There has not been much to cheer for in the Lakers 0-4 start, but one player who has proven to be a bright spot is Jordan Clarkson. After a strong second half to his rookie campaign, Clarkson has shown that the hard work during the off-season and strong play from the summer and preseason were not a mirage.
Clarkson is leading the Lakers in minutes played (31 minutes a night), scoring (18.3 points per game), and is second on the team among rotation players (behind Nick Young!) in PER (20.6). Not bad for a guy taken 46th in the draft a summer ago.
While some of Clarkson’s early season success could easily be small sample sized theater — I do not expect him to make 46.7% of his three pointers on almost 4 attempts per game all year — his continued growth in certain parts of his game is clear and, in my opinion, very real.
Nowhere is this more true than his work in the pick and roll. Consider the following stats, per NBA.com/stats through Synergy (10 possession minimum):
The flip-side of that type of action is a quick hitting, full-on attacking action which forces the defense to react, putting them in bad positions in the process. We mostly see this when the Lakers are in transition, but not as often in the half court.
Friday night’s Lakers’ loss to the Kings did not offer many highlights, but one play they did run epitomized the latter type of play I would like to see more of.
Any critique leveled against any team on the second day of the season has many caveats attached to it. For the Lakers, this is especially true. Not only is the “it’s only been one game!” caveat important, so are the ones tied to the team’s youth, the high amount of roster turnover, and the resulting lack of familiarity and continuity which comes with it.
Simply put, any real criticisms should be held off on for now. We really are too early in the season to come to any lasting conclusions. Let’s see what things look like after 15-20 games to get an idea if what we are seeing are actual trends or not.
However, some of the issues we saw in Wednesday’s loss to the Timberwolves aren’t new. This is especially true on offense where the Lakers looked very much like the team they were last season in many ways. And not good ways, either.
In reviewing the game, one play stood out to me that captured many of the team’s issues and encapsulated why they can sometimes struggle in the half-court.
Whenever a team loses, the gut instinct is to try and establish who messed up so you can assign blame. When a team loses on a last second play the way the Lakers did against the Bulls, that instinct is even stronger.
As Pau Gasol said after the contest, “You don’t lose a game on a single play, but to lose a game like that on a layup still hurts.”
D’Antoni said Harris was just following instructions, which entailed defending the inbounds pass so he could rotate to the perimeter wherever needed. “He played on the backside,” D’Antoni said. “He thought he was going to pop a guy out and he didn’t do that, We didn’t slide over to cover for him.”
In the clip above, you actually see Harris start the play standing between Taj Gibson and the basket only to get a signal from the bench to move into a position behind the Bulls’ Forward. When the play started, Harris found himself woefully out of position to defend the simplest cut in the game, a dive right to the front of the rim. Harris got pinned on Gibson’s back and Pau couldn’t recover in time to bother the shot enough to force a miss.
Hindsight is 20/20, but I see multiple errors with the Lakers’ defensive strategy that must come back to the coaches.
In the article quoted above, D’Antoni notes that Harris is a good defensive player who was a better option than some of the Lakers who were on the bench at the time. Harris is a good defender, so I’m not questioning that. However, having Harris defend Gibson specifically is a tactical mistake. Gibson was bullying the Lakers all night, pushing around everyone not named Jordan Hill on the offensive glass and in the post. Having Harris — who is a shooting guard — defend the Bulls’ power forward is a mistake.
Second, I don’t really see the value in having Pau defend the inbounder. Yes Pau is long and has the ability to disrupt an entry pass. However, without a second big man in the game to help guard the rim, the Lakers found themselves out of position to guard the type of shot that could beat them easiest. Granted Pau wasn’t as active defending the passer as he needed to be, but with only wings and Ryan Kelly in the game, the team wasn’t in a position personnel wise to guard the paint should a pass find its way in there.
Overall, it just seems like the Lakers’ coaches outthought themselves on this final play. Playing Harris isn’t a bad choice, but playing him over Johnson or Hill or even Meeks — players who have more experience — was probably a miscalculation. Having Pau defend the inbound in a hope he disrupts the pass rather than zoning up the paint to contest any lob pass or quick shot at the front of the rim also comes off as over-thinking things. And having Harris change his position from playing between the ball and his man to playing on the top side so he could be in better position to close out on a jump shooter on the perimeter is also getting too cute defensively when what was really required was playing a hard-nosed final second of defense.
Of course, if the Lakers get a stop on that final possession and the decisions the coaches made played a key part in making that happen, no one says anything. But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was the opposite.
Pau is right, of course, you don’t lose a game on a single possession, but the decisions the Lakers’ coaches made on the final play certainly tests that theory.
Lakers’ fans, maybe more than any other fan-base, love to have their whipping boys. Typically, these are guys who don’t consistently play well, but also fit snugly into two different categories: 1). Guys who fans think should play a certain way, but don’t (Pau needs to be tougher!) or 2), Guys who aren’t seen as earning their paycheck. Players who have fallen into the latter category in recent seasons range from Lamar Odom (when he was making near max money before the Lakers went to the Finals in 2008), Luke Walton (whose six year contract at the full mid-level was instantly criticized by a certain sect of fans), and, most recently Steve Blake (who, in his first few years of his contract, didn’t live up to what fans expected from a guy making $4 million a year).
It’s Blake’s inclusion on this list that’s always been somewhat puzzling to me. Not because Blake was playing well and didn’t deserve some criticism for his on-court production, but rather because as a back up point guard making less than the mid-level, I never really viewed Blake as either A). overpaid or B). not playing hard or giving it his all on the court. Sure, Blake could have played better and there were times I wanted more from him considering his skill set. That said, when a player competes hard and is put in a position to be a role player who mostly plays off the ball and is only given limited opportunities, I don’t necessarily think it is fair to jump on him when his production isn’t what you’d want. Critique is one thing, but some of the blowback Blake has received in his time as a Laker has gone way beyond fair criticism.
This season, though, the much maligned Blake has turned those criticisms upside down by playing some of the best basketball of his career and certainly his best as a Laker. Consider the following:
*Since becoming the starting point guard 3 games ago, Blake has dished out 37 assists while committing only 8 turnovers.
*In those same three games, Blake has assisted on 47.4% of the Lakers’ baskets when he’s on the floor. In the past 40 years, with a minimum of 40 games played, only 12 players have put up an assist percentage over 47 over the course of a season. The guys on that list include names like Magic, Stockton, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Isiah Thomas, and Deron Williams.
*Scoring wise, Blake hasn’t been amazing, but he has been scoring 11 points a night while shooting 44% from the field (including 50% of his two point shots — a pretty big feat for a guy whose two point percentage is normally in the low 40’s).
In essence, what we are seeing, is a player who is both comfortable in the offense he’s being asked to run and operating in an offense that finally allows him to show off more of the skills that made him a priority signing 4 years ago. As Mike D’Antoni said at halftime of the Pistons’ game, Blake is getting comfortable with the reads within this system and that comfort is showing on a nightly basis.
On this set, the Lakers start out running an half-hearted pin down action on the back side to free Jordan Hill up at the top of the floor to receive a pass. This flows seamlessly into a swing pass to Blake that sets up a pick and roll between Blake and Hill. Blake, reading that the D is a bit lax, goes away from the pick towards the baseline and draws a double team. After pivoting and finding Hill as a release valve, Blake instantly runs another P&R with Hill and drops him a nice pocket bounce pass along the baseline that Hill gathers and then rises up to sink a jumper.
On this next set, Blake again runs a P&R with Hill. This time, however, Blake accepts the pick right away and darts down the lane line to threaten the D. When Blake draws a second defender, he patiently strings out his dribble and waits for Hill to create an angle to receive a pass. Once Hill is open, Blake bounces a picture perfect pass to his big man that Hill is able to scoop up and turn into an easy basket.
On this last play, Blake has the ball high with Pau inching up to set a pick. Blake reads the D and decides again to go away from the screen and pressure the D by pushing the ball at Tony Allen who is covering Jodie Meeks in the corner. As Blake continues his dribble, you can see the Grizzlies defense respond to his hard dribble combined with Pau’s sliding towards the paint. Blake has successfully occupied his own man, taken Marc Gasol with him towards the hoop, and turned Tony Allen completely towards him in a help position. With Allen’s head turned, Meeks cuts right behind him and Blake hits him with a bounce pass that Meeks turns into an uncontested lay up.
None of these assists are spectacular passes where Blake is making the highlight play. But just because these are simple actions doesn’t mean Blake doesn’t deserve credit. In every one of these plays, Blake is manipulating the defense by keeping his dribble alive and attacking specific spots on the floor. By threatening the defense, Blake is successfully occupying multiple defenders and then picking out the open man with textbook passes that set them up for uncontested shots. What he’s doing epitomizes floor generaliship and is a key reason that, at least right now, this team doesn’t miss Steve Nash much at all.
No, Blake isn’t the scoring threat that Nash has been in his career and, despite good numbers from behind the arc for the season, Blake won’t garner the same attention off the ball that Nash has (and still does). That said, what Blake is doing with the ball in his hands is just as much (if not more) than Nash could be expected to do at this stage of his career and goes to show how much Blake really can offer this team offensively. Again, he may not be doing anything that gives you visions of Magic Johnson, but his technical precision and ability to make the play in front of him certainly reminds of a late career Stockton or, maybe more apt, what Mark Price used to do for those old Cavs teams.
Not bad for a guy who used to be every Lakers’ fan’s whipping boy.
Sunday’s loss to the Spurs showed great effort by the Lakers, but also a severe lack of outside shooting. The Lakers only made 10 of their 43 shots outside the paint, struggling to generate any sort of offensive momentum against a defense set on crowding the paint like a Best Buy on black Friday.
The Spurs understand that with Kobe Bryant tweeting from his couch and Steve Nash admittedly ailing physically, the Lakers’ offense is going to be a post heavy attack. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are the team’s best scorers and feeding them the ball to let them create makable shots is the one advantage the Lakers have in this series, even if the Spurs possess two very good post defenders in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. It simply makes too much sense, then, for the Spurs to crowd the paint and make the Lakers’ bigs earn any basket that comes from a direct post-up while simultaneously trying to force them to pass the ball out to shooters who simply aren’t as dangerous.
For a better idea of what Dwight and Pau are facing on every touch, we go to the eye in the sky. Here’s a fourth quarter post touch for Dwight Howard right after the ball has been entered into the post:
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.