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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33 responses to When Considering Coaches, Don’t Forget Defense

  1. I’m totally cool with Sloan. I think Kobe would respect his demeanor more than anyone, and it’s that kind of quasi-militaristic tone that our all-too-often lazy Lakers need.

    Plus, the sweet poetic justice of Jerry’s first champion to be with the Lakers after so many years leading our rival Jazz would be fantastic.

  2. I hated the fouling defense Sloan instituted. It’s a scheme that doesn’t do well in playoffs and especially with a shorter rotation.

    I mentioned in previous posts Mike Brown. I think he would make an excellent assistant coach to add to the staff and have him specialize in D.

    But don’t know how that will mesh with rest of the staff. Brown is available though and I don’t think his name has been mentioned for any Head Coaching positions. He’s probably going through the assistant route for a while until something comes up.

  3. Thanks, Darius. These are the cold, hard numbers on Adelman I was really hoping to see.

    I remember Adelman doing really well at the beginning with the Rockets … but the cynical side of me says that the defensive prowess of that team was JVG’s leftovers. As the team got further and further away from JVG/Thibodeau, they got worse and worse on defense. That does concern me. We don’t want a 2008-like run where we master a beautiful offense, but can’t stand up to the defense of the Eastern Conference. (Also, much of their 22-game winning streak came without Yao, so I’d wager the weaker defensive teams don’t have as much to do with personnel).

    Are there defensive efficiency numbers for his stint with the Kings? That might give us a better idea – that was a complete team, and everything about that team was all Adelman.

    It is a bit concerning that all the candidates we’re looking at are primarily renowned for their offense. Sloan’s recent teams were vastly overrated on defense; not fouling is a usually a trait of the better defensive teams. I remember never being worried about these Jazz because of their poor defensive philosophy. What he could do with our pieces is a big question mark.

    Small typo: I think you wrote SVG when you meant JVG. I had to double check to make sure Stan never had Thibodeau on his staff. Tom Thibodeau is just a monster. Reading the Chicago beat reports, the guy apparently has no family/gf, and no life outside of basketball. If any coach is a robot, it’s him. He’s also lucky Rose is such a humble superstar; if he had gotten stuck with a prima donna, his grating style could have gone south quick.

  4. Kobe really was not that much above average an defender last year.

  5. The Lakers need an infusion of the ‘unknown’ through the acquisition of a new head coach. While I believe that B. Shaw has earned an opportunity to be the head coach of the Lakers, I do not subscribe to him actually being appointed to that position. Part in parcel to the fact that the team might come to training camp with the feeling that they can subsist the early rigors of the season by working on their game on the fly; as opposed to working hard this summer and coming to camp ready and primed from game 1.

    Uncertainty will bread, to a man, a sense that they will need to carve out a pecking order for playing time, or a spot in rotation from the new coach (all save Kobe, that is). The added dimension of improbability will permeate through the locker room with a sense of urgency that was lacking for the team this entire season.

  6. @#3, Snoopy2006, Sac teams with Adelman. league ranking of defense. Taken from basketball reference

    99 – 18th
    00 -10th
    01 – 7th
    02 – 6th
    03 – 2nd
    04 – 21st
    05 – 23rd
    06 – 12th

    Seems like his teams improved from when he took over. The last three years give you some pause, but don’t know if having Webber hurt starting that year really changed things. Certainly during their peak, they were good on both sides of the ball.

  7. Was Thibs with Van Gundy in New York? And how did Van Gundy’s new york teams rank?

  8. Can we get some numbers on JVG without Thibs? I suspect that in NY & Hou, JVG actually mentored Thibs on defense. I doubt Thibs had done any truly ground-breaking D work prior to working under Jeff.

    Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Jeff Van Gundy’s thought process.

  9. JVG should be the choice. Will have respect of team, can handle media pressure great d and will have a little more hunger coming out of the gate than the rest.

  10. Chownoir – Thanks man. Those numbers do look better, though it’s still hard to draw a conclusion about Adelman. Seems like his teams defensively have just been all over the place. Not sure what that spells for us considering how bad our backcourt is defensively.

    Dan – Yeah, Thibodeau was in NY with JVG for seven years before going to Houston, since 1996. I believe that’s JVG’s entire run as a head coach.

    It’s hard to tell if JVG picked up his defensive chops from Riley and helped turn Thibodeau into what he is … or if Thibodeau was really the mastermind behind JVG’s schemes all along.

  11. J.D. Hastings May 18, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    What about Mike Brown?

    Why is everyone laughing at me?

    *Seriously, though, Brown takes a lot of heat but got the Cavs job originally as being one of the minds behinds San Antonio’s defense (if I recall correctly). His Cavs teams were frequently stagnant on offense but I’ve read a lot about how much of that was due to Lebron. Eric Snow said in an interview that they had a lot of plays, Lebron just had a comfort zone- and we’ve seen some of this in Miami again.

    I’m not saying I’m for Brown for coach of the Lakers. I don’t know if he can juggle this many talented egos in this sort of market. But I think he deserves mentioning.

    I’m actually intrigued by the idea of him taking over for Golden State. Give them a sound defense and like in Cleveland his players will do their own thing on offense. This may not make them great, but if you can defend and have a handful of guys who can create their own shots in the 4th quarter (both Monta and Curry have pretty good clutch/ 4th Q splits) and they could be frisky.

    I don’t know why this is relevant to anything, I just had nobody to email it to.

  12. Correction – I forgot JVG wasn’t in NY for 7 years. They came to NY together, but when JVG was fired, I believe Thibodeau stayed on.

  13. kehntangibles May 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Darius, I believe you meant to say: “…that the Lakers looked clueless on how to play defense by the time game **4** rolled around” An understandable slip – we’re all trying to forget about that game 4.

  14. #3 & #13. Your fixes have been made. Thanks for the extra set of eyes.

  15. @#11 JD, I guess you didn’t see my comment at #2. I threw out the idea of Brown as assistant coach. I like the idea of bringing him in next to Shaw. There’s going to be an opening for an assistant coach anyway if Shaw moves up. To me that would give a great balance of old and new blood. Current staff to maintain continuity, but Brown can focus on D, his specialty and get after guys.

    @#10 Snoopy2006, yeah the numbers are a bit mixed. But to be devil’s advocate, leading up to team’s peak, they got better every year after he took over. In 98 with Eddie Jordan, Sac’s ranking was 22.

    With those last three years, who knows how much of a factor injuries and team falling off it’s peak contributed to the bad D. That jump back up in the last year coincided with Webber being gone. 04 and 05 Webber missed a lot of games.

  16. considering that the ownership prefers the show-time style, I doubt they would choose JVG. unless of course he will have significantly better chance for championship(s).

  17. J.D. Hastings May 18, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    15- I’m almost certain brown will get a head gig. The warriors are reportedly interested. Though I wouldn’t put it past the Busses to spend more on assistants when they don’t have to pay PJ as much. If the W’s gig doesn’t go his way, who knows?

  18. I’ve talked about this in other threads. I definitely think we need a coach who’s gonna focus on defense as Kobe said in his exit interview.

    I’m ok with having Adelman as the coach, but why not hire a defensive minded assistant similar to how Boston did with Thibodeau?

  19. What’s up with Kareem and the statue? Sad to see he feels slighted by the Lakers organization, after so many years together. Not sure who is at fault for that, but it’s a shame.

  20. Excellent point of focusing on defense when naming the next coach. The current roster is full of players with above average defensive skill sets. The problem was there wasn’t a coach or system in place to harness their defensive talents.

    I think an early sweep is an indicator of a failure of the system, particularly in not making the proper adjustments. The Lakers are at a nice crossroads. I’m excited about the coaching change and the possibilities of Sloan, Adelman, or Van Gundy.

    I think management will do the right thing…as long as they don’t listen to Magic. Magic may have court smarts but his GM skills and TV analyst skills for that matter are far from Hall of Fame caliber.

  21. Haslem is just a beast. One of my favorite players in the league. I have to root against his team, but man … coming back from injury and his energy is still there.

    These refs are awfully touchy.

    19 – Just read that. I was a bit surprised at Kareem’s response, but I guess it was many years coming. He’s been overshadowed by Magic for so long. Casual hoops fans know of MJ’s 6 rings, not that Kareem has the same 6. Kareem is a top 5 player of all time, and IMHO, should be in the GOAT discussion with Jordan. But based on people who talk about him, he’s always placed behind Magic, Bird, etc. I guess it was a lot of frustration piling up.

  22. Kareem’s statement was less than savvy, but that’s Kareem. I think he believes (with good reason) that he should have been honored before Magic or even West.

    I don’t blame him. But he’s like Kobe while Magic was more like Shaq. Some characters are just better liked.

    As for Sloan coaching the Lakers, uhm, I seriously don’t see Sloan embracing Hollywood and Hollywood-influenced players. Not that I wouldn’t be curious to see what that would be like; he definitely would like the pecking order scheme.

  23. Kareem is now trashing the org. on Twitter…saying that the Lakers have not shown him respect. The team is in a very bad stretch right now, on and off the floor:

    Kobe’s slur
    Gasol, Bynum and Kobe all getting banged up
    Swept by Dallas
    Odom ejection
    Bynum ejection
    Magic saying silly stuff
    Kobe saying Drew needs to fall in line
    Cap feeling dissed and going public.

  24. Kobe should be traded,we need Manu.

  25. Renato Afonso May 19, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Those Adelman teams in Sacramento, aside from Doug Christie, didn’t have what is perceived as a “defensive backcourt”. They ran with White Chocolate and Mike Bibby and still they had a good defense.

    People are just considering defense on the half court sets and are neglecting the most important thing on defense: transition defense. In competitive basketball, unless you employ a huge array of zonal defenses, it comes down to one’s ability to play man defense and provide weak side help. That’s on the players more than on the coach.

    Now, transition defense is entirely on the coach who must have a philosophy on what to do. Running back and set the half court? Trap at midcourt? Press the ball handler? Shade as a zone defense until the half court offense is set and then switch to man defense? Show man and trap with an agressive zone? Go 3/4 press? Full press (for the suicidal ones)?These are the decisions that happen right after you lost possession of the ball and that decide not only the pace of the game but also our knowledge of the opposite team which, in this day and age, is essential. No defensive system is perfect: some work against some teams, some work against others.

    I was utterly disappointed on the way we lost because we didn’t adapt to what the Mavs were doing and tried to contain them. They beat us how our defense could be beat… By shooting over us! Our next coach must be better at it than our current staff was and I would really like to see a breakdown of X’s and O’s employed by JVG, Adelman, Sloan and others being considered…

  26. Warren Wee Lim May 19, 2011 at 6:33 am

    I have always been JVG’s biggest fan… yes even that time he held onto Zo’s huge thighs for his life.

    Make no mistake, JVG is Thibs’ mentor. And JVG is smart enough to handle this veteran team. He is also the coach who has a better shot at longevity with the team. Adelman and Sloan are older than Phil mind you.

  27. 21 – I absolutely agree the Cap should be in the GOAT discussion. His numbers make the strongest case to dethrone Jordan out of anyone.

    It’s disappointing to see how bitter he sounds, particularly since he apparently knows that he’s going to get a statue:

    http://blogs.thescore.com/tbj/2011/05/18/kareem-abdul-jabbar-really-wants-a-statue/

  28. Adelman has actually had 3 different teams very highly in defense.

    Between 89-90 and 92-93 he had the Trailblazers at 3rd and 4th best defensively all of those seasons.

    And then the 02-03 Kings and 07-08 Rockets were both 2nd best defensively in the league.

    The times when his teams have been played poorly defensively have been at the end of the Portland teams run of contention (e.g. after 3 WCF appearances, 2 Finals appearances in 4 years), the end of Sacramento’s window of contention, and the Rockets after he lost Yao, Artest, and McGrady.

    He couldn’t manage to get a Golden State team of Hardaway, Sprewell and Mullin to play any defense at all, but there was probably no coach that was going to get that bunch to play defense.

    So the pattern has been he’s taken teams that were middling or bad defensively (Portland and Sacramento) and gotten them to play excellent defense for 4 consecutive seasons each. He took over a team from Van Gundy that was already playing excellent defense and got them to maintain it. He couldn’t get the Houston team to maintain their defensive level after they lost their 7’6″ defensive anchor, their former DPOY perimeter defender, and their sometimes effective all-star perimeter player. And he couldn’t get a team he inherited from Don Nelson to play a lick of defense.

    Overall, I’d say his record on defense is very solid. I suppose one could lament that he couldn’t get teams to play defense for any more than 4 straight years, but there are few coaches that can maintain a teams attention for that long (not even Phil apparently).

  29. Somewhat disappointed with KAJ’s public comments. Especially if he’s already been told a statue is coming. I agree with what Kurt at PBT said. West deserved it first given the contributions he made to the organizations over so many decades.

    Magic definitely next because of his identity with the team, the city and being part owner.

    KAJ is getting it next, I just don’t understand why he’s gotten so public and bitter about it. I know he’s always had a prickly relationship with the media, I wonder what prompted this latest outburst.

  30. 29: I don’t understand Kareem either with regard to the statue. It doesn’t make sense.

    It’s not like they said they wouldn’t give him one.

    I could understand if somehow they gave Chamberlain a statue before Kareem, then cap can cry foul.

    This is strangely some of the old “aloof” and “unsociable” parts of his personality the media always claimed about him that he had hid/suppressed for so long resurfacing.

    Bye.

  31. KAJ is just not a lovable type person. He is like Kobe, but Kobe tries to change his image KAJ can’t. Given his recent cancer scare I think he just wants to see it done in his lifetime.

  32. What did I write that needs to be moderated? That’s five comments in a row.

  33. Renato makes an excellent point about transition d. With our height, we should be able to slow down some transition d by dominating the glass. Defense requires more team effort/communication than offense. So were the defensive issues this year a result of a poor strategy by coaches or poor team execution because of poor chemistry? I would like to think that coaches gunning for the laker job are going to have good defensive strategies. It will just be a question of whether guys make the effort to execute them. So at some point, kobe has to play his man and not just a space, especially with him getting a little slower each year. His incredible offensive skills saved us so many times, but those offensive exploits sometimes were evening out his defensive lapses.