Reading the legendary Phil Jackson‘s publications, you would be destined to find a commonality.
Other than the triangle offense, Jackson’s style of coaching stresses one aspect of the game of basketball, one that has paved the road to his 11 championship rings as a coach.
That component is defense. However, the decorated champion is not the current head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
To nobody’s surprise after the Buss family made the move to hire Mike D’Antoni in November 2012, there are problems.
First, get the obvious out of the way. It’s impossible to develop a strict, hard-nosed defense with NINE of your players moving in and out of the rotation all season due to the inevitable injury plague. The Lakers experienced a similar (but less severe) injury bug during last season’s project with Dwight Howard, and struggled to contain opponents along the perimeter.
This season, it’s reached an entirely new level of disappointment.
Los Angeles finds themselves ranked 29th in the league in regards to points allowed per contest, as they surrender 105.6 per game. In the month of January (15 games), D’Antoni’s unit allowed a ridiculous 112.1 points per game, on their way to a 3-12 record. Again, guys were dropping like flies. That takes a monumental toll on a team’s consistency on the defensive end, which is often overlooked by fans. Five games in to the month of February, the Lakers aren’t too down about collecting a 2-3 record, as they have lowered that number to 100.6 points allowed (since Feb. 4).
Through the beginning of the season, the Lakers may have unintentionally hurt their defensive statistics by playing at an incredibly high pace.
How you manage the shot clock and attack on the offensive end of the floor can either cause a slower, Pacers’ style type of flow, or a run-and-gun, 2006 Phoenix Suns flow. These Lakers have consistently tried to take the latter, ranking third in “pace,” which measures a team’s number of possessions per 48 minutes. It’s no surprise when you look at the coach, as D’Antoni believes a successful offense thrives on shots (mostly from the perimeter) being taken before the shot clock even reaches single digits. That alone can speed up the game, give their opponents more possessions … and eventually more points.
Defensive rating would be the ultimate measure of how well the Lakers have performed in terms of getting stops. That isn’t beautiful for this cursed team, neither. Los Angeles ranks 25th in that department, allowing 108.5 points per 100 possessions. To put it into some perspective, the Indiana Pacers (widely recognized as the NBA’s best defensive squad) ranks first in defensive rating, allowing just 96.2 points per 100 possessions.
Moving from the statistical approach to the Lakers’ defensive struggles, it’s alarming to watch Los Angeles on the court and just sense that a breakdown is bound to occur.
A breakdown is exactly what transpired in Tuesday’s rough loss to the Utah Jazz, who overcame a 15-point deficit to cruise to a 96-79 win over the Lakers in Staples Center. Other than Chris Kaman and Wesley Johnson issuing some fire power in the second half, Los Angeles wasn’t receiving any help scoring the ball, and we know that’s the only way this team can win … by causing a frenzy and making teams enter a shootout.
Key moments occurred during Tuesday’s embarrassment that were noteworthy, on the defensive end. While they may not have “defined” the Lakers’ defensive struggles, they certainly stood as indicators for a few of their main weaknesses. Controlling an opponent’s offensive boards is labeled as one of the Lakers’ horrible qualities, as they allowed Utah to collect 15 offensive rebounds in the game. Majority of the time, it was one or two Jazz uniforms taking on the entire purple and gold army in the middle … and still coming down with the rebound.
One particular play struck me, with less than 9:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. It earned it’s spot as today’s highlight play, which included another defensive breakdown by the Lakers. Here’s the rundown:
Start of Defensive Play:
Here, Utah has just settled in offensively and begins the sequence. For the Lakers, Steve Blake defends No. 8, Diante Garrett. Ryan Kelly (top left corner) has the assignment of Brandon Rush. Robert Sacre takes Enes Kanter, leaving Jordan Hill on Jeremy Evans, and Wesley Johnson guarding Alec Burks.
Kanter starts the play by setting a solid screen on Lakers’ Wesley Johnson, allowing his teammate (Alec Burks) to free himself by cutting out to the perimeter. Johnson then decides to go around both his teammates (Sacre and Hill) in hopes that he can recover quickly enough.
Once Johnson makes it over to the right corner before Burks receives the pass, he is hit with another screen. This time, it’s from No. 40, Jeremy Evans, who ignites the entire meltdown on this play.
One Step Too Slow:
Keeping Johnson on running duty, Burks receives the pass from Garrett and automatically drives toward the paint. As you can see, Johnson is one or two steps behind Burks’ momentum, all set up by the two previous screens. Since Burks already has his feet in good position and Johnson is still turning the corner, Burks opens up a world of options by getting into the teeth of the defense … with the ball in his hands. Most importantly, you see Steve Blake (free throw line) begin to get a bit cautious of Burk’s presence.
Once Burks penetrates for a brief moment, Steve Blake fully commits his defensive position, and comes to help on Burks to stop any interior score. However, some would argue that he busts the entire defensive play with this one action. Some teams/players are taught to come over and help in the paint if a guard finds his way through. In this situation, I personally would have stuck with Garrett along the perimeter. Worst case scenario, Burks gets into the middle, and attempts to create something for himself. Hill and Sacre are both inside lurking, fully aware that Burks is on the attack. If Blake would have kept on Garrett, Hill and Sacre would have been there for rim protection. Even if that would have freed up Jeremy Evans and/or Kanter, I fully believe Johnson would have caught up to the play in time to disrupt a shot attempt.
The Ryan Kelly Decision:
When Garrett (top left) receives the dish out pass from Burks, it forces rookie Ryan Kelly into a tough predicament. With Blake not being able to recover back to the perimeter quickly, Kelly must either commit to Garrett for the 3-point attempt, or stick with Brandon Rush in the corner.
Yes, it’s arguable, but another mistake (a “rookie mistake”) was made. Kelly fully commits his defensive position to Garrett near the top of the key, leaving the corner 3-point shooter, Brandon Rush, WIDE open. For those who are not aware, the corner 3-pointer is the closest 3-point shot on the court, measuring shorter distance from the goal than the surrounding areas.
Both Rush and Garrett are shooting above 34 percent from long distance this season, but if you had to pick your poison, I believe you live with a solid Steve Blake contest if he could have recovered in time, rather than giving up the easiest perimeter shot in the game, statistically. Rush buried the shot, along with the Lakers’ hopes of making a fourth quarter comeback.
This play can be considered a phenomenal sequence on the Jazz’s part, considering everything had to run smoothly in order for it to be executed. But it just illustrates some of the same problems the Lakers have encountered all season long.
It’s amazing how one movement from Blake — the drop back into the paint — could cause a series of disaster. But it just goes to show that defensive preparation is key in every level of basketball, and even the most atrocious NBA teams (such as Utah) have the ability to exploit key mishaps.
On Thursday, the Lakers will host the Oklahoma City Thunder. Most of you probably took a big ‘gulp’ after realizing who was coming to town. The defensive game plan is purely to survive, seeing as how the injury list keeps piling up. Steve Nash will be resting, along with the bulk of the roster who remains sidelined.
The Jazz didn’t have an NBA scoring leader in their rotation, but used team basketball to pound Los Angeles from the second quarter to the finish of the game. Planning for Kevin Durant is something totally different; a feat that is becoming impossible in its own. It’s not going to matter how much effort this Lakers team exerts throughout Thursday’s game … they don’t have the personnel this season to contend against a superstar caliber player, or team, in the Western Conference.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for HoopsHabit.com and SB Nation’s IndyCornrows. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.