When Considering Coaches, Don’t Forget Defense

Darius Soriano —  May 18, 2011

At FB&G, we’ve long said that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them; that for the Lakers to be successful, they’ll need a defensive identity Against the Mavs, this proved accurate as the Lakers couldn’t get the stops they needed, ultimately getting swept out of the playoffs when Dirk, Terry, Barrea, and Peja compromised their defensive schemes so completely that the Lakers looked clueless on how to play defense by the time game 4 rolled around. With this being the case, it seems strange that nearly every coaching candidate discussed has been spoken about in terms of what their offensive system would be.

When the name Brian Shaw comes up, we turn our minds to the continuation of the triangle offense. When Rick Adelman is mentioned, we instantly bring up his “corner” offense that incorporates a lot of the same read and react principles that the Lakers are used to from running the triangle all these years. Even when Jerry Sloan’s name is floated, one of the first things mentioned is his “flex” offense that is also based off ball and player movement where diverse skill sets from the players are needed to successfully run his offense. I’ve been guilty of this myself.

But, the Lakers mustn’t forget defense when considering their next head coach. Whoever is hired will not only need to inspire the players to play top shelf D, but will need to devise a scheme and system that the players can execute to be successful. As Luke Walton mentioned in his exit interview:

I don’t think this team was ready for all that adjustment (on defense). I think we were just too inconsistent on the defensive end, teams were getting too many open shots…if we do keep the same defense, having that much more time starting it in training camp. It was a complex defense, and it took all five people (being) on the same page.

So which coaches have proven that they can coach defense? Some numbers and information on the defenses from some of the candidates:

*Brian Shaw has never been a head coach, but this past season the Lakers finished 6th in defensive efficiency. However, that number isn’t really representative of how well the Lakers actually played D nor necessarily representative of Brian Shaw. For most of the season, the Lakers hovered around the 10th most efficient D and when they did make their jump to 6th it was mostly attributed to the work that Chuck Person did in revamping the Lakers’ scheme. At this point, it’s tough to say how much Shaw influenced the defensive side of the ball over his tenure with the Lakers.

*Rick Adelman’s defenses have given mixed results. Last year the Rockets ranked 19th in defensive efficiency. The season before that they were 17th. However, in the two seasons before those the Rockets ranked 4th and 2nd in defensive efficiency. Those results show a wide variance in success and it’s fair to question how much his schemes and ability to motivate are responsible or how much the personnel limitations he faced (with Yao Ming missing nearly all of the last two years) affected his team’s ability to defend.

*Mike Dunleavy’s defenses followed a similar path to those of Rick Adelman’s. After the Clippers defended terribly in his first season (28th in defensive efficiency), they jumped to 13th then to 8th then to 10th in the following three seasons. However, those years of strong defensive numbers were followed by seasons of ranking 19th and then 27th in his last two complete years as Clipper head man.

*In Jerry Sloan’s last 4 complete seasons with the Jazz his teams had defensive efficiency rankings of 18th, 12th, 10th, and 10th. He was known as a coach that preached physical play and the Jazz consistently led the league in FT’s allowed. This is a stark contrast from the style of defense the Lakers played this past season as they were one of the teams that fouled the least and consistently tried to protect the paint by using length rather than brute force.

*In Jeff Van Gundy’s 4 years in Houston, his teams played stellar defense and as a head coach he’s the only person listed who’s probably better known for his work on that side of the ball. His teams ranked 4th, 6th, 3rd, and 3rd in defensive efficiency using a physical, disciplined style that consistently limited the opposition’s offense. However, it should be noted that Tom Thibodeau was the lead assistant on those Rockets teams and it’s been proven since Van Gundy’s retirement that any credit that JVG’s defenses have earned should be shared with Coach Thibs. This isn’t to discount Van Gundy, but in working with Doc Rivers in Boston and now as the head man in Chicago, it’s obvious that Thibodeau has a great mind for defensive basketball and having him on a staff truly does create a better defensive team.

Obviously these numbers don’t tell the entire story. All of these coaches have had at least one top 10 defense in their recent coaching histories all have shown that they can work effectively on that side of the ball. Personnel will also play a part in any defense’s success as having anchors on the wing and in the paint will boost the ability of any D to get stops.

The Lakers have proven that they have some good defensive pieces (Artest, Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe are all above average defenders) so there will not be a lack of talent to work with. Where these coaches will need to succeed is limiting the areas where the Lakers are weaker defensively (at point guard, in defending the P&R) and getting this team to focus consistently on getting stops. Who that coach will be is still a mystery, but in choosing him it needs to be a variable that informs the decision.

Darius Soriano

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