It's pretty fair to say that nobody in the particularly large fanbase of the Los Angeles Lakers saw the end of the 2011 season coming. Most of us thought another championship banner was the most likely conclusion. Some may have more logically concluded that a deep, but eventually empty, playoff run was in store. But nobody gazed into the crystal ball and saw a 2nd round sweep coming. We could have ... after all, there were plenty of signs throughout the season that the Lakers just weren't up to the task, plenty of times when the team looked old and slow and lethargic. We took in every one of those signs, and then promptly ignored them. Not because we're stupid or biased, but because we've found through experience that those signs were misleading. Besides, there was one sign telling us the exact opposite.
The defense. The defense gave us hope.
Last year, the Lakers clocked in with a very decent 104.3 Defensive Rating (DR), good for 6th in the league, but that wasn't the encouraging part. For most of the season, the Laker D skirted the top 10, as they have for the past three or so seasons. And then the All-Star break happened. Andrew Bynum as a defensive force happened. The Lakers as a cohesive defensive unit happened. 18 games with a combined 101.8 DR happened. The Lakers went from a very decent defensive team to a dominant defensive team over All-Star weekend. And then, just as quickly as it arrived, the defensive juggernaut disappeared. But it didn't matter, because we'd already seen it. Put that together with a team that hadn't failed to show up when it mattered in over two years, and it was the only sign we needed. The Lakers were going to be just fine.
Now we know the truth. The Lakers were not fine. And it was the defense. The defense which tore our dreams of another banner to shreds.
2012 is (soon to be) a new year, and the Lakers are a new team. And yet, we're left in a precariously similar situation. There are many, many signs which say the Lakers will take a step back defensively. Last year, the Lakers struggled mightily to contain the pick and roll. This year, they've lost one of the league's best help defenders in Lamar Odom. Last year, the Lakers biggest defensive weakness was a lack of perimeter quickness. This year, they've lost the quickest perimeter contributor they had in Shannon Brown (although, to be fair, Brown's defensive instincts were so bad that this is really just subtraction for subtraction's sake). The Lakers have made three key off-season acquisitions: Josh McRoberts, Jason Kapono, and Troy Murphy. None of them can list defense as a strength, and the last two are outright defensive liabilities. None of the Lakers' defensive weaknesses have been addressed via free agency. They still have two very slow point guards. Their "defensive stopper" seems to be aging in dog years. It's difficult to look at all this and think the Lakers can head anywhere but down in terms of defensive performance. There is only one possibility to indicate otherwise.
Mike Brown. Only Mike Brown can give us hope.
The last four years of Mike Brown's stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers are a decidedly mixed bag. From 2009 going backwards, the Cavs ranked 7th, 3rd, 11th, and 4th respectively. But, numbers aside, Brown is considered very much a defensive coach. That's his wheelhouse. And the inconsistency of his team's actual performance over the years is better understood when you consider how many times the Cavs attempted to re-design on the fly, all in the hopes of keeping their talisman. The turnover of players surrounding LeBron was constant, and a fair number of those players have been labeled a defensive liability both before and after landing in Cleveland. We can therefore logically deduce that Mike Brown excels at creating a defensive system which can be tailored to the personnel at his disposal, even if that personnel is limited. That is our hope. That is the Lakers' hope.
That is Mike Brown's hope, too. Make no mistake, this task, this rather large task, is exactly what Mike Brown was hired to do. It was a hire that I wasn't particularly thrilled with, because despite the Lakers' defensive problems, I felt that the offense would need more active engagement in transferring from the Triangle to anything else. That is now beside the point. Mike Brown is the head coach of the Lakers, and his primary responsibility is to ensure the Lakers have a top notch defense despite their shortcomings.
He does have some assets. The biggest is obviously Andrew Bynum. Last season, amidst a year in which he wasn't great offensively, missed a fair bit of time due to injury, and ended up showing the maturity of an overgrown child, the one area where Big Drew finally seemed to "figure it out" was defensively. He was defensively strong all season, but that previously mentioned run of defensive dominance was keyed almost entirely by Drew. He started affecting every shot within 15 feet of the basket. He started pulling down every available rebound. He was the type of defensive captain you can build a team around. Drew needs to be that guy all the time for the Lakers to have the type of defense we have become accustomed to. The next biggest asset is Pau Gasol. Literally, biggest. Gasol is not a great defender, but he does two things exceedingly well; he does not foul, and he plays big. When paired together, Gasol and Bynum do a great job of forming a forest around the basket, and that is the most effective defensive strategy the Lakers have.
Outside the trees, Kobe Bryant remains the most effective perimeter defender on the squad, unless Devin Ebanks can step up to both become a significant contributor and capitalize on the raw defensive ability that got him into the league in the first place. Kobe (probably) remains an excellent defender when he sets his mind to it, but he cannot do so while playing big minutes with a heavy offensive role, so we're not likely to see the Doberman very often. The rest of the players all have certain strengths, but larger weaknesses. Metta World Peace remains one of the strongest defenders in the league, but his lateral quickness is severely limited and he can only effectively defend a certain kind of player (big ones) in a certain kind of situation (where he is allowed to body up). Matt Barnes has great energy, but with limited instincts. Derek Fisher is as savvy as they come, and does his job as part of a team defense perfectly, but he should never have signed that endorsement deal for the company which makes his cement shoes. If Brown can mold all these parts together, figure out a role that suits each player's strengths and compensates for their weaknesses, the Lakers can be a strong defensive team. But that is one mighty big challenge.
In terms of actual strategy, we haven't seen a whole lot in the limited preseason. What we know, in detail because of the preseason opponent, is how the Lakers will attempt to defend the pick and roll. They are clearly opting for a hedge strategy, requiring the big men to hedge out on the screen and force the ball handler to go around them so that the defender trailing the screen has time to recover. Early results are mixed, with Bynum being the most active and effective at both the hedge and recovering to his man. This is encouraging, because the more Bynum excels at being part of the pick and roll defense, the less teams will involve him in the pick and roll, and Bynum is by far the Lakers best weak side help defender as well, since he's the only guy who is a legitimate shot blocking threat. It also remains to be seen whether the Laker bigs can handle this defensive responsibility consistently, considering the amount of energy required to play this style, the limited depth the Lakers have at the 4 and 5, and the compact nature of this year's packed schedule.
Other than that, expect the Lakers to attempt as much as possible to use the one major advantage, excellent size inside, to the greatest possible effect. They will try to filter everything towards Andrew Bynum, and let his sheer size be their greatest defensive attribute. We'll learn more about how Brown plans to handle his team, and what kind of adjustments he comes up with, along the way. With the preseason so short, and the actual time spent with the players who will be a significant part of the roster even shorter, we'll have to see how he handles things on the fly.
He has a reputation for being able to do just that. Let's hope he lives up to it.