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Reading Between the Headlines: Defense and Complacency

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It's time for another batch of Reading Between the Headlines, where I try to put the news from training camp into perspective and apply meaning beyond the obvious.  Today we have a double feature concerning the possibility for complacency and the coaching staff's concern with defense.

First off, complacency.  In many fans' minds, complacency might be the biggest obstacle in the way of the Lakers' chances at repeat championships.  Sure, there are plenty of high quality teams ready to fight the Lakers to the bone, and injuries are always the party crasher in these scenarios, but if you took a poll of possible factors that might hinder the Lakers, complacency would be pretty high up on that list, if not the top vote getter.  And there's good reason for fans to be suspicious.  Despite the fact that the last season ended up golden, the Lakers sure seemed complacent for a good chunk of last season, lasting all the way into the 2nd round of the playoffs.  That team hadn't even won anything.  So, fat and sassy off of a championship off-season filled with distractions, it's not exactly a stretch to imagine this year's team being more than willing to rest on their laurels.  My message to those fans, rival fans, and other NBA teams:  Don't bet on it. 

Why?  Because of this little morsel of goodness.  The Lakers held a players-only team meeting to discuss what they felt was a sub-par effort ... for a pre-season game.  Hell, Phil Jackson goes just short of recommending sub-par efforts in pre-season games.  The games don't matter.  The only relevance these games have on the regular season involve who's going to warm the bench as the team's 14th man, how new additions appear to be melding with the team, and whether the team escapes the pre-season fully healthy (knock on wood).  And yet, after one unimportant game in which certain team leaders felt the effort was struggling, a players-only team meeting was called.  That's either extremely desperate, or extremely pro-active.  Seeing as how this is a defending champion squad, desperation hardly seems to fit the circumstances.  This appears to be a team that knows the 2nd championship will be harder than the first.

This action goes to show that the team leaders, Kobe and Fisher, don't want last season's malaise to creep back into this year's squad.  They recognize that goals and expectations need to be laid out, by the players, early on in the season so that everyone on the team knows just how hard they are expected to be working.  They recognize that last season's work rate is unacceptable.  This time around, they know not to wait until the problem is already systemic. 

Now think about that last paragraph.  It sounds like a team coming off a trip to the lottery, not one playing deep into June and hoisting the Larry O'Brien.  The Lakers won the championship last season despite spending a good chunk of it not working very hard.  Just imagine what that team, with most of the same pieces, will do if the effort and work rate remain high from start to finish.  We won't know for sure until they play the games, but this is a stronger indication that complacency will be fought head on this season than anything we saw last season.  Perhaps that is why we can also make the next conclusion.  The coaching staff isn't too concerned about defense.

Coming into last season, Phil Jackson and the rest of the coaching staff knew that defense needed to be a priority.  The Lakers were coming off of a Finals trip where they lost to the Celtics, mostly due to the Celtics ability to play superior defense.  The coaches also knew that the Lakers squad wasn't necessarily the greatest collection of defensive minds.  So, PJ decided to designate Kurt Rambis as the de-facto defensive coordinator.  Rambis had the number of teams that he was in charge of scouting drastically reduced so that he could focus on creating a defense that the Laker squad could play which would capitalize on the Lakers strengths (athleticism, length, big men who are both quick and ... big) and negate their weaknesses (inability to play the pick and roll, poor defensive instincts).  Rambis' baby, the strong side zone, was born.  When the team executed Rambis' defense properly, they were one of the best defensive teams in the league.  Rambis' designation as defensive coach was even more telling because Phil Jackson is known for not even wanting to coach defense at all, much less designate one of his staff to specifically focus on it.  PJ normally expects his teams to simply know how to play defense.

Fast forward to this season, and Rambis is now the head coach in Minnesota.  The Lakers personnel is essentially the same, except for the de-facto trade of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest (which theoretically would make the Lakers a little bit stronger on defense).  So how is PJ responding to the loss of the mind driving the Lakers' defensive engine?  By going back to the old ways.  In case you missed it (and it was subtle), here is the telling part of the linked article.

With Rambis gone to Minnesota, the defensive responsibilities will be divvied up on a game-by-game basis. The Lakers' three assistant coaches -- Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons and Brian Shaw -- have each been given nine or 10 teams by Jackson. When the Lakers play a particular team, that particular assistant coach will be in charge of a game plan on defense.

There are a couple of things to be taken from this.  First of all, Rambis hasn't really been replaced on the coaching staff.  Last season there were 4 main assistant coaches, this season there are three.  Since Rambis was almost entirely focused on the defensive side of the ball, one can assume his lack of a replacement is a sign that PJ doesn't think such specialization is required anymore.  Second, no one coach is in charge of, or focused on, the defensive side of the ball.  This means that defense isn't really being taught like it was last year.  The coaches in charge of "the game plan on defense against a particular team" will be looking much more at what the other team likes to do and fulfilling the traditional scouting duties of an assistant coach, leaving no one to specifically focus on addressing the shortcomings of the Lakers defenders in general.  I'm not saying the coaches won't try to teach the players to be better defenders, but the lack of focus in this area is in stark contrast to the large amount of concentration placed on defense at the start of last season.

What will be interesting to see is what affect this change will have on the Lakers strong side zone.  The team has virtually the same roster as last year, so the principles of the SSZ should already be inside the players' heads.  I have no idea whether the other coaches would be as capable of teaching the SSZ and promoting its execution as Rambis was (although a hunch tells me that at least one of them would be able to handle it.)  However, with the addition of Ron Artest, and an apparent renewed commitment on the part of Andrew Bynum to properly play the pick and roll on defense, it could be that Phil wants to go back to a traditional man-to-man defense as much as possible.  The strong side zone had moments when it was very effective, but also had moments where it could be taken advantage of more than a traditional defense could.  Regardless, it seems clear to me that, to a certain extent, PJ was happy with the progress last year's team made on the defensive side of the ball, and thinks that this year's squad no longer needs a defensive "tutor", so to speak.

What do you think?  Are the Lakers already combating any possibility of complacency?  Does Phil have confidence in the team's ability to play defense without spending significant amounts of time practicing it, as was done last year?