Last week, before the OKC game, I was asked whether the Lakers’ bigger problems were on offense or on defense. To me, this answer was, and remains, clear. It’s the defense.
The Lakers’ have fundamental problems on D, mostly related to denying dribble penetration and how they don’t always help the helper. Any team can make the first rotation just fine, but the difference between a solid defense and an elite one is the ability to make the second and third rotation on any given possession. Right now, the Lakers don’t make those late possession rotations very well and they’re paying for it.
But those are the big picture issues. On an individual level, this defense is failing countless times over the course of the game. And while no one is immune, there are players whose bad habits are sticking out like a sore thumb. And while it may be difficult for some people to hear, one of the chief culprits is Kobe Bryant.
Mr. Bean may be playing his heart out on offense (we’ll get to this later) but he’s not showing that same commitment to the defensive side of the ball. There are multiple possessions each game in which he makes fundamental mistakes and it’s costing the Lakers. Again, he’s not alone. But as a leader of the team, he needs to be doing better.
One of Kobe’s chief mistakes is that he gets caught watching the ball too often:
On this play, Kobe is playing on the weak side and his man (Gordon Hayward) is in the corner. Kobe is intently watching the ball on the strong side wing while peeking at the action in the paint to see if the ball is going to be whipped into one of the Jazz big men off their interior screen action. While all that’s happening, Hayward cut back door. Kobe, never once looking at his man, only reacted to the pass and fouled a mid-air Hayward who was trying to make the catch.
At the lowest levels of organized basketball, players are asked to see the ball and their man. Kobe loses his man at the very start of this possession and never found him again until committing the foul.
Kobe also has a nasty habit of watching the ball and going for steals that aren’t that likely, and compromising the rest of the defense in the process:
On this play Kobe is guarding DeMarre Carroll, who starts on the strong side but then drifts to the weak side as the Jazz run a sideline P&R. Once Carroll clears the side, Kobe again is mostly watching the ball and cheating towards Enes Kanter who is setting up for a mid-range jumper. The ball never goes to Kanter, however, and instead is skipped to Carroll spotting up on the wing. Kobe tries to steal the pass, fails, and then doesn’t recover to Carroll quick enough to deny penetration. Meeks, hoping to try and play two players, cheats off the strong side corner (a cardinal sin in basketball) to help on Carroll. Like Kobe, Meeks is unsuccessful in slowing Carroll but also gives up the pass to the corner. Hayward makes the Lakers pay by hitting the wide open three.
Kobe’s mistakes here aren’t so drastic but he made several on that single play. Going for the steal was likely the worst offense since it put him in a position where he couldn’t contain the penetration of his man. Scouting tells you that Carroll isn’t a three point shooter so denying his drive is the number one goal of defending him. Once Kobe let Carroll get by him, the greater integrity of the defense was compromised and that was that.
On this last possession, Kobe simply plays a lazy brand of defense that hurt the Lakers on two separate occasions:
This play starts with Kobe on the left baseline guarding Randy Foye. The Jazz run a screen action to free Foye coming across the lane. When Ron’s man comes to screen Kobe, you see him not want to fight through the pick and calls out a late switch to Ron. This leads to Foye getting a wide open jumper that Ron barely contested due to the timing of the switch. To make matters worse, after switching onto Marvin Williams, Kobe didn’t box out and allowed Williams to sneak underneath Howard to tip in the missed shot. Two lazy plays on one possession for Kobe, there.
While I’m singling out Kobe here, he’s not the only one playing this way. On one of the first plays of the game, Ron got beat on an alley oop to Marvin Williams where he was watching the ball similar to Kobe in the first clip. I could have put up multiple clips of Jamison losing his man on screens and getting beat off the dribble, not only from the Jazz game but from every game this season. If the Lakers’ defensive problems were a one man issue, that would be simple enough. They’re not and that complicates matters a great deal.
What further complicates things is that Kobe is a major culprit. His off ball defense stands out as particularly poor this year. He’s gambling for steals, losing sight of his man, and roaming in ways that make the team’s defense structurally unsound. In essence, Kobe is making the easy choice way too often rather than making the harder play that is more taxing physically.
In a way, this is easy to understand. Kobe is playing heavy minutes (44 hard ones against the Jazz) and is carrying a tremendous burden on offense. The energy he’s expending on that side of the ball is massive and to think that won’t affect him in other areas would be a silly conclusion, especially for a 17 year veteran. That said, he’s clearly coasting on defense in order to conserve energy on offense and that simply won’t do. Not only does it hurt the team in countless tangible ways, it sets a bad example for how the team needs to play on that end of the floor.
Dwight Howard was brought in to help solve some of the Lakers’ defensive woes. And, he too can be better than he has been. But he can’t make up for everyone’s mistakes. Jamison and Duhon are turnstiles on D. Ron is getting beat more this season than in year’s past. And Kobe, as shown, isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. As a leader and a yearly member of the all-defensive team, he needs to be better.