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.
And just think about execution, what are we going to do? You’ve got to look at what teams are doing against us in terms of spreading us out and rolling a big and now we collapse and now we’re late to the shooters. This is about the third game in a row where that’s happened to us. So we have to figure out defensively what we’re going to do.
That quote is from Kobe Bryant after last night’s loss to the Warriors. Kobe seems to be describing how teams are attacking the Lakers with dribble penetration and when Dwight steps up the guards are collapsing the paint to help on the diving big man only to then struggle to recover back out to the perimeter to cover shooters.
Kobe, of course, is correct in his assessment that the team has been struggling to recover to shooters once the ball is penetrated. This is fundamental basketball at its finest. Teams want to attack the paint, draw help, and then pass to the open man for an easy basket. And for the past several games, Lakers’ opponents have been doing just that to great success. Whether it was Curry and Jarrett Jack last night, John Wall in the Wizards’ game, Goran Dragic in the Suns’ game, or Isaiah Thomas in the Kings game, the Lakers have been facing guards who have been breaking them down off the dribble and causing a ton of problems.
The epitome of what Kobe described above is illustrated in this play (though, the pass isn’t made to a three point shooter):
The play starts with Blake isolated on Steph Curry. Jodie Meeks is guarding Carl Landry (a discussion for another day) and it looks like Landry is positioning himself to set a screen to Curry’s right with Meeks sliding with him to get into a hedge position. Curry, recognizing he can get a step on Blake, blows right by him to his left and away from any potential pick from Landry. Nash is the closest player who can step up to deter the drive, but feints help in order to recover back to his man who is in the strong side corner. Defensive principles dictate that you don’t leave that man, but in this case a strong argument could be made to ignore that principle based off the speed at which Blake has been beaten and the configuration of the defense behind him.
Nash, though, lets Curry go and that leaves Dwight Howard as the last line of defense against an advancing Curry and his own man (David Lee) lurking baseline. Dwight half steps up to deter Curry and forces a pass, but with no one there to pick up Lee, he gets an easy score with Dwight compounding things by fouling him. After the play, Dwight dejectedly turns away as this was simply another example of the team’s defense being so bad that he was put in an untenable position. (As an aside, I love the Warriors announcer talking about Howard being half asleep when it was Blake’s defense that was the root cause. If anyone looked asleep, it was Blake who got beat by a straight line drive right into the heart of the defense.)
Even though there are ways to diagram a defense to help stop a play like this one even after Blake is beat — Nash takes Curry, Dwight rotates to Jack in the corner, Kobe slides into the paint to pick up Lee and Meeks covers the back side all by himself — the fact is this play is indicative of what the Lakers’ issues have been on defense for most of the season. Ball handler gets beat, Dwight steps up, no one helps the helper, and the opponent gets an easy shot. And, if it’s not that exact formula, it’s a variation of it where after someone is beat off the dribble the defensive wings get so caught up in helping that they leave shooters open around the perimeter in favor of trying to do battle on the boards or take away the type of pass that Lee got from Curry.
So, if you’re looking for why the Lakers are a mediocre (at best) defensive team, look no further than what we saw last night. Yes it hurt that Ron didn’t play in the 2nd half. It’s also true that Dwight wasn’t as disruptive last night as he’s been in recent games. There’s also a point to be made about indifference to making the harder play and instead settling too often for the easy one. But the facts are the facts: the Lakers, as a team, have trouble guarding on the perimeter and it leaves them vulnerable in the paint where their big men are forced to help far too often without an adequate support system behind them to deny shots at the rim while still being able to contest perimeter jumpers.
Until that is sorted out, whether through scheme, better commitment from the players, or a combination of both, the Lakers will fail on defense over the long haul. That may not be what you want to hear, but it’s certainly the truth.
In beating the Bulls, the Lakers really showed how they can manipulate very good defenses with screen actions designed to get their best players makable shots. This was especially true late in the game where the Lakers picked on Carlos Boozer on multiple consecutive possessions in order to close out the game.
Of all the plays the Lakers ran against the Bulls, two stood out to me, and not just because they were successful. Both had very good design, but both were also relative simple actions that preyed on the quick reacting Bulls’ scheme in a way that exposed their aggressive help actions.
First, was a great play the Lakers ran out of a timeout. The Lakers started the play with Nash up high with Kobe on the left side of the floor and Dwight near the top of the key:
Nash goes to his left hand to run a 1/2 pick and roll with Kobe. After Deng hedges on Nash, he actually gets bumped by his own man before starting to chase Kobe who has darted to the right side of the floor. Only, when Deng starts his chase, he’s met by a nice screen from Dwight Howard:
Dwight gets Deng in a severe trail position with his pick and Kobe is wide open by the time the ball lands in his hands. By the time he raises up to shoot, look how far Deng is away from him:
The Lakers haven’t run this type of flare screen action a lot this year so it’s not like it was an easy play to scout. Coming out of a timeout, D’Antoni drew up the perfect play and Kobe came through by hitting the shot, resulting in a 15 point lead that really put stress on the Bulls’ offense. Here’s the play in real time:
The second play was another screen action, this time starting out of a Nash/Dwight pick and roll. We start with a similar set up as in the play before, with Nash high, Dwight in position to set a screen for him, and Kobe on the left wing:
After coming off a Dwight screen, Nash goes hard to his left to initiate a dribble pitch/hand off with Kobe who is circling back towards him. Notice as well that Dwight is trailing Nash rather than rolling hard to hoop as he would in a normal P&R:
After giving the ball to Kobe, Nash sets a screen on Deng. And, after having to navigate that screen, Deng has to fight over the top of a second screen from Dwight. That double screen action gives Kobe a lot of daylight to operate, with Joakim Noah having to step up to ensure that Kobe doesn’t get into the paint:
This is where Kobe’s smarts come into play. When seeing Noah, Kobe flattens out his dribble and occupies the big man in order to draw him up and away from his original assignment (Dwight). With Nash keeping his spacing high on the floor, Meeks and Ron spacing on the right side, and Dwight beginning a roll to the rim, Kobe patiently accepts Noah’s defense, waits for Deng to recover and has now created a situation where he’s double teamed but still able to make a play for a teammate:
The purpose of this action isn’t just to make any pass, however. Dwight rolling hard to the rim after setting the screen is the primary target. And with Carlos Boozer still standing outside the right lane line, Kobe correctly picks out Dwight for an easy dunk:
This play really was the Lakers picking on Boozer, who should have helped off Ron and taken away Dwight’s dive by standing in the paint. With Meeks and Nash the other two players on the wing, Boozer’s guarding the non-shooter on the floor and it’s his responsibility to duck in.
But the beauty of the play design is that Boozer really is stuck in no man’s land. If he does slide over to help on Dwight, he leaves a shooter open for the most efficient three point shot there is in the game. And even though he’s guarding a non-threat, the Bulls defensive scheme is one that emphasizes not giving up that corner shot. So while Boozer is at fault here, I think the play design really did a good job of opening up multiple options for a high efficient shot.
Moving forward, it looks like the Lakers really are starting to find more options on offense by adding wrinkles to their traditional actions in order to create good shots. Whether it’s a flare screen for Kobe or a staggered pick and roll action that opens up Dwight for a dunk, Coach D’Antoni is getting more creative. Furthermore, he’s doing so using his three best players and utilizing them in ways that maximize their abilities to be threats on the floor. Continuing to use these types of plays should only make the Lakers more dangerous and an even bigger pain to game plan for.
Last night’s win over the Hawks was both frustrating and exhilarating.
Watching the Lakers commit careless turnovers and have stalled offensive possessions in the process of giving up a 16 point lead was worthy of multiple anger induced curse words. Watching Kobe close the game with a monster dunk and a tremendous finish over one of the best wing defenders in the game was worthy of multiple celebratory curse words. And, in the end, since a win is a win we’ll all likely just remember the final Kobe plays, add them to our catalogue of memories of why we love him and move on.
But the end of the game also featured a couple of defensive possessions that were key to how victory was decided. After all, the Lakers only needed that last Kobe lay in because the Hawks scored on a fantastically diagrammed action. And Atlanta only lost the game because when running the same exact play for a second time they couldn’t get the bucket. So, rather than just file the end of this game under “Kobe was awesome” let’s take a look at those final defensive possessions and how the game was put in danger only to then be sealed with Steve Blake’s steal.
Before we get to the final plays, we require a bit of backstory. In the 4th quarter one of the ways the Hawks were really hurting the Lakers was by running Kyle Korver off pin down screens to free him up for jumpers. Korver scored 7 of his 16 points in that final 12 minutes by using a lot of the same plays the Celtics would run for Ray Allen (or the old Pistons would run for Rip Hamilton). Korver would start on the wing, run to the baseline and either continue in the direction he was running to receive a screen or reverse course and come off a pin down to make the catch so he could get off a jumper. Running this action freed Korver up for several jumpers and the Lakers were having trouble defending it.
One of the defensive counters to this play, however, is for the man defending the screener to step out (or “hedge”) towards Korver to either disrupt the pass or to make Korver hesitate on his shot until the defender chasing him can recover back to the ball. Of course, Korver understands that this type of defensive adjustment is coming and, when seeing the extra defender step out towards him, knows to try and hit the screener with a quick pass. (As an aside, if this play looks familiar it’s because the Jazz used to run this same action for years with Korver and Boozer under Jerry Sloan in his Flex offense). Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
There have been several requests for breakdowns on the Lakers’ defense. But, rather than look at what the team does in totality on that side of the ball, I’ve decided to look at various parts of the team’s defense and provide breakdowns on those specific actions. Today, we look at the Lakers’ P&R defense.
It’s a mimic league. It has been for a long time. Coaches see something and say, “Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that.” Screen-roll. Three-point shooters in the corner. Bigs that can roll and pop. San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.
That quote is from a Phil Jackson in a sit down with SI’s Jack McCallum. Of course, Phil is 100% correct. The NBA is full of copycats and once there’s a certain amount of success with a particular style — especially if it can be easily emulated — other teams will flock to playing that way.
With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.
The Lakers, this season, haven’t been one of the better teams to defend this action. Per my Synergy sports, the Lakers are 14th in the NBA in points per play (PPP) on shots taken by the ball handler in the P&R and 26th in PPP on shots taken by the roll man. Much of that is directly related to the simple combination of the defenders the Lakers have on the floor and way they play this action. Continue Reading…
When the Lakers signed Antawn Jamison, there was a great hope that he’d be able to help the team offensively. The thought was that he could be the type of stretch power forward the team would need to play off of the Lakers’ big men while also providing some sorely needed scoring punch to the bench. Jamison, though struggling defensively for most of the season, has mostly been the player the Lakers’ have asked him to be. Sure, he’s been up and down and has found himself in and out of the rotation, but for the most part his scoring has been only slightly down per minute from his recent norms and his rebounding has been solid.
And while Jamison hasn’t been the deep shooter the Lakers would hope (32% on threes this year), the rest of his offensive game has been as advertised. The scoops, funky flip shots, half hooks, and floaters have been on full display this season and that variety has been a nice addition to a Laker team that could always use more players with a nice in between game to work off of the attention their star players receive.
One of the reasons that Jamison has consistently gotten good looks at the basket is because he moves well off the ball. When you narrow your focus and only watch Jamison, you’ll see a player who understands spacing and has a knack for slipping into the creases of the defense for shots close to the basket. With gifted passers aplenty on the Lakers, this skill could very well be Jamison’s most valuable to the Lakers. When Kobe or Pau or Nash draw a second defender, there’s Jamison sneaking along the baseline or cutting backdoor.
That said, as much as Jamison is the beneficiary of great teammates, he’s also quite good at creating his own openings when working off the ball. One such way he does this is by slipping screens in a manner that you rarely see other NBA players do.
Here we see the start of a play against the Hornets. Steve Blake has the ball high on the right side and Jamison is coming from the left to set a screen for him:
Next, we see Jamison sprint towards Blake with the defense getting ready to defend the P&R action:
However, instead of setting a pick on Blake’s man, Jamison rounds off his cut and dives down the lane line:
Blake sees a wide open Jamison and hits him with a perfect bounce pass. Jamison then finishes with an easy lay in right at the rim. Here’s the play in real time:
One of the reasons this play works is because of the spacing the Lakers have created on the ball side. Notice when Jamison starts his path towards Blake that Earl Clark cuts towards the area that Jamison is about to vacate. This cut opens up the area of the court that Jamison will eventually cut to. Also notice Dwight Howard holding his position along the opposite lane line and occupying his man so he can’t really help on the dive.
Most important, though, is Jamison’s smarts and instincts to stop his path towards Blake short and instead cut hard to the rim. Jamison’s man is already getting into a hedge position to help on Blake should he use the pick and Blake’s man is eyeing Jamison and getting ready to engage the screen. Jamison set up this play perfectly with his hard run towards the ball and then his equally hard dive towards the basket. Blake’s pass is just the finishing touch.
Jamison will never be a pure floor spacer and that’s okay. Because even though he can hit the long ball, his real value is in making plays going towards the basket and keeping the defense off balance with finishes in the paint. And, as we’ve seen more and more of late, it’s through this action of slipping the screen that has given him a lot of those finishes.
Since the return of Steve Nash, we’ve seen some immediate improvements to the Lakers’ offense. The ball is moving a lot more, there has been a considerable improvement in off ball movement and things just feel different when he’s on the floor. The Lakers are 2-1 in Nash’s return, and in those games he’s recorded a .773 true shooting percentage and a .714 effective field goal percentage. On top of that he’s averaging 9.3 dimes in those three games. What has stood out to me most in Nash’s return is how varied the Lakers offensive sets have become.
The number of 1-5 pick and rolls between him and Howard have been countless. He’s also run the P&R with Pau a considerable amount of times and with Kobe a few times. We’ve also seen Nash and Kobe run a two man game a few times with Nash on the wing and Kobe in the post. Horns has returned at a higher rate, and they’ve seen a lot of success through these sets — and a lot of that success has nothing to do with Steve Nash handling or passing the ball. Mike D’Antoni has utilized Nash setting screens off the ball to free wings for easy buckets. Let’s take a look at how the Lakers have found success with Nash screening off the ball.
In this first frame, the Lakers have set up in their Horns set. Nash has already dumped the ball into Pau in the pinch and UCLA cuts off of him to go find Kobe. As Nash starts to cut through, Kobe is pushing his man (Jason Kidd) up the sideline allowing Nash to come in right behind him to set a back screen. It’s important that we keep an eye on the spacing here.
As Nash sets the screen, Kobe cuts back door and Pau throws a perfect pass on Kobe’s release. With Kobe pushing Kidd up the line, Raymond Felton doesn’t jump between Nash and the basket hoping to deny a pass to a Kobe who he thinks is going to pop out. Kurt Thomas is the first help defender on the weak side, but given the Howard assignment, he doesn’t want to give him any space to prevent any subsequent lobs. And on the far side, Melo is playing a good eight-to-10 feet off Darius Morris, but either didn’t have the foot speed or the effort to get between Kobe and the basket as the pass came. The result is Kobe being freed for one of the easiest baskets he’s going to see in any given game. Let’s check the play out in real time.
Here we have another horns set with Ron on the floor instead of Morris, otherwise, everything else is the same. Nash brings the ball up the floor and enters to Pau in the pinch. On this set, however, Nash cuts off of Pau’s inside shoulder through the paint to go find Ron’s man (Kidd again).
After Nash sets his screen, Ron heads toward Dwight, who sets a second screen on Kidd. This time around, the spacing is a bit different, but it’s the same concept. Nash stays near the block with Felton fighting to stay between him and the basket. Tyson Chandler is between Dwight and the basket. Instead of trying to keep defenders along the perimeter to clear space for Kobe, the Lakers have gotten all of the defenders on the strong side away from the 3-point line.
The result is a wide open 3-pointer for Ron, which he knocks down. The Lakers actually ran this exact same set for Ron just a couple of possessions earlier and the outcome was the same (Ron wasn’t missing much in the 2nd quarter of the Knicks game). They have also run a similar set for Jodie Meeks which cleared him up for a wide open three-pointer. Check the play in real time.
I find it fascinating that one of the best point guards in the league has been able to get his teammates wide open shots by not passing the ball. We still haven’t seen the full value of Nash’s impact on this Lakers team, but what we do know is that Nash gives this offense a lot more to work with. D’Antoni has been able to run so many different kinds of sets throughout the game just because of the ability of Nash to create when, seemingly, nothing is there. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what else D’Antoni has in store with Nash running things.
The Lakers’ have fundamental problems on D, mostly related to denying dribble penetration and how they don’t always help the helper. Any team can make the first rotation just fine, but the difference between a solid defense and an elite one is the ability to make the second and third rotation on any given possession. Right now, the Lakers don’t make those late possession rotations very well and they’re paying for it.
But those are the big picture issues. On an individual level, this defense is failing countless times over the course of the game. And while no one is immune, there are players whose bad habits are sticking out like a sore thumb. And while it may be difficult for some people to hear, one of the chief culprits is Kobe Bryant.
Mr. Bean may be playing his heart out on offense (we’ll get to this later) but he’s not showing that same commitment to the defensive side of the ball. There are multiple possessions each game in which he makes fundamental mistakes and it’s costing the Lakers. Again, he’s not alone. But as a leader of the team, he needs to be doing better.
One of Kobe’s chief mistakes is that he gets caught watching the ball too often:
On this play, Kobe is playing on the weak side and his man (Gordon Hayward) is in the corner. Kobe is intently watching the ball on the strong side wing while peeking at the action in the paint to see if the ball is going to be whipped into one of the Jazz big men off their interior screen action. While all that’s happening, Hayward cut back door. Kobe, never once looking at his man, only reacted to the pass and fouled a mid-air Hayward who was trying to make the catch.
At the lowest levels of organized basketball, players are asked to see the ball and their man. Kobe loses his man at the very start of this possession and never found him again until committing the foul.
Kobe also has a nasty habit of watching the ball and going for steals that aren’t that likely, and compromising the rest of the defense in the process:
On this play Kobe is guarding DeMarre Carroll, who starts on the strong side but then drifts to the weak side as the Jazz run a sideline P&R. Once Carroll clears the side, Kobe again is mostly watching the ball and cheating towards Enes Kanter who is setting up for a mid-range jumper. The ball never goes to Kanter, however, and instead is skipped to Carroll spotting up on the wing. Kobe tries to steal the pass, fails, and then doesn’t recover to Carroll quick enough to deny penetration. Meeks, hoping to try and play two players, cheats off the strong side corner (a cardinal sin in basketball) to help on Carroll. Like Kobe, Meeks is unsuccessful in slowing Carroll but also gives up the pass to the corner. Hayward makes the Lakers pay by hitting the wide open three.
Kobe’s mistakes here aren’t so drastic but he made several on that single play. Going for the steal was likely the worst offense since it put him in a position where he couldn’t contain the penetration of his man. Scouting tells you that Carroll isn’t a three point shooter so denying his drive is the number one goal of defending him. Once Kobe let Carroll get by him, the greater integrity of the defense was compromised and that was that.
On this last possession, Kobe simply plays a lazy brand of defense that hurt the Lakers on two separate occasions:
This play starts with Kobe on the left baseline guarding Randy Foye. The Jazz run a screen action to free Foye coming across the lane. When Ron’s man comes to screen Kobe, you see him not want to fight through the pick and calls out a late switch to Ron. This leads to Foye getting a wide open jumper that Ron barely contested due to the timing of the switch. To make matters worse, after switching onto Marvin Williams, Kobe didn’t box out and allowed Williams to sneak underneath Howard to tip in the missed shot. Two lazy plays on one possession for Kobe, there.
While I’m singling out Kobe here, he’s not the only one playing this way. On one of the first plays of the game, Ron got beat on an alley oop to Marvin Williams where he was watching the ball similar to Kobe in the first clip. I could have put up multiple clips of Jamison losing his man on screens and getting beat off the dribble, not only from the Jazz game but from every game this season. If the Lakers’ defensive problems were a one man issue, that would be simple enough. They’re not and that complicates matters a great deal.
What further complicates things is that Kobe is a major culprit. His off ball defense stands out as particularly poor this year. He’s gambling for steals, losing sight of his man, and roaming in ways that make the team’s defense structurally unsound. In essence, Kobe is making the easy choice way too often rather than making the harder play that is more taxing physically.
In a way, this is easy to understand. Kobe is playing heavy minutes (44 hard ones against the Jazz) and is carrying a tremendous burden on offense. The energy he’s expending on that side of the ball is massive and to think that won’t affect him in other areas would be a silly conclusion, especially for a 17 year veteran. That said, he’s clearly coasting on defense in order to conserve energy on offense and that simply won’t do. Not only does it hurt the team in countless tangible ways, it sets a bad example for how the team needs to play on that end of the floor.
Dwight Howard was brought in to help solve some of the Lakers’ defensive woes. And, he too can be better than he has been. But he can’t make up for everyone’s mistakes. Jamison and Duhon are turnstiles on D. Ron is getting beat more this season than in year’s past. And Kobe, as shown, isn’t holding up his end of the bargain. As a leader and a yearly member of the all-defensive team, he needs to be better.