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How To Fix The Lakers' Defense

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Much of the chatter surrounding the Lakers' search for their next head coach has focused on the Triangle offense. What will become of it now that Phil Jackson, its zealous apostle, has left town? Do the Lakers need someone who will preserve Triangle purity? Do they even want someone who will? Much less overt thought has been given to the Lakers' defense, even though it's equally in need of a strategic reassessment.

This past season, the effectiveness of the Laker D came and went. At the All-Star break, they ranked 10th in the league with a defensive efficiency (i.e., points allowed per 100 possessions) of 105.7. Not a bad mark, but not really up to championship snuff. Then Andrew Bynum began dominating fools, and after the break the Lakers posted a defensive efficiency of 102.1. That was more like it! Cracks began to appear, though, in the New Orleans series. The Hornets were not a good offensive team this year, yet in two first-round games against the Lake Show they bagged more than 1.10 points per trip. The Mavericks are a good offensive team, and when they sank their teeth into the Lakers, the results were brutal. In their four-game sweep, the Mavs averaged over 1.16 points per possession, a damning reflection of the Lakers' total collapse at the defensive end of the floor.

As it moves forward into the post-Phil era, the team needs to decide whether its existing defensive system should be tweaked or even scrapped entirely. It's an exercise in Dianetics diagnostics: What exactly were the problems this year? And were those problems a function of personnel? Crappy effort? Bad technique and execution? Or is their defensive playbook just no longer the right system for them to be running?

As a jumping-off point, let's review what the system is. It doesn't have a snappy shorthand name like "The Triangle," unfortunately. But it begins up top, with an effort to direct the ball away from the center of the court and toward the baseline. The idea is that by funneling the action to one side, you can crowd the offense into that half of the court and make it easier for your bigs to swallow up plays. There's some zone-like action, in that defenders shade away from their individual assignments to help obstruct driving lanes. You can see the basic setup in this screenshot from Game Six of the Hornets series.


Derek Fisher is forcing Chris Paul to his left, toward Andrew Bynum. Ron Artest is playing off Trevor Ariza to help take away the center of the court, and Kobe Bryant is in a help position as well. The theory is that CP3 will get bottled up on the left side of the floor. If he tries driving to the hoop, Bynum will be waiting. If he tries a kick-out to Ariza or Marco Belinelli, Ron and Kobe can close out and challenge the outside shot. And a cross-court pass risks a turnover. Surprisingly often, this all goes to plan.

The breakdowns, when they occur, come in a few different flavors. Let's tick through them one by one and try to figure out what adjustments the new coaching staff should consider.

1. The High Screen. We saw this ad nauseam against both NOLA and Dallas. Opponents brought one of their bigs to the top of the key to set a pick for the ballhandler. Sometimes the Lakers switched the screen, leading to mismatches on the perimeter. (Think Chris Paul popping 19-foot jumpers over Bynum.) Sometimes Fish (or Steve Blake or Shannon Brown) tried going over the screen, slowly and clumsily. And sometimes confusion spilled everywhere and both defenders on the play would chase the ballhandler and let Dirk Nowitzki take an uncontested three. Those were always my favorite.

Diagnosis: Mal-execution.

There's nothing inherent in the Lakers' defensive system that should make them unusually vulnerable to high screens. It's the most commonly called play in the NBA (sure why not) and every defense faces basically the same decision tree. Switch the screen or not? If not, do you go over or under the screen? If the two main defenders get tangled, who's coming over to help? Phil, for whatever reason, couldn't get these problems adequately ironed out this year. The new coach will need to make it a point of emphasis, but he should be able to do so without resetting the entire playbook.

2. Cross-court passes to open shooters. This is how Dallas cut the Lakers to ribbons. They stationed one and occasionally two shooters on the weak side of the court and punished the Lakers' overload by reversing the ball quickly. Laker defenders couldn't close fast enough, and the resulting scramble allowed Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic to bomb away. It didn't help that by the end of the series, those two guys pretty much couldn't miss.

Diagnosis: Lack of team speed requires playbook tweaking.

Not many teams can do what the Mavs did. It requires deft passers with strong court vision and knockdown outside threats. But for those who can, this Lakers squad was not well equipped to respond.

Early in the season the perimeter bros got lazy when it came to marking outside shooters. As with all bad habits, it wasn't as easy to break as one might hope. Even when they played assignment-sound, though, the legs of Fish, Blake, Kobe and Artest weren't always up to the task of covering as much ground as the scheme asked of them. To go from helping in the lane to flashing out to the arc in a matter of, like, one second wasn't easy for dudes in their thirties who'd played 400 games over the past four seasons. Since Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon are still a couple years away from signing with the Lakers, the next coach needs to lighten the guards' help responsibilities in the paint so they can pay more attention to the three-point line.

3. Failure to contain dribble penetration. Obvs, the system doesn't fly when the very first task - directing the point guard to wherever you want him to go - fails hideously. If Fish can't stay with his man for even a fleeting moment, and how could he with that oxygen tank he's dragging around, Bynum and Pau have to come out near the free-throw line, where they can easily be beaten off the dribble by smaller, shiftier opponents. And that has the unfortunate knock-on effect of taking them out of rebounding position, which might be the biggest cost at all.

Remember on March 10 when the Heat snapped the champs' eight-game winning streak? Miami had 20 offensive rebounds in that one, about half directly resulting from the embarrassing inability of Laker swingmen to pause LeBron James and Dwyane Wade off the bounce. The Lake Show was terrible on the defensive glass all year, and as I watched more and more I became convinced that blame for the shit defensive rebounding belonged as much to the smalls as the bigs. The Laker frontline was being asked to do too much.

Diagnosis: Lack of team speed might just mean we're screwed.

Not existentially or anything. Just that, this is one I don't see getting much better in the near term. These legs aren't getting any younger. Though his biceps remain worthy of flexing, Artest's lateral quickness is average on a good day. Kobe can play great defense in short bursts but his days of staying in front of a LeBron or Derrick Rose are over. And there's Fish and Blake, in case you weren't depressed enough by this paragraph already.

Problem is, there's no schematic fix. Any alternative defense you install will suffer from slow dudes on the perimeter. Unfortunately, this is just something we'll have to live with and hope the Lakers can overcome in other areas until the rebuild is ordered.

Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.

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