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Last week, before the OKC game, I was asked whether the Lakers’ bigger problems were on offense or on defense. To me, this answer was, and remains, clear. It’s the defense.

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.

One of the enduring critiques of Mike D’Antoni’s coaching career is that he’s not very adaptive to his personnel. He’s seen as a spread pick and roll devotee, and those players who don’t fit into that model aren’t very useful. While I don’t fully accept the premise of this critique, it’s also not completely off base.

Early in his tenure with the Lakers, you can already start to see why this perception exists. Pau Gasol has struggled to find his stride as a mostly stretch-y power forward while Kobe has mostly been asked to play the role of a pick and roll practitioner on the majority of the Lakers offensive sets. These aren’t necessarily the round peg, square hole fits that would lead to outright questioning of how to deploy these players. But they are sort of round peg, oval hole fits where you’d hope more diversity could be employed in order to better maximize the roles of the players he has at his disposal.

In recent games, we’ve started to see some of that diversity. Rather than only employing the spread P&R to initiate their sets, the Lakers have started to run more direct post ups for Dwight Howard and more pin down and off ball screen actions to free Kobe for open jumpers. And, interestingly enough, they’ve also started to run an action that looks very much like it was lifted from the Mike Brown sets the Lakers ran from the past two seasons, but with a little D’Antoni twist to still incorporate the P&R.

Below is a set from the Lakers’ win over the Nuggets. The alignment should look familiar as it’s essentially a Princeton looking set with the point guard high on the floor, Dwight Howard at the elbow, and Kobe on the left wing:

The set begins with Chris Duhon entering the ball into Dwight at the elbow and then moving to the left wing to set a pick for Kobe. However, rather than using the screen, Kobe cuts back door in a manner consistent with the Princeton (or Rick Adelman’s Corner offense). When Kobe cuts to the baseline side, he circle cuts up the right lane line and comes off Dwight’s shoulder to receive a hand-off. After getting the ball, the defense is concerned about protecting the paint and yields an 8 foot floater to Kobe. The shot doesn’t fall, but the execution is there. Kobe has essentially got one of the more efficient shots he can take in an offense.

Against the Hornets, the Lakers ran this same exact set but with entirely different personnel. Here you see the bench unit execute the play again:

This play starts with Darius Morris as the PG, Jodie Meeks on the left wing, and Jordan Hill at the left elbow. The same action proceeds as in the first clip. Morris enters to Hill at the elbow, goes to set a screen for Meeks, and then Meeks moves away from the screen to cut back door. Meeks then circles to the top, takes a hand off from Hill, and comes off his shoulder to attack the paint. However, instead of pulling up, Meeks drops off a pass to Hill who gathers the pass but misses the shot at the rim. Again, this play wasn’t successful but the team got as good a look as they could expect out of this action.

The mix of Princeton principles with D’Antoni’s emphasis on creating P&R actions is a nice wrinkle for this group of players. This type of action puts players in positions to run more traditional actions that threaten the defense. It allows a player like Kobe (or Meeks) to work off the ball initially while working back into the fray to set up a good shot. This action could be run with Gasol in place of Howard and presents a variety of options that can be spun into other good looks (after the SG cuts back door, there’s a sideline P&R just waiting to develop between the PG and the C while the SG circles back to the top of the key as an outlet).

When the Lakers have their full roster available to them I can only imagine we’ll see even more variety in their offense. Steve Nash will be integral to the D’Antoni’s standard spread P&R attack and that set alone should allow the Lakers to feast on defenses multiple times a game. But it’s these types of alternative sets that feature Kobe, Howard, and, when he returns, Gasol that will sustain their offense should teams overload on the standard P&R. The fact that D’Antoni is already implementing these actions is good to see.

In today’s breakdown, we’re going to take a loot at some of the different ways that the Lakers’ new offense has gotten Kobe more high percentage shots. We haven’t seen much of the old Kobe repertoire this season — wing ISOs, high P&Rs, triple threat of death — we’ve seen a much more efficient Kobe who has been getting to the rim more. I understand that we’re talking about an incredibly small sample size here, but right now, Kobe’s shooting 50 percent of his shots at the rim, nearly double what he was doing in the past two seasons, take a look at his shot distribution charts (courtesy of NBA.com). Click the chart for a bigger view.

Kobe Bryant shot distribution charts

Here to help me explain why Kobe’s been able to get to the rim as often is Andrew Garrison of the fantastic Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll. Garrison suggested that I write a post taking a look at how Kobe has been cutting off the ball more often, which has led to a lot of easy buckets. I asked him to help me out on this post. We’ll both be taking individual looks at a couple of plays where Kobe was able to get to the rim, and discuss a final play together at the end of the post. Andrew kicks things off with a look at how Kobe getting to the rim has created offensive rebounding opportunities.

AG: Cuts and Defensive Rotation Advantages

The most noticeable things Kobe Bryant has done through the season thus far is attack the paint. This has mainly been through the use of cuts, but he has also been driving from the perimeter decisively when the ball is in his hands. Kobe’s tendency to go into isolation jab step dance dance revolution mode has gotten a bit out of hand in recent years. It’s refreshing to see him willing to lower his shoulder and drive straight to the rim. If he’s matched up against a slower defender, like a Matt Barnes for example, he can push right by without an issue and get to the second layer of the defense. The hope has to be, even if matched up against an elite perimeter defender (say, Andre Iguodala, who will body and move his feet to keep Kobe in front of him), Kobe will at the very least draw a foul. Considering how crafty Kobe is at this point in his career, if he get’s even a whiff of the rim that’s an issue for the other team to account for. Once the defense sinks in to put a body in front of Kobe, the possibilities begin to branch out. A) He still manages to get the bucket B) He is fouled in the process C) He recognizes a soft spot in the defense and gets the ball to the open teammate or D) He misses.

The “good” thing about him missing, though, is that it creates a great chance for an offensive rebound. If the defense is having to rotate and turn their backs to Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, or Jordan Hill the probability of getting an offensive board shoots through the roof. The Lakers’ three primary bigs have great offensive rebound percentages, with Hill grabbing an insane 24.8%, Howard with 13.2%, and Gasol gobbling up 10.8% of the available boards. Simply put, if the defense’s bigs are having to move out of position, the chances that there is a Laker waiting to take advantage of this and erase the miss are very high. With the Lakers are shooting the ball at 50.3% over the first four games giving them extra possessions will have them putting points on the board in a hurry. Howard, Gasol, and Hill will gladly feast on wide open gimmies at the rim off of rebounds. Here, Kobe completely loses his defender on a backdoor cut. With nothing between him and the rim, the defender that is sitting under the rim with Pau is forced to rotate and try and force a miss from Bryant, which he does successfully. But, leaving Gasol alone under the rim proves to be deadly and it’s an easy two points for the Spaniard. While it was a miss in the end for Kobe it was still a good basketball play that led to easy points for Los Angeles.

PB: Bringing Howard Out of the Paint

Until Darius pointed it out to us earlier this week, I hadn’t noticed how much space Dwight Howard was creating by coming up to the high post. In Darius’ post, he explains how Pau was able to get some touches in the low post by inverting the bigs for a few plays per game. In the following set, the Lakers ran a 1-4 high set which started off with Kobe entering to Pau on the left wing and clearing out to the opposite side. Pau swung the ball to Nash who then hit Howard in the high post. As Nash clears out Pau comes down to set a down screen for him as Kobe is using a Ron screen to pop out. Already, there is tons of movement in this set which is fantastic. What makes this set unique is that all of the action is happening away from Kobe.

Nash slips as he turns the corner around Pau’s screen. He was obviously going to take a handoff from Howard considering the direction he was going and how high Howard was. My guess is that Nash was going to use the lane created by the spacing to penetrate and either get off a floater or dish to Nash should his man leave him to stop Nash. Since none of this happens, Kobe continues moving toward the ball until Batum turns his head, giving Kobe the opportunity to cut behind him with a wide open lane. Ron was still at the right wing, Howard was still high on the left wing and Pau wasn’t exactly on the left block as he tried to help out on the broken play.

The result is a wide open layup for Kobe mainly due to the spacing underneath the basket afforded to him with Howard catching the ball at 17+ feet. Also, Kobe with some weak side movement as the defense is focused on the action surrounding Howard/Nash/Pau really helped to open things up. In years past, you couldn’t get that many sets of eyes off of Kobe simply because the Lakers didn’t have the personnel to hold the attention of opposing defense. Check out the tape.

AG: The Sneaky Spaniard Screen (SSS)

The cutting and driving Kobe has been doing is really just a pretty bow to place on the gift that is Kobe Bryant the offensive player. His skill set is still remarkable in his 17th season in the NBA. While he has been getting high percentage looks around the rim, he remains a threat from almost anywhere on the court, in any situation. In this play Matt Barnes is matched up with Kobe Bryant in a half court set. For the majority of the night Kobe had attacked Barnes by driving through to the rim. Because of this tendency, Barnes clearly prepared to play Kobe one to one and expected another drive. Then, boom, he’s blindsided by a HUGE screen from Pau Gasol.

With the space created from the screen, Kobe immediately takes advantage of the mismatch created with Blake Griffin having to rotate, and gets up a fall away jumper that is nothing but net. The variety of ways the Los Angeles Lakers can utilize Kobe Bryant is key in keeping the opponents off balance. Work him off ball in cuts, hand-offs, in the post, and off of screens. Defenders already know they have to deal with a mixed bag of tricks against Kobe in one on one situations, but layer in the macro game of using different ways to get him those looks makes this an even trickier slope to scale. Blake Griffin does a good job of switching onto Kobe and preventing him from getting into the paint, but giving Kobe that much space to operate in generally means he will find a way to score. Just too skilled without anyone pestering him.

PB: The Option Read

This is a set that the Lakers have run a few times this season. Kobe will set up on the strong side wing with either Pau or Dwight (Dwight in this case) in the low block on his side. As Nash brings the ball up, Dwight moves up the line and receives the ball in the pinch post. Nash enters the ball into Howard and heads to rub off of Howard’s right shoulder, Kobe his left.

Both Nash and Kobe reach Howard at the same time, effectively setting screens on the man guarding the other guy (Nash screen’s Kobe’s man and vice versa). As both men start to turn their respective corners, Howard makes an option to hand the ball off to one of his guys, which is Kobe more often than not. Again, with Howard being brought out of the high post, Kobe essentially has an open lane as he attacks the basket.

By the time the defense starts collapsing on Kobe, he’s already began his gather toward the rim and is laying the ball in by the time defenders start to jump. Check out the clip below and see how the design of this set was to get Kobe an easy bucket around the rim instead of having him take a jump shot.

 

AG: This cut from Kobe is just a flat our pretty basketball play. Metta World Peace is one of the most maddening Lakers right now, his up and down play leaves me shaking my head and laughing at times, but he puts this pass right on the money for Kobe. Tayshaun Prince is caught with his pants down essentially while he looks at MWP attempt to dribble around in the corner and Kobe immediately cuts through the key. This play really drives everything home, to me. Kobe again cuts off ball and it forces the defense to shift their bigs to try and account for it. The layup went down, but if it had missed, Dwight Howard was in prime position to swoop up the offensive board and get an easy put-back basket.

PB: Like Andrew said, this was just a fantastic play. Ron obviously wasn’t going to get anything in transition there, but Kobe made a great cut on the secondary break and Ron made an excellent pass that slipped right behind Tayshaun Prince. What I enjoyed about this, and what we’ve seen Kobe take advantage of a few times this year, is Kobe using his old habits to take advantage of defenders. More often than not, Kobe would prefer to pop out or hold off his man around the perimeter and extend an arm to receive a pass. Knowing this, Prince is playing a lot higher than he should trying to prevent the kick out to Kobe. Bean slips right behind Prince and receives the ball from Artest in stride to get an easy lay in.

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While everything isn’t exactly smooth in Lakerland right now, there have been some positives on the offensive end — especially when concerning Kobe. Last night’s game against the Jazz was Kobe’s first game shooting less than 50 percent (.412) yet he still scored 29 points on 17 shots because he was able to consistently get to the rim and draw fouls. If there was one thing I’d like for the Lakers to continue as this season progresses (and we know there isn’t much right now), it would be for them to continue to get Kobe easy looks on offense. Having Howard in the middle has certainly helped his cause as he draws so much attention, but it’s been much more than that.

I’d like to send out a huge thanks for Andrew for helping me out on this. Make sure you check out his work over at Silver Screen and Roll and give him a follow on twitter here.

The version of the Princeton offense the Lakers will use this season has the chance to be an evolving oasis of offensive possibility. The sheer talent and versatility of their core four players can translate to a multitude of actions — some obvious, some not so much — that can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.

When the Princeton was first talked about as a system the Lakers would employ, one of the first things that came to mind was Pau Gasol operating at the high post. Using Pau at that spot on the floor, with Howard occupying the low block, would take advantage of his elite passing while also utilizing his ability to space the floor as one of the better mid-range shooting big men.

This, of course, has become a staple of what the Lakers do run on offense. Every game we’ve been treated to at least one Gasol dime to Howard where he makes a catch at the elbow and plays high-low basketball with his frontcourt partner. As the season advances and these two develop even more chemistry, we should see even more of this action and little wrinkles added to it to force defenses into making the types of lose/lose choices that often result in made baskets.

However, one of the not so obvious ways the Lakers have started to take advantage of their talent has been the inverting of their big men. Against the Pistons, the Lakers ran several actions that put Pau at the low block and left Howard at the high post. This is the opening play of the game:

This play starts as many Lakers’ sets have lately, with the point guard (Steve Blake in this instance) bringing the ball up the left side of the floor with Kobe on the wing and Dwight in the ball side post. Blake enters to Kobe who looks to Dwight for a quick post up. Instead of entering the ball, Kobe passes the ball back to Blake who then enters a quick pass into Dwight as he slides up the lane line to the elbow. Blake then screens away for Pau who pops open at the top of the key where he gets the ball from Howard. This is where the heart of this action comes to life.

After Pau gets the ball at the top of the key he swings the ball back to Kobe and then rubs off a high pick from Dwight to dive to the low post. Kobe hits Pau with an entry pass while Howard hovers around the free throw line. It’s important here to note how closely Howard’s man is playing him and how much room Pau has to work on the post:

Pau post up

With all this room, Pau backs his man down and shoots a half hook that misses. But since he’s maneuvered his way around his man, he follows his shot, gets the offensive rebound and scores easily on a put back. It bears repeating, in this next still Howard isn’t even in the picture and Maxiell still hasn’t left the FT line area to help on the glass and is watching as Pau scores an easy two points:

Pau put back

One of the key reasons this set works is that the Lakers have put Pau in the post and spaced the floor in a way where if the double team comes Gasol can use his tremendous passing ability to hit the open man.

Furthermore, with Dwight at the elbow, the defense has a unique problem. If Dwight’s man leaves to double team he’s allowing Howard to dive from the FT line with the best passing big man in the league ready to drop him off a pass that will surely end with either a basket, a foul, or both. Not to mention that if Dwight’s man leaves him but the pass doesn’t go to him, he still has a wide open lane to crash the glass and be an offensive rebounder.

What the Lakers have figured out — and based off how many times they ran a variation of this set, they have figured something out — is that the defense must respect Dwight if he’s anywhere near the paint. His ability to cut to the ball and score off passes or simply get to the front of the rim for rebounding chances means that his man has to keep within arm’s distance of him at nearly all times or risk being exposed.

This doesn’t have to be a full time set for the Lakers. Dwight is still best served operating from the low post and trying to score on his man via touches in the paint. Many of those touches will come from the splendid passing ability of Pau. But there will be times where the Lakers can invert their bigs and use Pau’s strength as a post scorer to their advantage and not hesitate. Even though Dwight doesn’t have range on his jumper and isn’t known as a great high-low passer, it doesn’t matter. He’s too dangerous to leave.

Offensive spacing can come from many places. In this case it comes from Dwight Howard standing at the foul line. Not sure many people saw that coming.

Welcome to the Strategy Session. In this space we’ll explore different aspects of the game from a strategy standpoint. It may mean looking at a coaching decision — like determining a rotation. Or a specific offensive play that we think will work. Or it could be an examination of a defensive scheme. Sometimes we’ll use video others we’ll just blab away for a while on the topic of the day. Hope you enjoy it.

With a lot of negatives to focus on after the Lakers’ first two games, I thought I’d instead look at something that has worked in the past and should be able to work again in the future.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the Lakers’ offense really isn’t the chief problem with this team right now. Of course there are issues — most notably Steve Nash still finding his balance between on/off ball effectiveness and a feel of clunkiness that persists to sets the team is still picking up on — but the team is shooting the ball pretty well and has shown glimpses of what they can be once they settle in and find their stride.

One such action that can aid them in moving forward in a positive direction (it proved to work in the preseason) and should continue to be a useful play for the Lakers is a strong side hand-off sequence. This action utilizes Nash, Kobe, and Dwight on the same side of the floor and puts the defense in a position to make tough choices. All three players are threats on the play and when run crisply it creates good looks.

This first example leads to the type of shot the Lakers want Kobe taking:

The play starts with Nash bringing the ball up the right sideline while Dwight waits at the elbow and Kobe sits on the wing. Nash enters the Howard and proceeds to set a screen for Kobe who curls off the pick towards Dwight. Kobe continues his cut, takes the hand-off from Dwight and then elevates for his jumper over DeMarcus Cousins who helped a split second too late. Kobe knocks down the 16 footer, a high percentage shot for him.

This play worked so well, the Lakers decided they were going to run the exact same action on their next possession. The only difference is that they run it on the other side of the floor:

Here, again, you see Nash bringing the ball up the floor (this time on the left side) with Kobe (on the wing) and Dwight (at the elbow) in the exact same positions. Nash makes his entry to Dwight, proceeds to set his screen for Kobe who then curls to take the hand off from Howard. Here’s where you see the difference, however. When Kobe gets the ball he again looks to elevate for his shot but he’s drawing more defensive attention with a quicker reaction as well. Kobe recognizes the defense is out of position and when Howard rolls to the hoop he leads him to the rim with a lob pass that is dunked home.

One play, two actions, same result.

There are even more actions that can be run off this single look. In both of the above plays, Steve Nash’s man sinks to the lane line to try and help on Howard’s dive to the rim. If Kobe is looking that way, he can hit him for an open jumper. On the play where Kobe threw the lob, you’ll notice that Ron’s man came over to help and left him open on the wing for a wide open jumper. Other options include Nash, instead of flaring to the wing, cutting back door after setting the screen or Kobe, rather than accepting Nash’s screen, cutting back door when Nash comes over to try and free him.

One of the key principles to the Princeton offense is setting up plays to look the same but then countering what the defense does through reading how they react to the action in front of them. The Lakers are trying to get to the point where all of these options are utilized; where the players working together can recognize what the defense is doing and then respond accordingly.

In some cases — like the plays above — they’ve made headway. In many others they’re not yet close. The result is flashes of brilliance mixed with bouts of frustration. The hope is that we see more progress soon. But the good thing is, that hope can be rooted in knowing that this stuff actually does work.