Last week, Byron Scott sat down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com and gave a wide ranging and insightful interview. Among the topics covered were his relationship with Kobe Bryant, views on Julius Randle, and who might fill out his coaching staff. You really should read the entire thing — Scott is honest and forthright, but also showed a confidence in what he wants to do and how he will go about doing it.
The part that interested me most, however, was when Trudell turned the conversation towards what the Lakers would do on the defensive side of the ball. Last season, as we all know, the Lakers were an awful defensive team. We don’t need to recount every issue, but they could neither contain the dribble nor protect the rim and when the ball was rotated around the perimeter after exploiting these issues the Lakers’ rotations were inconsistent.
Fixing this is Scott’s biggest priority and he hinted at how he will go about in doing just that:
MT: You watched the majority of Lakers games next to host Chris McGee and fellow analyst/former teammate James Worthy last season on Time Warner Cable SportsNet. Now, (former coach) Mike D’Antoni didn’t have championship-caliber talent, and lost an absurd 319 games due to injury. Yet and still, what did you take from watching the games that could be improved upon defensively regardless of talent?
Scott: Defensive philosophy has to be constant. This is no knock on Mike at all, but there were games where they were playing defense one way, and other games where they played it differently. When I go into the season, there are three ways we’re going to guard side pick and rolls, for example: we’re going to down it, hard show, or red it (trap). If you do it from day one, guys get better at it because they’re working on it every day in practice. I want to establish those things day-to-day, and if you do that, it takes a lot of the thinking away and gets back to reacting.
MT: You can play defense differently if you have a rim protector that you don’t really have on the currently shaped roster.
Scott: We’ll have a plan, but it will depend some on how guys play in training camp. With that said, we can’t force everything defensively to (Jordan) Hill or (Carlos) Boozer, so we’ll focus more on forcing guys to certain places and corral them instead of trying to block shots. What I see during the first few days of practice will make an impact there, so we can have an identity on that end of the floor.
MT: How do you specifically play screen/roll differently with a team that doesn’t have a true rim protector?
Scott: You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.
First off, simply hearing Scott talk in scheme specifics is something I enjoy. The details of how to defend a certain action and how that triggers the next series of defensive assignments is always interesting to me; it helps me understand the game better and, for the purpose of this site, helps inform analysis.
More important than how it helps me, though, is how sound of an approach this is and if what Scott describes will actually work.
The scheme Scott wants to employ is sound strategy. When the Lakers had prime Gasol/Odom and, later, Andrew Bynum, they often funneled penetration to their bigs and let them challenge shots at the rim. This effectively lowered opponents’ field goal percentage in the paint and allowed the Lakers to be a top defensive team. As Scott mentions, this current group does not have this luxury. The back line of the defense will be “anchored” by Hill, Davis, Boozer, and Randle — none of whom will be mistaken for Dikembe Mutombo anytime soon.
The Lakers will need to be a help and recover team, corralling and walling off dribble penetrators with extra bodies and then making the extra rotations back to the perimeter to contest jumpers and/or run players off the three point line and into long two point jumpers. If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. Having the mental awareness and disciplined required to run a precise defensive scheme like this can be exhausting enough, but actually moving off an offensive player to help middle on a drive and then scurrying back to a perimeter player under enough control to simultaneously be ready to contest a jumper or breakdown into a defensive stance and slide with a dribbler to force him to more help is actually exhausting. Especially when asked to do it possession after possession.
Do the Lakers have horses to execute this? Yes and….maybe. Henry, Young, Johnson, and Lin are all capable athletes to perform these tasks. You can add Jordan Clarkson to this list. Randle, if guarding a stretch four, is capable as well. The maybe’s are Kobe, Nash, and Kelly. For Kobe, much of this will come down to effort and a willingness to put that much energy into defense when so much will be asked of him offensively. For Nash, it will come down to being healthy enough and if his wheels still have enough in them. For Kelly, it will depend on whether he’s actually physically able to do such things at his size and with his level of athleticism what it is.
Scott, though, will hold these players accountable to do their jobs defensively (or so he says). Playing defense in the scheme that he describes is as much about want as it is ability. Players have to want to make the extra rotation; they have to want to be there for a teammate and not let the integrity of the scheme fail because of their personal mistake. When you combine that want with discipline — and a bunch of it — you are on the path to where you want to go.
The question, then, is if Scott can coach up the players to bring the right amount of focus to the job while instilling the level of buy-in needed to generate the needed effort. If Scott can, the Lakers will produce better than expected results. Not to the point that they are a top ten defensive team, but to the point that they are not a bottom five one (which they were last year). This should be the priority. After all, if the Lakers are going to surprise people the way that Scott (and Kobe) hope to, it will have to be on the defensive side that they show real improvements. Scott seems to understand this. The key will be getting the players to do the same.