Last night, behind a strong and balance offensive attack the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns, 99-95. L.A. was unable to put the Suns away until the very end due in large part to a strong 3 pt shooting display from the home team, which couldn't help but stir up bad memories of the last time these two teams met. Early in the season, the Suns dealt the Lakers their second loss, and first at home, behind one of the more prodigious shooting displays the NBA has ever seen, sinking 22 three pointers and shooting 55% from downtown. Despite the aggravation it caused us, you can't help but admit that it was an extremely impressive display. These games stand out to me because, as good a shooting team as the Suns are, it comes as a surprise any time a team shoots well from distance against the Lakers.
Since their 2008 NBA Finals defeat, the Lakers have worked hard to become a better defensive team. They learned their lesson at the hands of the Celtics: an elite defense is required to be in the championship conversation. Since then, they ranked 6th with 104.7 points per 100 possessions allowed in 08-09, and 4th with 103.7 in 09-10, and both numbers would be lower if not for the annual regular season effort slump, a slump which has hit even earlier this season. This year, despite a weak start defensively, the Lakers have quietly improved their defensive performance, and though their league ranking seems far worse (currently 11th), the actual number (104.8 points per 100) is right in line with what we've grown accustomed to.
But how have the Lakers improved? The answer provides a bit of a surprise. After all, the Lakers are led by coach Phil Jackson, whose brand of Zen blends classic old school basketball with counterculture psychology. However, the Lakers' biggest areas of defensive improvement show that PJ has a bit more of Daryl Morey in him than anybody gives him credit for, because the areas in which the Lakers have improved the most defensively would make any stathead proud.
Stats guys will tell you that the most efficient (ergo, the best) shots in basketball are free throws and three pointers. It's pretty simple math. The league average for two point shots this season is currently 48.2%. For threes, it's 36.1%, and for free throws, 75.9%. If you multiply these percentages by their respective point values, you can see that the best possible use of a possession is to get to the free throw line. A free-throw possession uses at least two free throws (there are situations in which only one free throw is taken, but none of these situations involves the use of a possession), so on average, a possession used with free throws will garner 1.52 points. With a three point shot, the average possession brings in 1.08 points. The average possession with a two point shot only earns 0.97 points.
A team playing an average pace and sending their opposition to the foul line every possession would give up an average of 140 points per game (actually, they'd be disqualified because all their players would foul out, but it's not a literal example). If a team gave up three point shots every possesion, they'd average only 100 (which should show you how dramatically free throws improve scoring). And if a team somehow managed to eliminate both threes and free throws (while maintaining the 2 point average), they'd give up only 89 points per game. Obviously these numbers are all simplistic, as not all 2 point shots are the same, but it still illustrates the general consensus about shot efficiency.
You'll never guess the two areas in which the Lakers excel defensively.... limiting free throws and three pointers. Over the past three years, the Lakers have been amongst the best in the league in both categories. In 2008-09, they ranked 3rd in three point defense and 6th in free throws allowed per field goal attempt. Last season, it was 1st and 2nd respectively. This year they are once again ranked 2nd in free throws allowed, but have "fallen" to 6th again in three point defense. Ironically, this is almost entirely the Suns' doing. Without last night's contest and the Suns victory in Staples Center, the Lakers 3 pt % defense would be better than it was last season.
None of this is to say there is nothing to worry about defensively for the team, but I do find it interesting that even as we've observed them struggling, they are still doing well in the areas that are clearly a defensive focus. The areas in which the Lakers have fallen off (defensive rebounding, which allows the other team extra shots, and interior defense) are no more or less fixable than the areas in which they are still performing strong. But I guess I do take some small solace in the fact that the areas in which the Lakers are getting beat defensively are the areas in which they have chosen to get beat. I take much greater solace in the fact that the return of Andrew Bynum very clearly provides needed assistance to all the team's defensive weaknesses, and it's no coincidence that the Lakers have improved defensively since Bynum's return.
Either way, the Lakers have remained in the league's elite when it comes to limiting damage from the two best spots on the court, and that must make Phil Jackson's inner statistician smile, no matter what the Suns do to mess things up.