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:
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:
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:
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.