After a nearly flawless off-season, we saw all of the Lakers flaws come to the forefront during the pre-season as the Lakers went 0-8 as Mike Brown tried to work around a new offensive system, new personnel, injuries and a roster that was simply too long with too many fringe guys. In the midst of the new personnel and injury reports was the Lakers newest big man who reportedly has biceps the size of ostrich and a smile as broad as his shoulders. More importantly, however, he jumps like a small forward and moves his feet like a shooting guard. Dwight Howard only played in two pre-season games, but how he’s played on the defensive end has already gotten my wheels turning about how the rest of the Lakers are going to have to defend differently with Howard on the floor.
It isn’t a secret that Kobe has lost a step on the defensive end of the floor despite the fact that he continues to rack up All-NBA defensive team awards. However, even when Kobe was at the apex of his defending abilities, he always had the tendency to creep into the paint and try to sit on passes or help out post defenders leaving his man open for jump shots. The Lakers have been burned time and time again by perimeter defenders getting sucked in too deep only to have the ball kicked out to a wide open Jason Terry or Shane Battier. Derek Fisher had this problem, Steve Blake has this problem, and I’ve noticed that Steve Nash has also had this problem in his eight games as a Laker. With Howard in the middle now, more than ever, the Lakers perimeter defenders should be encouraged to stay home on their man and force guys to beat them off the dribble instead of giving up wide open jump shots because Dwight can jump like a small forward and move his feet like a shooting guard. This first video is a perfect example of the good Howard will bring to the defense being negated by the bad habits that the Lakers perimeter defenders are going to have to change to maximize Howard’s talents.
Howard’s man, Jason Thompson, clears out from the left wing to the right block to create an ISO for Demarcus Cousins. Howard follows Thompson but stays help side to help out on any penetration. As the play progresses, Howard keeps an eye on both his man and the ball as Steve Nash comes down from the wing to unnecessarily front Thompson. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) Howard is already between Thompson and the ball, which makes Nash’s action redundant and 2) Nash is essentially using Thompson to set a screen on himself should the ball be kicked out to Isaiah Thomas, his assignment, in the corner. Tyreke Evans comes around Cousins and receives a handoff and drives baseline with Artest trailing and out of position to make a play. Dwight slides over and makes a great play on the ball as Thompson is boxing out Nash. Unfortunately, Evans recovers the block and kicks it out to Thomas who receives the pass and is already in rhythm to shoot the ball by the time Nash gets his first foot out of the paint. Nash exudes tons of effort to try and get back out to Isaiah but his efforts are futile. Splash.
While some of the faces to this Lakers team are new, the problems presented are not. The Lakers were consistently burned by kick out jump shots last season and it’ll likely continue to be a problem this year. However, this year that issue seems more correctable with Dwight, rather than Andrew Bynum, in the middle. A lot of this preseason has been focused around this team “gelling” together and this concept has been discussed about the offensive end of the floor ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed nearly enough is how they’re going to need just as much time to gel on the defensive end of the floor. Just like they’re going to have to break some bad habits and get used to the Princeton Offense, they’re going to have to do the same with Dwight in the middle as he corrects a lot of mistakes around the perimeter — but only if they’re making the correct mistakes.
As fantastic as Howard is on the defensive end, he can only do so much which is why the Lakers are going to need to play tighter coverage around the perimeter. Dwight can help clean up guys getting blown by or a defender losing his man on a back cut, but he [probably] can’t clean up a skip pass that leads to a wide-open corner three or a kick out from the post to the wing. Take the following for example.
The play begins with Kobe guarding Tyreke Evans, who kicks the ball to the corner and runs a cross screen action with Thomas Robinson in the paint. Kobe haphazardly follows Reke into the screen while watching the ball and follows the first body he feels behind him instead of finding his guy then getting back into a help position. Dwight does his job and stays with his man as neither screen was any good. As the double-cross screen is happening, Isaiah Thomas dumps the ball into James Johnson on the right block (being guarded by Artest). As he turns to face the rim, Robinson begins to clear out (taking Kobe and Howard with him) and Reke cuts through the wide-open for what should be an easy layup. Instead, Howard comes back across the lane and blocks the shot as its on its way up.
What can’t be overstated enough is how he’s going to change the complexities of this defense simply by his ability to move in ways that Andrew Bynum could not. Two years ago, I wrote a bread down post after Chris Paul picked and rolled the Lakers defense to death, and said if Andrew Bynum could continue to move his feet like he did in this single play, then the Lakers defense would be much improved. Of course the Lakers went on to win that series but their defensive efforts were not improved as they were eliminated in four games by another team who abused P&R sets. Now, the Lakers do have a guy who has the ability to hedge on the P&R, move his feet and recover on P&Rs and made Steve Nash look half way decent on one action that the Kings ran.
That was a fantastic example of how the Lakers perimeter defenders can take advantage of Howard’s range on the defensive end. After the Howard hedge, Nash was able to get back in front of Jimmer both times he received a screen. Also, Kobe was in a good spot defending Francisco in the corner. He still got sucked in trying to help in the paint, but as the P&R action was happening he kept one eye on Garcia and had only one foot in the paint, giving him a short enough distance to where he could effectively close out on a shot if the ball was swung to the corner. Even Pau did a great job of playing the back side of the cutter while Howard recovered from the hedge then used his length to close out on DeMarcus Cousins’ 17-footer.
It’s going to be a long process getting all of the guys on the same page on the defensive end of the floor, but this team is definitely better off with Howard prowling in the paint and beyond altering shots, correcting mistakes and finishing possessions with rebounds. I’m looking forward to seeing what ways the perimeter guys adjust to playing with a defensive force behind them, starting with their opening night game on this Tuesday.