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Time to Mix it Up

Bill Bridges —  December 15, 2008

NBA 2008 - Lakers Beat Timberwolves 98-86
Every Laker fan is also a Laker critic. It is a divine right of the Laker fan to complain if the team does not meet lofty expectations and blow out each opponent. Much has been said and written about the new Lakers defense. But the switch in performance and the magnified switch in fan sentiment regarding the Laker’s defense is probably unparalleled. At the beginning of the season, the new “strong-side zone” defense masterminded by the new Defensive Coordinator Kurt Rambis had lifted the team to #1 in total defense prompting national media attention and admiration. Recently, the same SSZ defense is prompting ridicule from the likes of perennial all-defensive-team stalwart, Mark Jackson: “The Lakers are a bad defensive team…”

It is as if the ’74 Steel Curtain transformed into the ’08 Detroit lions in the span of 4 games. So it is time to strip away the rhetoric and opinions and try to examine this defense objectively and render a fair critique. In so doing, there are at least 3 separate components.

1. The strategy. The over-all structure of the defense. What is the scheme? What is the objective? 

2. Execution. Are the players executing the strategy with effort?

3. The personnel. Do the players have the skills to execute the strategy?

The Strategy.  The goal is to take advantage of the new zone defence rules to create a hybrid defense. The strong-side players actually play man-to-man. Ball placement in the wing area draws the weak-side post player to the strong-side mid post who zones off that region, preventing penetration and help either to the high or low post. As Frank Hamblen recently said, each player is playing his man and ½ of another by being ready to provide help for his team-mates. In the beginning of the season, the help was more judiciously applied such as when the opponent had picked up his dribble, or in the corners. This is a trap. The offensive player is put under pressure resulting in sub-optimal results such as errant passes. More recently the help has been coming at all times. This is doubling – not trapping. Doubling John Salmons when he is still has his dribble is not smart. This help is easy to beat with a quick pass out to the top, resulting in defensive scramble, and invariably, an open shot. 

The result of this constant helping? Reduced steals, open looks and wide open lanes for dribble penetration. If the strategy is of the defense is to pick and choose trap opportunities, the team has not been executing it.

On high screen and rolls, the strategy seems to be, with no regard for the opposition, a hard show by the bigs with the man covering the ball (usually Fisher or Farmar) NOT fighting through or going under the screens but covering the zone between Bynum/Pau and their men until the bigs begin their retreat back to the basket at which time, Fisher/Farmar re-engage with their men.  Because they have constant “show” help, Fisher/Farmar are playing their men very tight, trying to disrupt the offense.  

There are two issues problems with this strategy. Any move played without variation, whether in chess, or baseball pitches, will be beaten. The bigs should sometimes NOT show, just to change the rhythm. Second, the tight play by Fisher/Farmar (not the quickest of guards anyway – more later) only make them easier to beat off the dribble even without the aid of a pick.

My observation is that if you had to pick one strategic move causing the Lakers the most problems is their tight-coverage/constant-show on the screen and roll. This strategy is the wrong one for this team and because of it the entire defense breaks down due to the resulting dribble penetration. Dribble penetration exposes the bigs who have to help, bring their man toward the hoop and whether the outcome is a layup, foul, open 3, or offensive rebound, the chances are that the results are not good.

Execution. I don’t believe that the execution has really changed much throughout the year. Defensive execution is about coaching and basketball IQ. By the time a player has made the NBA and he still has not learned to keep between his man and the hoop while keeping an eye on the ball, it is probably too late for him to learn. There are several Lakers who apparently have not learned this simple skill. One of the reasons for the benching of the stronger, quicker, taller Vlade for Luke is that Luke has these fundamental skills while Vlade does not. Farmar never had these skills and Lamar seems to have lost his. 

As far as effort, I actually think the players are trying harder than they were at the beginning of the season. But to quote the Wizard, “don’t mistake activity for achievement”. Constant doubling demands a lot of hard work. Unfortunately such indiscriminate activity puts the defense in easy-to-exploit scramble mode. More lazy, but discriminate trapping would be far more effective.

Personnel. No matter the validity of the strategy and degree of execution. These two factors have to fit the characteristics of the personnel. For the most part, an aggressive trapping defense fits well. In Kobe, Ariza, and Odom, the Lakers have disruptive wing players who can both provide trap pressure and intercept errant passes.  Although even here recently (perhaps spurred on by the wager made by several players on highest steals totals) too many steals attempts are being made on passes to the middle rather than cross court. A missed steal on a cross court pass gives team mates a chance to rotate over. A missed steal to a pass to the free throw line to the top of the key creates a wide open lane.

Where the strategy does not fit with the personnel is the idea that the wing players should constantly funnel their man baseline to the bigs and the aforementioned hard show on the screen and roll. Funnelling the man to the hoop requires having a big that can change the shot without fouling. A Zo, Wallace, even Chandler.

Against the Kings recently, Bynum showed he has simply has not learned how to defend a small attacking the basket without fouling. Bynum’s best defense is against other bigs (Amare, Bogut, Jefferson), not help defence against smalls. He has to decide whether he is going to block the shot, make a hard foul, or get out of the way. Doing none of the three results in feeble denial attempts that results in an and-more often than any 7’ 285 pound center who can dunk without jumping should ever give up. Kwame has shown (and Roy Hibbert of all players has echoed) that merely standing straight up with arms straight in the air is an incredible deterrent. Bynum has to be coached to play help defence with intent and purpose. Surely he must be tired to making a half-hearted attempt to block a small’s layup a step too slow only to be charged for a foul. I know that I am. As I am tired of his inevitable whining about the unjust call.  Maybe the wing player should just play good defense, move their feet and draw a charge (heaven forbid) instead of letting their man go base line.

Also, whether it is due to lack of quickness or desire, Bynum simply is unable to show hard and get back to his man. 

If you are watching the defense intently, the sheer lack of defensive skills and instincts of Farmar is quite shocking. I wrote in the Kings game thread that the defense would be better without Farmar at all and the Lakers playing  4 on 5 as at least then his man might be tempted to shoot the open jumper instead of abusing Farmar at will and driving to the hoop. It is as if his coach had not taught him to watch his man’s belly instead of his eyes or the ball. Every twitch of the ball handler had Farmar jumping until his man decided to take him out of his misery and blow by him. Farmar might be that rare athlete who is fast when running straight with the ball to the hoop while being slow moving laterally, and explosive  and strong when rising for a dunk but not when fighting through a pick. 

Both point guard’s inability to keep their men in front of them and the scramble that the hard show creates should result in the Defensive Coordinator adjusting and changing the strategy.

My suggestions on what this change could be are:

1. The default defense for screen roll should be for the bigs not to show and the guard to go under the screen. I would much rather have Udrih taking long jump shots or trying to initiate the offense from the three point line than having a straight line to the basket. Show occasionally to mix it up.

2. If you show, rarely do it with Bynum. And never do it if a Bynum/Farmar combo is the defense.

3. Do show with Lamar. He is the best show help defender on the team. His screen and roll defense against Tony Parker 2 seasons ago was a revelation. When Lamar is on the floor, put him against the big that usually sets the high screen and roll. 

4. Whatever you do. Change is up. 

5. Consider putting Ariza on the point. Much like San Antonio, make the point guard shoot over a taller quicker player who can play off him as a result of his size. Considering the dearth of wings who can play from the post, if Parker isn’t exposed on defense neither will be Fisher.

6. Play straight man defense sometimes. Again, change it up. The current defense is akin to an all out blitz. This works for a while but then the offense will screen pass you to death and eventually figures out a blocking scheme to kill you over the top. The triangle is fluid, changing and morphing to adapt to the defense. Why can’t the defense adapt to the offense?

Despite the “sky is falling” laments from the fan base I think we should take heart in the performance so far. Think of the first 23 games as practice for a new kind of hybrid defense. Constant practice has made them better at it but constant use has made them vulnerable to the opposition. Now it is time to use it as just one of their many options in a multi-dimensional, adaptive defense that leverages the strengths of their personnel whilst hiding the players’ natural weaknesses.

—Bill Bridges

This post is by regular here Bill Bridges.

This piece talks about why there might be a reason to match the Warrior’s outsized (we think) offer for Ronny. I’ve covered in an another post why from a purely economic theory point of view that the Lakers might not be impacted financially from signing Ronny.

The signing of Ronny also serves as a signaling mechanism to all other teams. In Texas Holdem, if you bet pre-flop but check after the flop, you’ve signaled that your hand is weak to the others (you can of course bluff, but let’s not focus on that for the moment). To signal to the others that your hand is enhanced by the flop (and induce them to fold), you have to bet or increase the bet. Consistent play establishes you as a player not to mess with. When you raise, you want to them to fold. Animals do this with colors and other displays to demonstrate to others “don’t mess with me and waste your time”.

Translated to game theory, you want to utilize a strategy that signals to your rivals to optimize your results whilst expending the least resources. Taking strong action to a rival’s actions forces the rivals to temper their actions in the future.

If other teams judge that you are unlikely to match offers made to restricted or unrestricted free agents, they are more likely to come after your players. This is the state that the Clippers live in. Sterling is judged as a cheap skate. He has previously signaled to his rivals that he is sensitive to price. Hence, rivals are likely to come after his players. Other cheap teams like the Suns suffer as their free agents (Joe Johnson, James Jones etc) are taken from them. Offers to the Clippers and Suns players are unlikely to be matched therefore the GM’s efforts are rewarded and not a waste of time and resources.

On the other hand, a strong signal to the rivals that all offers will be matched will make them less likely to come after your players. After all, if the Lakers match GS’s offer, Golden state will have wasted a week during which other free agents might be getting signed. This strong signal will ultimately result in teams feeling shy about signing Sasha, Farmar, and later, Bynum. Less competition for their own free agents will ultimately result in an overall lower cost of human resources for the Lakers in the long term.

Game 4 Chat

Bill Bridges —  June 12, 2008

Game 4 Chat

The pressure is off LA, slightly. One of the big reasons for the tight play of some of the Laker players was due to the sheer pressure of the game. Losing game 3 was, historically speaking, equivalent to losing game 7. If offensive efficiency is affected by players feeling comfortable and loose, then game 3 performance was exactly the opposite.

Both defenses also did a good job. The key adjustment for LA being the defensive switch putting Kobe on Rondo. Many on this board had been looking for this switch prior to game 1. We got it in game 3 and is likely to continue until Doc makes an adjustment. What could be the adjustment? Instructing Rondo to try to take Kobe off the dribble might be one – although his ankle may hinderance with this plan.

The poor offensive performance on both sides were amplified by the short turnaround after a trans-continental trip. Better rested, outside shots on both sides should fall a little easier.

I anticipate the Celtics going to KG on the low block with purpose tonight. Review of the 3rd quarter should have had light bulbs popping throughout the Celtic’s hotel. In a few short minutes KG got 3 of his 6 field goals – on a strong jump hook in the lane, turn around, and an open J from the corner.

On offense, KG and Pierce played poorly. But then again LO, Pau, and Fish also did. Game 4 might hinge on which of these players turn their offensive game around.

ddray has asked for more support and better Karma from Laker fans:

Laker bloggers seem obsessed by the dark side and pet agendas.
Many of our Laker bloggers don’t seem to understand or support the roles of many Laker players–suggesting that certain Lakers be benched or traded when these players fail to play according to some athletic fantasy that only these bloggers vaguely understand themselves.

Pau Gasol is a chamelion–a power forward playing out of position. Pau can score, pass, rebound, block shots, and defend–but not all at the same time. He rarely outshines other players on his team–even though he can. One game he might score 30–sometimes in the first half. Another game he might take down 19 rebounds–9 of them offensive. Another game he might frustrate an opposing player and hold his scoring way down. In game 3, Gasol played great defense on Garnett, and scored/rebounded in the fourth when needed. In a game against Utah, he made decisive game winning plays, such as a controversial rebound/putback that won the game.
Pau is castigated for not blocking out. It is difficult to block out a player that weighs 80 lbs. more than you-but there are other ways to get rebounds.

Lamar is Lamar. He has been an X factor all year. He does not match up well against Boston as an offensive threat, but can still play defense and rebound.

VladRad has had games like Sasha games three for the Lakers–and can make other contributions. Unlike Lamar, VladRad can hit the three–so he can spread the floor. VladRad can go to the hole, rebound, and play defense–but not like Lamar. They are complementary role players that Phil can deploy.

Luke is one of only three Lakers that has been to an NBA final before. He matches up well against Boston widebodies. Luke and Ronny Turiaf can both make the 15-20 foot shot that Boston defense allows–even if they haven’t shown that ability with any consistency yet.

 

 

 

 

These players have defied the odds and have made the finals when most pundits predicted that they would miss the playoffs entirely. They DO deserve our support.

Steve Javie is officiating, known as a visiting team’s official.

– Bill Bridges

Forum Blue?

Bill Bridges —  November 17, 2004

Commenter Icaros (who gets the honor of being the first commenter here, and with that a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni) asked about the name of this site. Then, my sports-knowledgeable wife asked me the same question: Don’t the Lakers wear purple not blue?

I only had to be hit in the head a couple times before dawned on me that some Laker fans who come here may not be familiar with the phrase “Forum blue and gold.”

It is a reference to the late, great Chick Hearn, who, back when the team played at the Fabulous Forum, used to refer to the home uniform colors as “Forum blue and gold.” Why? I’ll let commenter Jon explain”

Former Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke loved the color purple but, for whatever reason, refused to say that was the color he liked. He called it blue. So, to deal with the problem that the uniforms were clearly purple but the owner didn’t want it called that, Chick Hearn (or maybe Cooke himself) came up with calling the Laker purple “Forum blue.” And it stuck.

Gatinho adds to that:

Heisler says that Jack kent Cooke called it that, not Chick. (Chick and Cooke also fought over who called it the “Fabulous Forum” first, as well.) He changed the color to purple, “forum blue”, when he bought the team and built the Forum. The blue is obviously from the Minneapolis days and early LA days. Witness the Lakes wearing the powder blue ’56 uni’s this season.

Donovan Moore from the Society for Sports Uniform Research adds this:

“Forum Blue” was the designation given to the Lakers’ Purple back when they played at the old Forum – as many here have stated. That said, the “Forum Blue” designation was dropped after the 1979-1980 season; from 1980-1981 on, this color has been referred to as “Royal Purple”.

In addition, for a number of seasons starting around 1976-1977 through 2000-2001, the Lakers used a lighter shade of Purple for their logo as opposed to the Purple in their uniforms.

While the designation may have been officially dropped, Chick Hearn continued to use it all through the Showtime era and beyond. And, this blog’s name is a little tribute to him and Laker history.