Getting Defensive with Kurt Rambis’ Return

Darius Soriano —  August 8, 2013

A quick examination of the Lakers’ current roster headed into next season leads to a simple conclusion: this team has the potential to be awful on defense.

As has been covered ad nauseum, the Lakers lost both Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace in the off-season, both of whom were lynchpins to whatever defensive success the team did have last year. Those two have been “replaced” by Chris Kaman and Nick Young, two players who, while useful in many ways, aren’t exactly known for playing high level defense. Shifting from giving MWP and Dwight big minutes to playing any other group of Lakers currently on the roster is a downgrade defensively. There’s no positive way to spin this.

When given lemons, you make lemonade. Enter, Kurt Rambis.

What Rambis’ role will be next season is an unknown. Yes he’s an assistant coach, but in a conversation with ESPN LA’s Dave McMenamin, Rambis relayed that it’s not yet clear how he’ll be deployed and whether or not he’ll be a “defensive coordinator” of sorts:

“(D’Antoni) said that all assistant coaches will be involved in all areas in our initial conversation,” Rambis explained. “Not that we have etched everything in stone, but to come back as a defensive coordinator, you can talk to Mike about whether there’s going to be any sort of designation on that. By my understanding, there isn’t going to be, but he just kind of wants all of the gaps to be covered so everybody is responsible for working with players and being involved in practices and being involved with games. But to have myself associated with the defense, that means that area is going to be covered.”

Before Rambis had his unsuccessful run as head coach in Minnesota, he stewarded the Lakers’ defense in the 2009 championship season. That year the Lakers ranked 6th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) and did so by switching up their defensive philosophy from man-to-man all the time to a hybrid scheme that incorporated a lot of strong side zone. That scheme was a very aggressive approach to defense and was, in many ways (whether outright stated or not), a response to the way the Celtics defended the Lakers in the season prior when they defeated them in the Finals. Rambis (and Phil Jackson), seemingly, saw a defensive scheme that, with the personnel the Lakers had on hand and rules the league had in place, would work well for the team.

They were right. The Lakers used that scheme as a way to funnel the ball into areas of the floor where offenses were less dangerous and then they used their superior length and above average quickness to force steals and disrupt their opponents sets. The Lakers ended the season ranked 2nd in steals and were 11th in forced turnovers overall. Not a bad showing at all. (As an aside, this past season when the Lakers were 25th and 23rd in steals and forced turnovers respectively.)

All of this is to say, that with Rambis’ return, I’m hopeful the Lakers will dust off some of their old schemes and return to running more strong side zone on defense next season.

As noted at the top, the Lakers don’t have a particularly strong group of individual defenders. Whether due to age, limited athleticism, commitment, or any number of other factors, several key rotation players next season aren’t going to stop their own man without assistance from their teammates. Last season this was also true, but the help that was supposed to be there wasn’t always there and that led to problems. Severe problems. Again, from Rambis:

“Their defense never really gave them a chance to win,” newly hired Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis told “It was very erratic at best. In a lot of ways, when you bring in a lot of players from a lot of different systems, it takes awhile to get everybody connected and on the same page, how you have to defend a myriad of offensive NBA sets and you have to defend talented offensive people, it takes all five guys. They’ve got to be connected, and they’ve got to make the correct decisions at the correct time, and for the Lakers last year, it was clear that they just never really got connected on that end of the floor. You could see throughout most of their games, guys would turn their palms up to the sky, and it was like, ‘Is that my responsibility? Is that your responsibility? Who was supposed to do what?’ So, we’ve got to do a much better job of getting them so they can cover each others’ backs at that end of the floor.”

A return to running more strong side zone should help in addressing some of these issues. Simply put, the SSZ is a scheme that’s meant to put players in help positions early; it moves players to the spots on the floor where they should end up, without them having to get their by using their own reactions. Said another way, it’s a paint by numbers approach to defense that allows lesser defenders or players who may not have elite defensive instincts to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be. Last season, the Lakers were awful at this regardless of who was on the floor, any help they can get in improving at it will be accepted with open arms.

All of this sounds good on paper, but we need to also acknowledge that it’s not as simple as it sounds. The 2009 Lakers had defensive versatility and quickness at multiple positions and played to those strengths with this scheme. Lamar Odom at PF, Trevor Ariza at SF, and a younger Gasol at C were all crucial to making this scheme work. They had the mobility to move from the lane line to the opposite side corner relatively easily and it was on the strength of those recovery skills that kept the Lakers in the top 5 of defensive 3 point field goal percentage.

Next year’s Lakers don’t have a Lamar Odom (Jordan Hill will try to approximate what he did and his athleticism will help, but Odom moved like a SF in a PF’s body, Hill, though in possession of good wheels for a big man, does not), Nick Young isn’t anywhere near Ariza’s level in terms of anticipation on D, and Gasol is 4 years and nearly 12,000 minutes of game time older now. Add in Kobe’s recovery from surgery and the downgrade from Fisher to Nash defensively, and the potential starting lineup isn’t as talented defensively.

But, ultimately, that’s really the point of transitioning to this type of scheme. This group of Lakers will not be able to defend effectively if playing a straight man-to-man style that relies on their individual abilities to get stops. They need help from teammates and that help needs to come in the form of a scheme that helps compensate for those individual failings. The more the scheme can help put players in the right positions, especially early in possessions, the better. The more the scheme can help the defense dictate to offenses where the ball should go rather than allowing them to put limited defenders into reactionary roles, the better.

Even if the Lakers do end up running this scheme, there will still be problems. They’ll likely give up loads of three point attempts on the weak side and, if they’re not careful, will leave the middle of their defense vulnerable to quick hitting cuts and slipped screens with relatively slow footed big men tasked with stepping into to try and protect the rim after showing that strong side help. There are holes in any defense and, with smart coaching, offenses will take advantage of those holes. Add in the limitations of the players executing the scheme and there will be problems.

All that said, the Lakers need a plan on defense and as Rambis has shown, he has the ability to install one and have success with it. I’m hopeful he’s allowed try and do it again next season. Because if, and it’s a big if, the Lakers can be anywhere close to league average on defense with this roster, it’s a win for them. And if they can reach that level, they’ll be much better than many think they will be next season.

Darius Soriano

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