Kobe’s Off-Ball Work Key to Sustaining Stronger Defense

Darius Soriano —  April 4, 2013

Dwight Howard is the Lakers’ defensive anchor. Since the all-star break, he’s been flashing the dominance on that side of the ball that he’s built his reputation on. With this version of Dwight Howard, the Lakers’ defensive ceiling is raised several notches simply because of his ability to move in space, contest shots, and still recover to the paint to rebound. A player that big and that active can make up for a lot of the short comings of his teammates.

But Dwight Howard can’t do it alone. In fact, that’s been one of the main downfalls of the Lakers’ defense this year. Even when Dwight wasn’t playing as well as he is now on defense, he was more often than not in a position that approximated where he needed to be within the team’s scheme. The problem was, his teammates were not. So while Dwight tried to slide around the floor and contest shots with his normal enthusiasm (sometimes more effectively than others), his mates often left him on an island on the back side to guard multiple players and work the defensive glass. This is too much to ask of a fully healthy Howard, much less the diminished version we saw for the better part of the season.

For the Lakers to tighten up their defense, then, they need the players who surround Dwight to do their jobs more consistently.

Due to the issues of the roster, the Lakers will never be a team who’s great at denying dribble penetration. They simply employ too many players who lack the lateral quickness and athleticism to slow players who attack them in isolation or when coming off screens. Though they work hard, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, Pau Gasol are four players who are often targeted in isolation and attacked off the dribble. Further, Kobe, Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks can lack awareness when guarding in space and can give up lanes to the rim. That’s every player (not named Dwight Howard) in the Lakers’ rotation and all are prone to giving up dribble penetration to their man.

Understanding this fact means that what’s most important to the Lakers’ team defense are the rotations that happen once guys get into the paint. As mentioned, Dwight has mostly done his job this year (as has Gasol, though he’s nowhere near the deterrent that Dwight is) at stepping up and challenging shots. But it’s the guys who play behind Dwight (the wings and the other big man) who need to better be in position as helpers to challenge plays near the rim and rebound defensively.

This is where Kobe Bryant matters a great deal.

It’s no secret that Kobe hasn’t had a very good year as an off ball defender. We’ve covered his struggles in this space, but so have many others across the web. He’s needed to be better than he has been and it’s hurt the team’s defense when he’s gambled and/or missed rotations when playing on the back side.

Against the Mavericks, however, Kobe played much better than he has off the ball all season, making countless plays as a helper around the paint when rotating on the weak side. The block he had against Brandan Wright is a good example:

This play shows the Mavs attacking Pau Gasol first by running Dirk off a pick and then in the P&R, finally getting into the lane where Dwight steps up to challenge the shot. With Dwight leaving the restricted area, his man broke open and received a pass for what looked like an easy finish. But Kobe rotated well to challenge the shot and get a block, ultimately setting up Pau on the other end for an easy dunk of his own. This is the type of play that Kobe wasn’t making earlier in the year.

Another example is this sequence where the Mavs ran another P&R with Vince Carter and Elton Brand. The play starts with Earl Clark guarding Carter and Pau guarding Elton Brand:

Kobe D 1

As you can see, Kobe starts off on the strong side and only one pass away so he’s within a reasonable distance of his man while still eyeing the ball. After Carter comes off the screen, however, Kobe then becomes the weak side defender and his responsibilities change. As Carter comes off the pick, you can see that both Pau and Clark have committed to defending him. This leaves Brand rolling to the rim:

Kobe D 2

With Brand rolling to the rim, Kobe is in a position where he’s stuck guarding two men — Brand and Mayo (who is still behind the arc). The Lakers’ defense requires that Kobe step into the paint to take on Brand, whether to disrupt a pass to him or to box him out should Carter shoot the shot. When Carter does raise up, he tries to fire a pass into Brand but Kobe slides over to tip the ball away and create a turnover:

Kobe D 3

Too often this season, a play like this one would have led to Kobe not sliding over to Brand and instead sticking to his own man who is still a threat behind the arc. That type of decision isn’t necessarily a bad one, but it certainly have been the wrong one  (and the easy one). That choice would have left the Lakers’ defense compromised and forced Jamison (who’s guarding Shawn Marion on the opposite block) to try and rotate with Pau then sliding down to take Jamison’s man. But that’s not what the scheme calls for. The scheme calls for Kobe to help down and then, if the ball is kicked out to his man, for him to bust his tail back to the three point line to close out on Mayo. This is why playing on the weak side of an NBA defense is hard. It puts you in a position where you have multiple help responsibilities with potentially having to cover a lot of ground depending on the decisions the offense makes.

More times than I can count, the Lakers (and Kobe specifically) haven’t made the right (and harder) play to help in the paint with the urgency required to stop a shot inside. But against the Mavs, Kobe did exactly that on the play above and did so over and over again en route to a 20 point win. If Kobe can continue to make the effort he showed against the Mavs, the Lakers’ defense will be much more fundamentally sound and will slow down the barrage of points in the paint they’ve given up in previous games this year. As a leader, it’s on him to set the example and follow through on the help responsibilities off the ball on every possession.

Fair or not, this is where the Lakers are at with Kobe. Earlier in the year he took on the responsibility of guarding opposing point guards to good results. He now needs to put in that same effort in his off the ball work. If he does, the Lakers’ D has the potential to be much better than it has been. And even if that won’t lead to an elite defense, it should make it good enough — when paired with a top 10 offense — to win the games they need to down the stretch to get them into the playoffs.

Darius Soriano

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28 responses to Kobe’s Off-Ball Work Key to Sustaining Stronger Defense

  1. Spot on Darius. I had a section on that Dwight video titled “over reliance” but nixed it because of time constraints. Great work.

  2. This, in addition to playing nearly every minute of the game will get us to the playoffs… and I’ll worry about what happens once there when we get there.

  3. Great post. For the Lakers to have any chance of an upset they’ll need Kobe and Dwight to lead the way on both sides of the ball.

    Watching the Kobe takeover Pacers game on nbatv. The two biggest games of the Kobe-Shaq era Kobe came up the biggest. Had he not dominated the game 7 vs Portland and overcame injury in the Finals. The would’ve never been a dynasty.

  4. Rusty Shackleford April 4, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Is anyone else thinking of this team limping into the 1st round against the Spurs and flaming out totally gassed against a well-rested Spurs team? My only guess on the strategy of playing Kobe 2 entire games (In my opinion they could have put the Dallas game away without him in the 4th quarter) is to budget his energy to bet on clinching the 8th spot with 3 or 4 games left (because they don’t want any part of OKC; but that’s not to say OKC doesn’t take the 1 seed by the time playoffs start) and being able to rest some guys in the last game or two of the regular season. What a crapper of a season this has been.

    With Nash breaking down now at the end of the season after missing the first 20-something games how is that acquisition looking now? Next season they will be playing a breaking-down 40 year old $8 million a year. I think lesson learned for Mitch Kupchak moving forward is not overpaying for aging veterans. The Lakers have never really held much value in stockpiling draft picks but $8 million a year for a guy that, freak broken leg or not, won’t be able to last an entire regular season and be able to help you come playoff time. AND HE DOESN’T PLAY ANY DEFENSE.

    I watched the Knicks and Atlanta last night and realized that this season I’ve watched barely any games non-Laker NBA games. That means I’ve been watching some really bad basketball for the most part all season long. It was very entertaining listening to Jon Barry ripping Atlanta’s defensive approach to Carmelo. Earlier this year I saw Seth Greenberg question Wisconsin’s defensive scheme in the final possession of a game in the post game interview. Two examples of just certain aspects of a coaches game plan on defense being questioned……The Lakers have seemed to lack any plan at all on defense this year.

  5. @Kevin_,

    Agree, without Kobe we would never make it on that series.

  6. Danilo out for season.

  7. The single reason Michael Jordan is so much better than Kobe is that Michael Jordan wanted to beat you both on offense and defense.

    Michael was a much much better defender than Kobe. He was much more dedicated to playing defense. And he came out with high intensity on both offense and defense.

    Defense is what separates the two.

    If Kobe wants to be like Mike, he has to play defense as well. The Lakers could sure use it.

    Kobe likes to think that basketball is like playing chess. The problem is that his attitude toward defense is poor. In the modern game of chess, Kobe plays an attacking style that will end up losing against modern defensive-minded chess players.

  8. Man, if Spurs lose against OKC today, that 1st seed is unpredictable.

  9. Looks like the Spurs might be in tank mode…. Lakers might need to get the 7th seed. :/

  10. Rusty

    As many may know, I hated the Nash signing from day one. This was a lazy FO signing dropped in their lap. Bringing in a 38-year-old, with a bad back who plays poor defense was not smart. Especially since the West has by far the top PGs in many years. Paul, Parker, Lawson, Curry and Westbrook against Nash? Throw in two 7 footers and a slower team and you were going all in with a pair of 2s with 5 face cards on the board.(for Robert).

    Only hope they realize their mistake and pick up a young, fast guard. Look at Denver, Lawson goes down and some guy I never heard of goes 7 for 9 with 4 steals. Guess that why Denver is in the 3rd slot
    instead of fighting for 8th.

    Either George Karl or the FO knows basketball and not watching old video’s of guys 10 years ago. Interesting how last two games with Nash out opposing PG had poor games instead of season highs.
    Blake at this point is just better on D and getting the ball deep. Let’s see how Conley does Friday.

  11. JamesKatt,

    If MJ is so much better on defense how come he was all NBA defense 9 times to Kobe’s 11 times? Just asking.

  12. Jordan rarely if ever checked the best player and he never..repeat never shut anybody down.

    Miller and drexler always got their averages…ehlo and russell are nobodies

    Remember the time jordan switched and guarded isaiah…stockton..magic…nope.because it never happened. He was always the third best defender on his team.

  13. Jordan was a very good defender. He would make opposing guards’ lives miserable at times. I’ve seen guards who were scared to put the ball on the floor vs. MJ for fear that he would steal it and be off in the other direction for a dunk. Jordan was a very staunch defender both as a team defender and in regards tu staying with his own man.

    But Kobe Bryant is a very good defender in his own right. Kobe can still play hellacious defense when he wants to. The problem is that Kobe tries to rest on defense too often. Kobe has a lot of responsibility on the Lakers. He plays a lot of minutes as well. Therefore, he often slacks off on the defensive side of the ball. He is trying to conserve some energy to do other things that his team needs. Not the wisest choice a lot of times. But I can understand his inclination to do so.

    Kobe can’t sustain a full bore effort on both sides of the ball for 48 mins. any more. So he gambles on “D”. He’s only human. I don’t think you’ll see that kind effort from him should the Lakers make the post season.

    postseason. I suspect we’ll see a much more disciplined effort from him.

  14. From Drew Garrison at SSR:

    Since the All-Star break the Lakers give up an average of 100.4 points per 100 possessions when Howard is their anchor, but an atrocious 115.8 when he’s off the court.

  15. Ken,

    You’re endless bagging on Nash and bragging about your acumen is getting old. You also trashed Howard every day earlier in the year, and you were 100% dead wrong on the issue of whether the Lakers should keep him, as is now clear to even all the people who don’t like him.

  16. Jordan a better defensive player? How? By guarding B.Russel? Small guy like Hornacek? Kobe was tasked to guard not only the Shooting Guards of the opposing team but the quick and much younger Point Guards of the opposing team. To go further, Kobe is even tasked to guard Small Forwards like Melo, Durant and LBJ. When MJ guarded Kobe when he was 34 yrs old Kobejust went off and scored lots of points vs MJ. So please stop comparing MJ to Kobe.

  17. Jordan Kobe difference lays between their hand sizes and relative eras.Scottie is the most underrated star defensive player ever.Kobe is as good as Jordan.I have watched all.

  18. Kobe is asked to do too much on this team. BTW, The Lakers have played better defense the last couple of games because Nash has been out. Nash not Kobe is the genesis of the Lakers defensive woes.

  19. Good job Jameskatt, that what we wanted, a Jordan vs Kobe debate. Those YouTube video comments wars were not enough.

  20. Craig Weightman April 5, 2013 at 9:07 am

    It is true that Kobe is asked to do more for this team than MJ was ever asked to do with the Bulls. That is what it is, but will not change any minds in the ‘stupid’ conversation about who was/is greater.

    There is no single answer to the Laker defensive deficiencies. We almost all seem to be trying to ‘Perry Mason’ this thing, i.e. we approach the situation as if there is a single problem and everything will be fine if we can just identify and solve that problem. This is life people – and life is a series of reasonably complex interactions among a variable set of factors that change over time. It is complex and it is why coaches and GMs have such a hard job – that is rarely recognized by the fans.

  21. “He’s only won 58 rings, why wouldn’t they?” D’Antoni quipped

    Is he referring to why the crowd was chanting for Phil or why the Lakers would not have hired Phil ?

    So I must compliment D’Antoni – because there it is. “Why wouldn’t they?” And yet we didn’t. And the reasons given have turned out to be completely false (better match for the team’s roster etc). None of this is a knock on D’Antoni – because the same would be true for anyone else. It was an obvious move, that we did not make.

    With regard to the article (good link rr): I will not comment on the specifics, as the season is not over yet. However, I will say this. The article lists reasons why it is not his fault followed by reasons that it is. There is a third category which is lacking from this article. That category would be, what are the positives that MD brings to the table and why he is the correct man for the job? I have yet to see much commentary in that area. What I see are some posters/writers stating criticisms, while others respond with reasons/excuses and statements that Phil could not have done better. That type of response tells me nothing about MD and could apply to anyone who might have been given the job. I want to know why he is the right guy (if he is).

  22. Craig Weightman April 5, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Robert,
    You are turning into a troll.

    There are arguements for and against Phil. There are arguements for and against Mike D. Presuming you know all the answers and thinking people who don’t agree with you are somewhat stupid doesn’t show any real smarts. We all have opinions, but it is the wise person is one who can somewhat objectively survey the situation, regardless of their personal opinion and allow past mistakes to guide, rather than direct their actions.

  23. Craig: I am not rendering an opinion above, rather asking what I would like to see. People can respond or not if they want. What I see is you rendering an opinion on me which I do not appreciate – and you can keep it. I have not seen much contribution from you to this board, but if I have missed it let me know. Otherwise – do not direct comments to me and I will return the favor to you. I will not return any insults to you as I do not do that to anyone on the board as it is against the board’s policies, and I would not do it even if it were not.

  24. Comparing Kobe’s defense in his SEVENTEENTH season to Jordan’s in his prime is ludicrous. We never saw what type of defender Jordan would’ve been in his 17th season because, guess what, he never got anywhere near playing seventeen years. The closest thing we have is his Wizards years where he was a downright abomination on perimeter defense. I’m not hating on MJ at all, I’m just saying this comparison is ridiculous. If you want to compare Kobe and MJ as defensive players, look at how they both played defense in their primes. Kobe might not be the all-world defensive player that MJ was, but in his prime Kobe was one of the five best perimeter defenders in the league hands down. When you adjust for competition and the fact that Kobe had to check the other team’s best player while MJ had Pippen to do that the comparison gets even closer. Let’s be fair in our comparisons, seriously.

  25. It was very refreshing to see Kobe play defense. I did a double take to make sure that really was worker #24 sticking to his man and denying him the ball. The overall defensive scheme still does not make much sense. Too often players are not keeping their body between their man and the basket. It also does not look like there is very much talking on defense. Watch KG set up the Celtic defense and call out assignments. Still, the Lakers demonstrated that they really can play defense and hopefully this new found interest will continue.

  26. It’s pretty hard to compare Kobe & MJ defensively. One played in a league that featured numerous unathletic shooting guards, and in an era when handchecking was permitted. That he also played alongside one of the best defensive players of all time in Scottie Pippen (a better defender than either MJ or Kobe) further lightened the load on MJ.

    Kobe faced better athletes with tougher rules, but he also has enjoyed better low post defenders than what Jordan did (getting beaten off the dribble has less effect when the dribbler runs into Shaq compared to Luc Longley…).

    I think Jordan was probably more disciplined defensively than Kobe, and a lot of Kobe’s appearances on the all-defensive team were based more on reputation than merit, but the NBA that Kobe has played in, and the teammates he played with relative to Jordan, make it very much an apples/oranges comparison.

  27. rr
    rr
    I agree on Dwight, clearly his back held him back. As for Steve he has many benefits I just feel his defense on this team cause many of the breakdown problems. Let’s see how Conley does tonight Blake. I saw Thomas go from star to poor in the last two games against the two Steve’s. Nash gives it all he has but how much did his injuries and play hurt the team? Do you feel he was the right signing for this years Laker team? It’s not the player it’s the Laker needs. How much better
    would they be with a nails defender next to Kobe this year? Hard to blame everything on the coach. If Pops was coach would team be better with Nash starting? I don’t know.