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.