The Lakers’ Season-Long Defensive Woes In One Play

Darius Soriano —  March 26, 2013

And just think about execution, what are we going to do? You’ve got to look at what teams are doing against us in terms of spreading us out and rolling a big and now we collapse and now we’re late to the shooters. This is about the third game in a row where that’s happened to us. So we have to figure out defensively what we’re going to do.

That quote is from Kobe Bryant after last night’s loss to the Warriors. Kobe seems to be describing how teams are attacking the Lakers with dribble penetration and when Dwight steps up the guards are collapsing the paint to help on the diving big man only to then struggle to recover back out to the perimeter to cover shooters.

Kobe, of course, is correct in his assessment that the team has been struggling to recover to shooters once the ball is penetrated. This is fundamental basketball at its finest. Teams want to attack the paint, draw help, and then pass to the open man for an easy basket. And for the past several games, Lakers’ opponents have been doing just that to great success. Whether it was Curry and Jarrett Jack last night, John Wall in the Wizards’ game, Goran Dragic in the Suns’ game, or Isaiah Thomas in the Kings game, the Lakers have been facing guards who have been breaking them down off the dribble and causing a ton of problems.

The epitome of what Kobe described above is illustrated in this play (though, the pass isn’t made to a three point shooter):

The play starts with Blake isolated on Steph Curry. Jodie Meeks is guarding Carl Landry (a discussion for another day) and it looks like Landry is positioning himself to set a screen to Curry’s right with Meeks sliding with him to get into a hedge position. Curry, recognizing he can get a step on Blake, blows right by him to his left and away from any potential pick from Landry. Nash is the closest player who can step up to deter the drive, but feints help in order to recover back to his man who is in the strong side corner. Defensive principles dictate that you don’t leave that man, but in this case a strong argument could be made to ignore that principle based off the speed at which Blake has been beaten and the configuration of the defense behind him.

Nash, though, lets Curry go and that leaves Dwight Howard as the last line of defense against an advancing Curry and his own man (David Lee) lurking baseline. Dwight half steps up to deter Curry and forces a pass, but with no one there to pick up Lee, he gets an easy score with Dwight compounding things by fouling him. After the play, Dwight dejectedly turns away as this was simply another example of the team’s defense being so bad that he was put in an untenable position. (As an aside, I love the Warriors announcer talking about Howard being half asleep when it was Blake’s defense that was the root cause. If anyone looked asleep, it was Blake who got beat by a straight line drive right into the heart of the defense.)

Even though there are ways to diagram a defense to help stop a play like this one even after Blake is beat — Nash takes Curry, Dwight rotates to Jack in the corner, Kobe slides into the paint to pick up Lee and Meeks covers the back side all by himself — the fact is this play is indicative of what the Lakers’ issues have been on defense for most of the season. Ball handler gets beat, Dwight steps up, no one helps the helper, and the opponent gets an easy shot. And, if it’s not that exact formula, it’s a variation of it where after someone is beat off the dribble the defensive wings get so caught up in helping that they leave shooters open around the perimeter in favor of trying to do battle on the boards or take away the type of pass that Lee got from Curry.

So, if you’re looking for why the Lakers are a mediocre (at best) defensive team, look no further than what we saw last night. Yes it hurt that Ron didn’t play in the 2nd half. It’s also true that Dwight wasn’t as disruptive last night as he’s been in recent games. There’s also a point to be made about indifference to making the harder play and instead settling too often for the easy one. But the facts are the facts: the Lakers, as a team, have trouble guarding on the perimeter and it leaves them vulnerable in the paint where their big men are forced to help far too often without an adequate support system behind them to deny shots at the rim while still being able to contest perimeter jumpers.

Until that is sorted out, whether through scheme, better commitment from the players, or a combination of both, the Lakers will fail on defense over the long haul. That may not be what you want to hear, but it’s certainly the truth.

Darius Soriano

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26 responses to The Lakers’ Season-Long Defensive Woes In One Play

  1. Excellent post about the Lakers defensive problems.

    Zach Lowe at Grantland calls out Kobe for his defense, a very good read.

    http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/55877/an-open-letter-to-kobe-bryant-about-his-defense

  2. How about calling out steve nash…for 17 years hes been terrible on defense. He doesnt even try…falling and stumbling on every hesitation and crossover.

    Kobe deserves blame but nash needs to hear it too

  3. Marques,
    Nash can’t defend because he can’t defend. Very different from Kobe, who can, but just won’t.

  4. I just can’t, MDA encouraging Howard to expand his range by taking jumpers….wow, that’s the last thing he needs to be working on…how about refining a post game and footwork…smh

  5. We live in a world where D’Antoni thinks Nash-Blake-Meeks-Kobe-Dwight can defend well enough to make up a 17 point deficit. From this point on Lakers were doomed. Blake tops it off by playing defense above the 3 point line then jumps out a few feet further for no apparent reason. Rick Fox said yesterday many Lakers players haven’t come to grips with their limitations. This is a prime example.

  6. Dear FBG,

    Problem is Pau coming back,please ponder on that.We had a very good stretch with him on the sides.Look at 4th quarter when he was out.Kobe this Kobe that not gonna do it.

  7. Been awhile since the Lakers were a quick team. Opposing guards penetrating is nothing new. But the Lakers have had better coaches in the past, even Mike Brown.

  8. Defense of pg penetration has been an issue going back to pj’s last year. You can’t blame MDA for that, but you can certainly question the defensive schemes he’s devised (if you find one, let me know). I would like to think that MDA was hired for his offensive expertise. Frankly, a better team would not have lost the last 3 games. There is enough talent on the team, but chemistry is still an issue. That type of leadership has been lacking.

  9. @tonyt i was wondering why dwight shot those jumpshots early in the game. I feel like dwight should just work on his post game and footwork more than his free throws. Its not like hes making more free throws anyway.

    Pau should have come off the bench with earl starting. Too many egos on this team which is why team chemistry is not clicking. Btw can somebody do a study on whos the worser defender, nash or fisher?

  10. CA Clark is getting a little loony with the Kobe psychoanalysis over at SSR. Like a lot of guys, Clark is too emotional about Kobe. The Lakers’ defense is bad mostly because they have bad defensive players.

  11. I was at the game last night, and from the get go, Howard seemed off. His body language was poor, and once there were a couple of defensive breakdowns, his shoulders slumped and his energy noticeably sagged. He is **not** a player that deals well with adversity.

    I also noticed multiple instances where Nash looked like a kid caught playing hooky when facing Howard after numerous failed defensive assignments.

    Kobe’s “free safety” defense and gambling on steals is not only getting old, but it’s a diss on the primacy of Howard’s leadership of the D.

  12. Yes Pau being a borderline NBA talent this year is huge in both sides of the ball but Dwight not being 100 percent, Steve Nash getting old, and Kobe not willing to defend are in total more impactfull.

  13. Why has Kobe’s defense been so bad? I am a huge Kobe fan but the evidence, particularly video evidence, is mounting. I can think of several reasons, all or some or none of which may be correct.

    1. Is it a deliberate choice by Kobe, so he can “save” himself for offense? Is he trying to pad his offensive stats? Or does he honestly think that this behavior gives them the best chance to win? I guess this is possible. But complaining to the refs just to make a point, at the expense of your teammates who are hustling back on D, is really selfish.

    2. Is it an effect of the apparent offense-first philosophy of the coach? Losing sight of your man is a very basic mistake. The “ball-you-man” defensive philosophy is such a basic philosophy that goes all the way back to high school. Is it possible that without a defense-first coach, Kobe simply isn’t reminded enough of basic defensive principles? Is he simply unaware of these defensive mistakes and needs someone to call him out regularly on this? Other than folks in this blog, that is.

    3. Is it possible it’s much ado about nothing? That is, if you took any player and focused on them for the whole game, could you come up with just as much video evidence that they are a poor defender? In many plays where one team scores, some kind of defensive mistake is made, so it seems you could fabricate a bunch of evidence one way or another of the defensive prowess of a player. I can’t say this is *not* true, but some of Kobe’s mistakes are so blatant it’s hard to believe the other players are making mistakes to the same degree.

    I really don’t know what the reasons are. But knowing the reasons would be the first step to understanding and hopefully solving them, although it’s awfully late in the season. I am curious to hear what others think.

  14. You guys need to relax. I agree coaching is bad, we need to play inside out, slow the pace down. They hit some good jumpers, we will be fine as long as we post up kobe or pau and not get discouraged if we miss a few inside ones.

  15. But won’t play that way sufian because of MDA ball theory lol…he gives Meeks the green light

  16. @Vegas I think it is a combination of both, it’s just hard to imagine a player in his 17th season (19 with playoffs) to chase these young guys all over this court, facilitate, playmake, and score at will. Who has ever been asked to do all of this this deep into their career? MJ? Magic? Kareem? No. From what I see, there is no defensive philosophy or goal we as a team are trying to implement. Like what are we trying to accomplish? Do we want guys to funnel guys into the paint, push them baseline, shoot the 3′s, or what? What are we trying to limit, because right now teams get any and every look they want. We have to take away something. I recall the Phoenix series a few years back when Alvin gentry all of a sudden went zone against us and that was what made that a series. Phoenix didn’t stand a chance play man against us, payments they went zone and it worked. MDA has to make adjustments, play zone or something. We’re definitely long enough to mix it in throughout the game.

  17. Gary, some numbers for Fisher vs Nash
    Fisher on-court team defence for 09-10, 10-11 & 11-12
    1.04, 1.04 & 1.01
    Nash: 1.11, 1.10 & 1.06
    Conclusion: Fisher’s teams were consistently better defensively than Nash’s.

    Fisher net defence differential for 09-10, 10-11 & 11-12 (basically, how much better or worse defensively his teams were with him off the court)
    Even, -1 (meaning his team was one point worse defensively per 100 possessions when he was off the court) & -5
    Nash: +2, -2 & -3
    Conclusion: Both Fisher’s & Nash’s teams were modestly better defensively with them on the court than off the court (Fisher averaging a -2 & Nash a -1)

    Fisher opposing point guard Effective Field Goal Percentage (EFG%) & opposing point guard PER per 48 minutes for 09-10, 10-11 & 11-12
    .516 and 18.7, .501 and 17.7 & .496 and 14.8
    Nash: .469 and 15.6, .480 and 13.7 & .479 and 13.6
    Conclusion: Opposing point guards consistently produced a significantly lower EFG% and PER against Nash than against Fisher. For someone with a reputation for getting roasted by opposing PG’s, Nash’s counterpart’s average PER is surprisingly low (and less than league average). Of course, this would not account, for example, for Nash being a sub-par help defender, for those ocassions where Nash was not put on the opposing PG, etc.

    Nash’s “defensive” numbers this year: 1.08 when he is on the court (worse than when he was on Phoenix last year), +1.4 (meaning his team is 1.4 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he is off the court), .473 EFG% and 15.5 PER (opposing PG)

    Numbers courtesy of 82games.com

  18. It appears Metta may be done for the season. The thought of Meeks clanking and bad defense scares me. It never ends. Old broken players tend to fall apart.

  19. Robb99,
    My only issue with the numbers from 82games is that they don’t take into account any of the times that the Lakers cross-match defensively and don’t have Nash guard PGs. For a good stretch of games Kobe guarded opposing PG’s and Nash guarded less threatening wing players. And while that practice has come to an end, the Lakers still hide Nash on non-PG, lesser offensive threats when they have the opportunity to do so that Blake, Kobe, or even Clark (as happened last night with Jarrett Jack on several 2nd half possessions) can guard the more threatening PG.

    This isn’t to bury Nash as a defender. He works hard, chases guys around picks pretty well, and is generally a good team defender who understands his responsibility within the team concept. But his limitations on D are real and play out in a variety of ways, from individual struggles to cross matching in ways that aren’t always ideal.

  20. @Vegas: I think all your points are dead-on. Unfortunately, this season with a coach not named Phil Jackson to run consistent offense and no defensive philosophy as well as an excess of old talent sans Dwight, are all revealing the flaws of Kobe Bryant — most characterized by selfishness.

    I’m still his fan who wants to take a picture with his statue when it is erected. I’m just sad that Kobe’s career may end up in disappointment when I know (and other folks who care about bball) he didn’t reach the potential he had in himself but refused to play with others as a team. There’s still time to change that next season, but it’s running out.

  21. Darius, I hear you, although my recollection is that the Kobe guarding point guards experiment only lasted four games. In any event, the last 4 years suggest that the on-court off court differential for Nash has not been particularly significant, which must tell us something. In addition, the numbers clearly show that opposing PGs do not “go-off” while Nash is on the court at anything more than league average numbers (in fact, the numbers are below average). That may not say much about the overall quality of a team’s defence while Nash is on the court, but it certainly does rebut the argument that every time a PG has a good night that is somehow proof of what a poor defender Nash is (since this happens with no more than league average regularity).

  22. metta going down kills us – who do you think will play more now – also injured jamison or meeks?

  23. The Lakers’ glaring lack of depth is to blame for a lot of the poor play. I can’t spend the Buss’ money, but I can’t see having a $100m payroll and then not shoring up the team when Pau and Hill went down. A Kenyon Martin would have been perfect in that capacity. This team as currently constructed, can’t compete for the title. It’s a flawed roster due to age and over use of one Kobe Bryant. MD’A will work Kobe like a rented mule til the Mamba drops. When your last five bench players give you virtually nothing all year, you don’t have a good team.

  24. @Rob99 interesting numbers as it appears nash is not worse than fisher at defense. Whats even more interesting is nash is not that bad at defense, according to the stats that is. However, I feel inclined to believe what darius is saying in that nash’s stats might look better because he sometimes guards the weaker wing player.

    And dallas wins in OT which means they’re one game back from tying 8th seed.