More than anything else â€” even more than Andrew Bynumâ€™s emergence as a low-post scorer â€” it is the Lakers defense that has turned the team around this season.
Last season the Lakers have up 110.5 points per 100 opponent possessions, 24th in the NBA, and opposing teams shot 50% (eFG%). This season other teams are shooting 48% and that is the key reason the Lakers are giving up just 106.5 points per 100, eighth best in the league.
Not that everyone has been happy â€” the often cranky but almost always right Tex Winter made these comments to Roland Lazenby in a must-read Pau Gasol piece at Sports Hub LA:
(Winter) has fussed all season that the Lakers need to change the way they play the screen and roll, especially how they choose to bring help from the wings, where opponents have their three-point shooters waiting. He says the Lakers too readily leave shooters open, and he favors getting the help on penetrating guards from the big man in the post.
That would mean the Lakers would have to help the helper, the common basketball phrase, but that would force the extra pass from the offense. He was fussing in particular about Odom helping and leaving his man open late in the loss to Detroit.
This has been a particular problem since Bynum went down â€” Kwame Brown is a solid man-on-man in the block defender, but his rotations have always been slow.
While Pau Gasol has picked up a reputation as â€œsoftâ€ he plays good defense within the team system, but in Memphis he was not getting near the help along the baseline that he will once Bynum is back (and even now with Ronny and Odom).
Commenter Reed had a great breakdown of what Pau can mean to the Lakers defense the rest of this year and for the next few years:
This really transforms our potential on defense. While Gasol is not a great defender by himself, his size will allow us to play a different type of defense â€” one that has a much higher ceiling for shutting down teams, forcing low percentage shots, and creating turnovers. The transformation began with the addition of Bynumâ€™s shotblocking, length, and rebounding, but adding another 7 footer completes the process.
Last year, Kwame was a strong one on one interior defender, but things fell apart against the pick and roll or penetration. Because we had no shotblocker, we had to switch on the pick and roll, leading to Kwame covering a guard and our point guard scrambling to pick up a big down low (which in turn led to too much help from others down low, leading to open shooters at the 3 pt line). When guards penetrated into the defense (which happened most possessions with Smush up topâ€¦), our bigs either gave up layups or fouled, leading to early penalties and too many minutes for our (weak) bench.
Before his injury, Bynum and Fisher really improved the defense. Bynumâ€™s presence made it much harder for penetrating guards to get those easy scores, especially once he learned to alter shots without fouling. Fisher and Farmar were better (but still average) at preventing penetration. They also were more dogged in fighting through the pick and roll, though still also admittedly mediocre there. But, we still had a relatively low ceiling defensively (compared to the best teams) as Bynum really did nothing more than avoid fouling on the pick and roll (allowing guards to turn the corner or take the midrange shot), and there was no secondary shotblocker to attack the ball if it came inside when Bynum was elsewhere (Turiaf is getting better at this, but he still fouls too much and is a little undersized). Too often, Bynum was out of position or just unable to cover all the ground by himself as the ball moved inside, and the team either gave up easy baskets inside or had to overhelp and leave shooters open at the 3 pt line.
Now, with Gasolâ€™s added size, we can employ the Spurs defensive model. While some teams try to pack it in and force teams to shoot outside, San Antonio has traditionally used their strong perimeter defenders to pressure the ball on the perimeter and feed action into their twin towers. They have always tried to pair Duncan with a strong, long, secondary big â€” from Robinson to Nesterovic to Oberto and Elson today. Having two interior defenders really opens up the defense: there is always one 7 footer positioned to pick up penetration (especially helpful when one gets dragged outside in a pick and roll); one big can usually roam and alter shots from the weak side, as most teams only have one strong low post scorer; the two bigs can switch inside without causing real problems; there is always one 7 footer positioned to battle for rebounds (crucial in preventing offensive rebounds when the shotblocker runs out to alter a shot); etc, etc.
While Gasol isnâ€™t recognized as a brilliant defender, his sheer size will allow the Lakers to really attack the ball on the perimeter and inside. Kobe and Ariza can roam around with a little more freedom to try and cause havoc with strong double teams and in the passing lanes (a la Jordan and Pippen). Add in Odomâ€™s size at small forward and the Lakers should be able to be able to attack the ball, rotate without causing matchup problems down low, create turnovers, and generally force bad shots and control the boards. There just arenâ€™t a lot of teams that throw out two mobile 7 footers, a 6â€²10â€³ small forward, and an all-defensive shooting guard. Once Bynum is healthy and Gasol is integrated, I expect them to be one of the top 2-3 teams in FG% allowed â€” a key stat for any contender. Combine that with the fact that NO ONE can matchup on the other end with our size and Kobeâ€™s all around offensive dominance, and we should be just overpowering.