After winning a record 11 NBA titles as a head coach and leading legends like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, it’s awfully easy to take Phil Jackson’s success for granted and simply attribute it to the famous triangle offense and the stars that ran it. Mind you, part of what made Jackson a wonderful coach was his ability to understand his roster and his players better than most teams understood theirs.
For instance, Stanislav (Slava) Medvedenko and Mark Madsen enjoyed great success in a Lakers uniform and then were never heard from again once Phil Jackson stopped being their head coach. In that sense, the former Lakers coach had a knack for getting the most out of his players; especially his big men because he understood their strengths as well as their limitations.
On his early Chicago Bulls teams, Jackson asked Bill Cartwright to defend the post like a gladiator and used Horace Grant in pick and roll traps as well as in the full court press given his unusual quickness for his size.
In the mid-90s, the Bulls were an older team with less athleticism. Thus, the Hall of Fame coach relied more on his big men to play within the confines of their limits with respect to helping on defense and switching on screens. Thus, a player like Rodman could switch but it was preferable that he does not given that his teammate might be at a disadvantage guarding a bigger and stronger player (especially if that teammate was Toni Kukoc).
After leaving the Bulls, Phil joined a Lakers team in the late 90s that employed Shaquille O’Neal, Robert Horry and A.C. Green in the frontcourt. For the first time in Jackson’s professional coaching career, he had a center that could intimidate opponents with his size, athleticism, shot-blocking and rebounding. Consequently, the Lakers very rarely double-teamed opposing big men; instead opting to play single coverage and clean up on the glass and limit the outside shooting of their opponents.
Players like Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan would get their numbers; but the Lakers would protect the paint and even have O’Neal guard them late in ball games to limit their effectiveness.
Phil Jackson eventually left the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 but then returned in 2005. When he returned, he had to make due with Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and a very young Andrew Bynum. That combination never truly was a success in Los Angeles and it led to Brown being traded (depending on whom you ask he was either deported, released, extradited or simply given away as the result of a lost wager) for Pau Gasol.
One could easily make the argument that notwithstanding the Mailman and the Diesel, the combination of Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum is the most talented group of big men that Jackson has ever coached during his career; and their output certainly seemed to confirm that. These three Lakers were not only productive statistically, but they complemented each other beautifully. When one got beat, the next one would step in to help out and cover up mistakes.
Odom’s versatility allowed him to defend small forwards, power forwards and centers while Gasol easily alternated between guarding 4s and 5s. Bynum was the prototypical center, cleaning up the glass and protecting the paint and occasionally inflicting punishment on players who drove the lane (Michael Beasley’s tailbone agrees).
Although the three big men rarely shared the court together (according to 82games, they have played a total of 77 minutes together in the last three seasons), their defense helped the Lakers make three straight Finals appearances and win back-to-back titles. Indeed, with these trees planted at the basket, the Lakers never doubled on the low block and thus were able to shut down perimeter shooters on opposing teams.
If there is one thing that Odom, Bynum and Gasol could have done better under Jackson though; it was rebound. For the most part they were very good on the boards; but one would have expected them to be outstanding in this facet of the game. Most will remember that the Lakers were victorious in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals because they dominated the boards, but the Lakers had actually done an average job on that front in the first five games of the Finals, holding a mere 192 to 186 rebounding edge. They eventually rallied in Games 6 and 7 and outrebounded Boston by a total of 26 rebounds to win the title.
Last season, the Lakers surrendered 11.7 offensive rebounds per game, which was 26th in the league. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that more often than not they were lazy as far as getting rebounding position because they typically towered over most teams. Thus, they relied on their size to gather rebounds as opposed to focusing on proper technique.
This is where Mike Brown comes in.
During his stint in Cleveland, the Cavaliers were routinely amongst the best rebounding teams in the league. Their defense as well as their rebounding allowed them to shorten games by taking away possessions away from the opposing team and then riding their star late to win low scoring games.
During his years with the Cavs, here is the list of big men that played 20 minutes per game or more for head coach Mike Brown:
- Drew Gooden
- J. J. Hickson
- Zydrunas Ilgauskas
- Antawn Jamison
- Donyell Marshall
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Joe Smith
- Anderson Varejao
- Ben Wallace
Under Brown, the Cavaliers did not necessarily have quality big men with multiple skills; but they utilized their size to terrorize teams in the rebounding department. Have a look at how they faired in their rebound rate (the percentage of missed shots that a team rebounds):
For the sake of comparison, let’s have a look at the Lakers rebound rate during the same time span:
Using rebound rate is a good way of seeing just how good a team is at securing rebounds whereas rebounds per game can be somewhat skewed given the pace of the game and the amount of misses available to actually rebound.
As we can see, save for the 2006-07 season, the Lakers were in the top 10 in rebounding but one would expect that size and length to land the purple and gold in the top five at least every season. The Cavaliers on the other hand managed to clean up the boards under Brown’s watch, finishing no lower than fourth during his tenure.
So when the 2011-12 regular season finally gets underway, I expect the Lakers to switch up their defenses by trapping, hedging, switching and going underneath screens in pick and roll situations to confuse opponents; but more than anything I see this Lakers team crashing the boards like never before and then shortening the games with their half court offense.
With Lamar Odom gone, the Lakers will probably rarely get out in transition, much like last season when they averaged a rather anemic 11.3 fast break points per game (25th in the NBA). The games may get ugly and finish with scores in the 90s, but with the Gasol and Bynum on board to score and control the paint and Kobe to close out games; this may just be the recipe for success for this new Lakers team.
Will Mike Brown get his bigs to play bigger this year?
If he does, he may in fact be the perfect successor to Phil Jackson…