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Trending Down: The Lakers’ Defense

For the first time all season, the Lakers are – statistically speaking – a better offensive team than a defensive one. All year, the Lakers have hovered at or below 10th in Defensive efficiency while sitting at 15th or lower in offensive efficiency. Today, though, the Lakers are up to 11th on offense but have slipped to 13th on defense. As someone that’s prescribed to the mindset that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them, the decline on D is worrisome.

After watching tape from recent games, I’ve noticed some trends in how the Lakers are playing defense and why their effectiveness has plummeted. Below are some of the things I’m seeing:

The pick and roll coverage is inconsistent
All season long, the Lakers have run a hedge and recover scheme when covering the pick and roll. This involves the guard who’s covering the ball handler fighting over picks while the man that’s guarding the screener hedges out to block the path of the ball handler who’s going around the pick. This hedge is supposed to allow the defensive guard time to recover to his man which then allows the big man time to recover to either his own man or to the paint where he rotates to a designated man as part of the scheme. This is a standard way of covering the P&R and is executed best by Boston and Chicago.

Lately, though, the Lakers have not be executing this well. First off the guard getting screened isn’t doing a very good job of getting around picks in a timely manner. Both Sessions and Blake are having trouble fighting over picks and that extra beat it takes for them to recover is compromising their big man hedging out. Too many times we see the big man hedging and then being forced to either switch onto the ball handler because the guard hasn’t recovered back or end up having to retreat and rotate before the guard is set and ready to defend his man. This was best exemplified by how Chris Paul was able to force switches down the stretch of the Clippers game, often getting an isolation against Bynum or Gasol and then using his quickness to create good shots for himself or a teammate.

Second, different Lakers big men are playing the P&R differently. Gasol, McRoberts, and Murphy all hedge hard and try to recover. Bynum, though, does a mix of these things and isn’t always hedging hard – if he hedges at all. Often times Bynum will hang back below the screen and invite the dribble penetration towards him where he can keep the ball handler in front of him and be a deterrent to the guard turning the corner. Bynum does a pretty good job of contesting shots that are taken going the basket but because he’s naturally on his heels when the guard is turning the corner off the pick, he’s been having some trouble contesting the mid-range jumper. If you recall the explosive 3rd quarter that Russell Westbrook had in the Thunder game, this was a trend during that stretch. As Bynum hung back, Westbrook was lining up 15-18 foot jumpers and knocking them down.

And while this is a shot you want to cede as a defense, the differences in which the big men are playing the P&R is leading to confusion on rotations on the back end. Have you seen players on the back side pointing a lot lately? Have you seen big men go uncovered as they roll to the hoop and either get a pass or park themselves under the rim for an offensive rebound chance? A lot of this is the result of uncertainty of whose responsibility a rotation is and the timing in which they should be executed.

The ultimate result is that the Lakers are once again getting picked apart by guards that keep their dribble alive in the P&R and are able to be versatile threats in this action. Dragic, Nash, Westbrook, Paul, and Williams have all been able to create good looks for themselves and their teammates by running the P&R and sticking with it throughout the game. If the Lakers are going to become a better defensive team, they must handle this action better. And that responsibility falls on the guards being better at fighting through picks and the big men playing the screen consistently and in the same way.

Closeouts are yielding too many driving lanes
One of Mike Brown’s mantras is that every shot should be contested. He wants rotations to be on time and for players closing out on shooters to contest shots that go up. Lately though, the Lakers’ rotations are late and it’s leading to sloppy closeouts that ball handlers are using to attack the paint.

How many times have you seen a Laker sprinting to the three point line only to have his man drive right by him? How many times have you seen that sprinting Laker not break down in a defensive stance soon enough and then end up fouling the ball handler as he puts the ball on the floor. Then after getting beat off the dribble multiple times, how many times have you seen a Laker break down in his stance too early and then give up a wide open jumper? If you said “I saw that multiple times just in the Hornets game” you get a prize.

Simply put, the Lakers must read offensive plays faster, put themselves in position to rotate sooner, and then close out under control. This will allow them to closeout to contest a shot and breakdown in a defensive stance and play their man off the dribble. Too often lately it’s been one or the other and that will not get it done.

Big man rotations are late if they happen at all
One of the things the Lakers are really good at on defense is protecting the rim without fouling. They rank 3rd in the league in fouls committed and rank 4th in the number of shots given up at the rim. So, all is good in this area, right?

Wrong. At least lately.

Lately, the big men seem more concerned about the “not fouling” part than any other part of their defensive responsibilities. This has led to big men half heartedly challenging shots at the rim and not stepping up quickly enough to be a true deterrent when the opponent is attacking the paint. Neither Gasol nor Bynum consistently rotate to ball handlers or dive men who are a threat to score and it’s led to too many easy shots at the rim in recent games. Too often, those shots go uncontested because the big man is a step slow to the ball and they don’t want to foul or they’re not in the picture at all and give a puzzled look wondering who should have stepped up when the answer is the guy they see in the mirror.

Just as the wings have to read plays sooner to be in better position to rotate to shooters, the big men must do the same to contest shots at the rim. If the Lakers bigs are in position a second sooner, they not only deter shots from being taken but they challenge and block more shots. Plus, if they’re in position early, they can do so by going straight up and avoid having fouls called on them. The Lakers have 14 feet of big men patrolling the paint but unless they decide that they don’t want uncontested shots being taken at the rim, the easy looks will continue to happen.


The Lakers must start to take defense seriously again. Now that they can score more easily, their effort on defense has relaxed with the mindset seemingly being that they’ll just go get a basket on the other end to match. This isn’t a new mindset for the Lakers as it was one that was present 2008 (ultimately finding out they couldn’t score easily against a ramped up Boston D) and then again in 2010 (until they turned up their intensity during the playoffs with their game 7 effort clinching them the title).

Going down the home stretch and into the playoffs, this team must rediscover the intensity on D that they started the season with. When the year started, Mike Brown said that “We’re not going to be a finesse team. We’ve got players that are capable of doing that stuff, but we’re going to be a physical, defensive team, and we’re going to be a presence on that end of the floor without fouling.” After the Suns game, Brown said that he was “tired of the same old, same old on defense” and that “what we have to do is be more physical.” Down the stretch of the Hornets game, the Lakers did just that. Their rotations were crisp, they challenged shots in the paint, and finished defensive possessions with rebounds. After the game, Brown praised his guys for how they played down the stretch.

He knows what the team needs to do. Here’s hoping it happens.

Reader Interactions


  1. Defense will improve by subtracting Blake from defending 2’s. Ebanks can contribute at 3 freeing more minutes for Barnes at 2. In general, would limit Blake to about 12 minutes at PG only.

    Sessions defensive weakness’ seem fixable given his speed, size and instincts … but then if it was that easy to improve we would be calling him the glove by now.


  2. Just wondering how much of the rotation problems can be attributed to tired legs. Both Pau and Andrew have logged a lot of minutes. There is a 3 day break before the last game of the year. It would be nice to be able to rest the big three that last game. This would give them a week off before the playoffs.


  3. Solid breakdown of the defense. It all seems to stem from PnR and dribble drive kick. It’s been said before this is a solid isolation defensive team.

    Darius: Is it more so the players following and executing the gameplan or do the schemes need tweaking? If you could put a percentage on it that would be great.


  4. Darius- nice recap of our defensive ills. For a study in how to play quality D, the first quarter of the MIA-BOS game is full of examples of how to fight through screens a set hard picks on the Celtics part. Holding MIA to 43%shooting in the 1st quarter.


  5. i die a little inside every time I see Pau or Drew rotate too late. They are both 7 feet they should be challening every drive to the basket but sadly do not


  6. ORTG from Basketball Reference:

    PHX 8th
    NO 29th
    SA 2nd

    3PA/G and 3p% from Basketball Reference:

    NO 30th/19th
    SA 4th/2nd


  7. Kevin,

    Heh. Indeed. Always need to remember that there are two teams on the floor. PHX is 17th in 3P% and 13th in 3PA/G.


  8. Andrew Bynum is to blame for our defensive struggles. His Pick and Roll defense is atrocious. And he is not defending the rim much anymore either. He is only concerned with playing offense. Watch Bynum closely. He plays absolutely no defense anymore. He’s gotten a big head now.


  9. In a long season I think we are seeing teams take nights off against bad teams even more. I think we will see a better defensive effort against the Spurs. I am not too concerned. I was more worried with our offense before we got Ramon. I literally thought we couldn’t score points no matter what without a traditional PG in this offense. Defense is just as much talent as hustle. I think we have the talent to play defense very well… It looks to be just a matter of exhaustion in this condemned season with our top players playing so many minutes. That’s just my prediction.


  10. Kevin/rr: The Spurs are 23-4 at home + KB is not playing. I share your concern : ) By the way. Looking likely this is our 2nd round opponent. We are 2 + 3 now, and we have 3 games against them. They win the series we might go 1 + 4, we win and we stay 2 + 3. Either way – round 2 : ) That said, we just need to avoid 5, because from a seed worse than 4, you get quite a few frequent flyer miles: First you are on the road, + then you get to start your off season vacation early.


  11. Great article Darius. I definitely think this team has it in them to step up defensively like in 2010, but they have to actually DO it, which might be the problem. The de-regression of the player formerly known as Ron Artest and Kobe getting some rest are good signs, though.

    Off-topic, it’s encouraging to see that Sessions’s numbers are staying great – playing with such improved talent is having major benefits on his game. Here are per 36 stats from earlier this year in Cleveland v. on the Lakers:

    CLE: 15.4/7.6/4.5, 40% FG, 42% 3P, 51% TS%, PER 16.3
    LAL: 16.1/8.5/4.8, 52% FG, 52% 3P, 62% TS%, PER 21.1

    It’s still only been 15 games, but that’s a quarter of the season this year. It’s significant. This isn’t to excuse his defensive lapses (all of those stats ignore/mask defense), but he’s replacing a guy who put up these per 36 numbers with the Lakers:

    8.4/4.3/3.0, 38% FG, 32% 3P, 48% TS%, PER 8.8

    P.S.: Anyone smell a surprise LAL-BOS Finals? They seem to have the number of the key Eastern teams, and are on a roll at this point.


  12. Clearly, both the players and the coaches have demonstrated an ability to play/coach better than what we have seen on D recently. So is the root of the issue the players (lack of focus, commitment, hustle) or the coaching staff (failure to adjust, poorly drawn plays)?


  13. I’m glad that Ebanks is being forced into the line-up. I want to see if he can handle the responsibility of guarding 2’s or the faster 3’s like Durant and Gay because those are the players that MWP can not keep up with anymore. Matt tends to just foul them. Maybe length will help. The same can be said to reduce Blake’s minutes. If Ebanks can stop someone like the Clips Young, OJ Mayo, or the bigger two’s from posting him to death it will be a welcome sight from watching Blake get torched. Defense will get us where we need to be. I’m not using stats, just an observation of the Blake-abuse.


  14. Busboys4me,
    You have to get Mike Brown to notice and change his current habit. Perhaps he will; at least he is more flexible than his predecessor.
    Once Phil had established his rotations, there was no changing them – mostly to good effect – but we are really getting older and need some infusion beyond the PG.


  15. Sessions has not played a playoff game in his career.

    The downside of Blake playing well may mean Ebanks will see no minutes once Kobe gets back. The upside Blake has some confidence he hasn’t had all year. Truly a double edged sword there.

    Pau this April 21.5 pts – 10.3 reb – 4.0 ast – 1.3 blk – 54% fg

    Leprechaun’s are getting things together at the right time. Time for Lakeshow to do the same.


  16. Kevin,
    And what about MWP? Looking like Ron Artest out there. I will now start calling him MWP. He has now earned it.


  17. Here come the Celtics, here come the Celtics.

    Stats look real nice on paper but the games have to be played.

    This is a crazy, fun season.


  18. Aaron: there’s no longer a weak link in the starting 5 he’s lost weight and it shows on the court. Goes brain dead some plays, but makes up for it by stealing the ball from cp3 in crunchtime and hitting big 3s.


  19. I noticed if the players being guarded by our two bigs are 3-pts phenom, Lakers are handicapped by this defensive assignments. Pau and Socks rarely move out of the post area when defending their guards. On offense, they’re also unstoppable in post plays. Pau and Bynum has to play a lock down defense like what happened in the last three minutes in NO game, if they want to win tomorrow. however on this game, they’re meeting the Spurs who are far better than NO and Suns so it’s should be a 48 minutes focus game without any interval of mental lapses. Lakers should shut off the Spurs who comes in waves of talent from outside shooting to aggressive penetration by their young, unknown players then supported by their superstars. We have only one Sessions who could run with the Spurs. let’s see how Lakers could win as an underdog?


  20. It is me or did Lakers start playing bad defense after Bynum gott his 30 points in that Detroit game?


  21. The Lakers tonight will show us what kind of mettle we have. This is a gutcheck game more than anything. IF we make it close and interesting, then that means we can withstand… if not, the very sound Spurs will blow you out of the water and will make it a massacre of sorts.

    Start Barnes over Ebanks.


  22. 1. i think individual efforts have as much impact as MB’s schemes or playing particular offensive styles/plays.

    my untrained eye tells me the following:
    – bynum’s offense is coming at the expense of defense. under phil, he was still developing/getting healthy so he felt like defense was his main contribution. given his chip on his shoulder about his position in the league/team this year, we may have to wait until he feels like his #s have peaked (25/10?) before he starts paying attention to defense again. this is why he is a distant, distant second to howard, despite AB’s size/skills.
    – kobe should not get any all-nba defense consideration this year. in fact, he’s been coasting on prior rep for a long time. kobe sags/play free safety/conserve energy on defense- perhaps rightly so, but he’s not been additive on D.
    – our entire bench, perhaps excluding barnes, is a defensive nightmare, murphy and blake being the most noteworthy. of course, it sucks that their poor defense comes in addition to a stagnate offense.

    2. i found myself cheering for the celtics last night. made me throw up a little bit. i guess i hate the heat that much, or perhaps, i just want another LAL-BOS matchup.


  23. Just so people don’t get too stupid on this site… When the Lakers beat the overrated and rested Spurs on the road this afternoon without Kobe Bryant, I don’t want to hear how we are better without Kobe. I don’t want to read a single joke about it. The truth is even without Kobe we match up well talent and size wise with San Antonio. So with such a small sample size even if we take our Kobeless record the last few years to an impressive 7-2 I don’t want to hear anything stupid. Of course with all this talent we can get by without Kobe for short stretches.


  24. The excitement of playing better on the offensive end allowed LA to believe that they could outscore opponents and win games. This false bravado leads to dropping games to less talented teams who get up just by seeing the purple and gold.
    The starting five is older and must conserve energy in unconventional ways with no help coming off the bench. Running themselves into the ground when minutes are already high for the BIG3 would definitely spell doom. The taking plays off and less than consistent effort is directly related to tired legs and trying to find a happy medium during a crazy lockout schedule. I am like every fan that wants to see their team give 110 percent, but I think its a little unrealistic to believe that an older squad can give that type of effort night in and night out without crashing and burning. The defense has been better against teams LA deemed worthy of their effort, but slacking against inferior foes which does shine a positve light on the situation.

    I want put to much stock into tonights game unless Pop brings out the heavy artillery. He knows how to win in a shortened season ans it looks like he has found the right formula again this year.


  25. TheNCDon,

    You make some great points. Let’s all remember how this steam went all out during the 17-1 stretch last season. It seemed to burn them out. By the time the playoffs came around it was clear they had very little left. The focus and the legs were gone.

    I expect to see the defense improve in the playoffs where there are often two days between games. This team has shown is they can play good defense. I’d like to believe that at some point this season we will see it again.


  26. I sincerely hope that we can beat the Spurs without their top 3 players while sitting Kobe….What would happen to this Lakers team without Kobe, Pau, Drew against the Spurs without only Duncan?


  27. These comparisons of “when such and such team plays without so and so, against this other team on the road, coming off a back to back without two of their stars…..”

    Just silly. It’s a regular season game. The post season won’t be comparable. It never is.

    Playing the same opponent in a condensed series of seven games where players remain the same and game to game adjustments are made and the winner moves on and the loser goes home is NOTHING close to the regular season.

    Having a deep bench in the playoffs only helps you should foul trouble become an issue.

    Other than that, every team gets plenty of rest and recovery time between games which is significant especially considering this regular season where that has not been the case.

    Expect the unexpected. Anyone can win. Anything can happen.


  28. It has become very evident on this site that three (3) camps of Laker fans exist:

    -Kobe worshipers
    -Bynum is the future guys
    -team 1st realistic fans

    I’m a longtime Laker fan. Going back to two HOF’s nicknamed Mr Inside & Mr Outside. As great as those two were they could never get the Lakers pass the Celtics for the title. As a matter of fact, the Lakers have never won any of their 16 titles w/o a very productive all-star big man. Five titles with Mikan, one with Chamberlain, five w/ Kareem, three w/ Shaq, & 2 w/ Gasol.

    So as great as Kobe is, neither he nor any other Laker great, has ever won anything (except scoring titles) w/o an all-star big.

    7 foot centers have a lot of responsibilities, much of it dirty work which requires a lot of effort, much of which the less knowledgeable fan appreciates or even recognizes . A 7 footer who has the complete package of rebounding, defense & low post, high percentage scoring is a rarity, an excellent piece to build a team around and a powerful piece on a serious title contender.

    I’m not happy with the way Bynum has been playing of late. And I believe he’s playing that way because he’s not a happy camper. Successful teams know you reward your bigs for their defense & rebounding by getting them the ball for easy shots. Everyone loves to score.

    Personally I believe the Lakers would become a much better all-around team if they incorporated better scoring balance.

    Lakers top 3 scorers currently:

    Kobe, 28.1 ppg, 23.2 fga’s pg, .430 fg%
    Bynum, 18.4 ppg, 12.8 fga’s pg, .570 fg%
    Gasol, 17.3 ppg, 13.9 fga’s pg, .511 fg%

    I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to figure out both Bynum & Gasol could be 20+ scorers with 2 to 2.5 more attempts per game. And let’s face it, does Kobe really need to lead the league in scoring & fga’s with these two teammates? Kobe’s shot selections and thus his fg% would actually improve because he would get much better looks if both of his 7 footers were 20 point scorers.

    Kobe could still average 23-24 ppg, lead his team in scoring, and win another title if…if he allows Sessions to be the point guard we have all been hoping for.