Trending Down: The Lakers’ Defense

Darius Soriano —  April 10, 2012

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.

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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.

Darius Soriano

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