.

    2) Yeah, but this is the NBA. Stern’s way or the highway.


  31. It will be interesting to see how the scheme holds up in the playoffs. It seems like some defensive schemes hold up well in the playoffs, and others that are effective during the season get picked apart in the playoffs.

    Luckily, there doesn’t appear to be a perfect fit of personnel and coaching that would seem to be able to best take advantage against this defense. I may be wrong, but Brooks seems to be more of a motivator than a brilliant tactician, and Pop, Karl and Adleman just don’t seem to have the right mix of players to come up with schemes that both take advantage of our defense and naturally utilize the skills of the players.

    The big wild card is Portland. They’ve given us fits in the past, but they just seem to be such a different team at this point, it’s hard to get much of a lock on them. I think that I’ve only seen the games against us, so I’m a little fuzzy even on who is getting minutes for them, much less what kind of schemes they are running – I assume it’s not all Roy PnRs and Isos, but what it actually is I couldn’t tell you. But to the original point, Macmillan has not proved himself to be a master of playoff adjustment style coaching…

    The East seems to be so wide open, that it’s hard to even start to think about those possible match-ups, except to say that this defense does seem to do what you’d want from a defense against Miami.


  32. Hello
    I thought that the tiebreaker for LAL and Chicago would be the number of games won in each team’s *own* conference. Lakers have the advantage here having won more in the West.


  33. HCA tiebreakers:

    (1) Better winning percentage in games against each other.
    (2) Better winning percentage against teams in own division (only if tied teams are in same division).
    (3) Better winning percentage against teams in own conference.
    (4) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in own conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).
    (5) Better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in opposite conference (including teams that finished the regular season tied for a playoff position).
    (6) Better net result of total points scored less total points allowed against all opponents (“point differential”).