Kurt Rambis has his work cut out for him with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last season, the Lakers were a mess defensively. They ranked 20th in defensive efficiency (106.6) and 22nd in points allowed per game (102).
Defensive breakdowns plagued the Lakers more than injuries, leading them into a slaughter at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.
And that was with Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, both of whom are former Defensive Players of the Year. Imagining what their defense would look like right now, given Dwight is in Houston and Metta in New York, is the equivalent of being subjected to torture.
He hasn't told me himself, but after what Rambis, the Lakers' new assistant coach, told Jeff McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, I'm inclined to believe he would concur:
Their defense never really gave them a chance to win. It was very erratic at best. In a lot of ways, when you bring in a lot of players from a lot of different systems, it takes awhile to get everybody connected and on the same page, how you have to defend a myriad of offensive NBA sets and you have to defend talented offensive people, it takes all five guys. They’ve got to be connected, and they’ve got to make the correct decisions at the correct time, and for the Lakers last year, it was clear that they just never really got connected on that end of the floor.
Mike D'Antoni owes Rambis a thank you, because he was being kind.
Assembled on an offseason whim, the Lakers aren't built to outmuscle, outrun or consistently outscore everyone. They can't rely on their gunners, Kobe Bryant and Nick Young, to shoot their way into games every night. They must play defense as well.
Protecting the rim has become somewhat of a foreign concept in Los Angeles, though. Swaggy P isn't known for his defensive fortitude, and he's joined by teammates such as Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, among others.
To win more games than most people expect them to, the Lakers are going to have to turn heads with their defense, not (missed) jump shots.
Which means Rambis is currently launching one of the most difficult projects in the NBA.
The Lakers were beyond awful at guarding against the pick-and-roll last year.
Like, it was ugly, more unsightly than Howard's free-throw shooting.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required) Los Angeles ranked 19th in points allowed per possession (0.81) when defending the ball handler and 26th against the roll man (1.05).
With the league currently playing home to a downpour of talented point guards—also known as pick-and-roll catalysts—that's going to make for some serious issues.
Per Synergy, Howard ranked in the top 31 of pick-and-roll defense last season (roll man), allowing 0.76 points per possession. Once more, picturing how their pick-and-roll prevention will look without him is then scary.
If the Lakers couldn't effectively stop it last season, how are they to do so with Howard down?
Starting with a few prayers would be nice, because no one on the current roster can match the defensive intensity Dwight routinely swam in.
After asking the heavens for some relief from their defensive inelegance, the Lakers must look at their first-round bout against the Spurs. The same series they didn't just lose, but got pummeled in.
That series. It can never happen again. And the road to avoidance begins with (you guessed it) the pick-and-roll.
Below you'll find an offensive set that begins innocently enough:
Steve Blake is an adequate distance off the ball, not so far that Tony Parker can step into a jumper, yet not so close that he can't move in time to defend off the dribble.
Pau is also swarming Tim Duncan, which isn't a bad idea. The closer he is to Timmy the less likely it is Parker attempts an entry pass.
Of course, by not fronting him, Gasol allows him to walk right on up to Blake and set a screen. He does exactly this, allowing Parker to dart left toward the free-throw line:
Notice how far from everything Pau is, not cutting off Parker on the other end of the pick and also not close enough to Duncan should Blake fight over the screen.
Well, Blake fights over it:
Despite seeing Blake keep pace with Parker, Gasol remains an unhealthy distance away from Duncan:
By the time Parker gets inside the elbow, he has two Lakers defenders committed to him, at which point he kicks the rock out to a wider-than-wide-open Duncan:
Gasol starts toward Duncan, but there's simply too much ground to cover for an aging seven-foot behemoth who battled plantar fasciitis for most of the season.
Once Duncan enters his shooting motion, it's too late:
Leaving Duncan open is about as good a decision as it is for Andrew Bynum to go bowling.
A more perturbing defensive set could be found later on in the same contest (Game 2) during the third quarter.
This one doesn't start out innocent by any means:
Antawn Jamison isn't doing anything to impede Matt Bonner's ability to set a screen. More importantly, you can see Parker about to put the ball on the floor and Blake isn't even captured making any sort of motion. Someone might want to check his reaction time at his next doctor's visit.
Blake eventually chases Parker, but runs into Bonner in the process:
Had Blake been a split-second faster, Bonner wouldn't have been waiting for him. Rather, he would have gotten around him with little-to-no effort.
Somewhat surprisingly, Jamison makes the right decision to sit back in case Blake doesn't make it over the screen. But Blake does make it past Bonner, and not only does Jamison not slink back toward his man, both he and Blake generously leave Parker a clear path to the basket:
At this point, stuff is getting real—really bad.
Nash and Gasol are doubling Duncan instead of providing help, World Peace seems torn on whether to guard Kawhi Leonard or pitch in, and Blake just looks downright confused as he wallows in no-man's land.
Meanwhile, the Spurs have three shooters as open as Mark Cuban's checkbook.
Recognizing that neither he nor any of his teammates made the right decision, Jamison does the only thing he knows how to: hack:
Jamison learns quickly that if you're going to foul someone, especially Parker, you better make damn sure it's hard enough to keep them from scoring:
We call that an And-1.
So many things were wrong here, it's frightening.
Los Angeles clearly needs to have more structured switches, even though Jamison isn't on pace to return. You can't have two guys essentially doubling the ball handler while really not playing any defense at all.
Just writing that was weird.
Next the Lakers must ensure there's help when they allow someone to get into the paint. Either Gasol or World Peace (no longer with the team) needed to help close Parker out.
Finally, if you're going to foul, do it right. As in, don't let the other team score in addition to putting them at the line.
Although it's too late to save Jamison, Blake, Nash, Gasol and even Kobe, among just about everyone else could use whatever advice Rambis has to offer on that front.
"It’s very difficult to defend people 1-on-1 in this league,” Rambis explained to ESPN. “You need all five guys to really stop pick-and-rolls, to stop isolations, to stop the upper echelon offensive players in this league."
Defense in Transition
The key to strong transition defense is protecting the ball. But for those times when a long rebound goes awry, or you actually do turn the ball over, guarding against the break is imperative.
Lo and behold, the Lakers weren't among the better teams in that department.
Kobe and crew let up an average of 16 fast-break points per game, the second-worst mark in the league. Per Synergy, that came out to an average of 1.16 points per possession, the ninth-worst standing in the Association.
Helped along by the fact that the Lakers turned the ball over 15.1 times a night (22nd), their transition defense was a mess.
For a look at the chaos, we turn back to Parker (who else).
Tell me what you see here:
I couldn't hear you, so I'm going to assume that you said a one-on-four fast break, which would be correct.
The closest Spur to Parker is Duncan, and at the rate Parker is pushing the ball, he's not going to be in the picture.
There's a reason, however, Parker doesn't slow down, and it's not solely thanks to his God-given speed. Los Angeles doesn't have anyone near the rim, or anyone even making a beeline for it.
Which brings us here:
Parker gets deeper down the court and still no one attempts to predict where he'll wind up. That's only mind-blowing because it's not a mystery. This late into the break, he's going for the rim.
And he just keeps going:
I'm more than a bit concerned by now. Watching as Earl Clark (now in Cleveland) attempts to take on Parker alone, Blake, or even Gasol, should have gotten in there.
While I totally understand that Blake isn't blocking any shots and Gasol isn't running any marathons, there's no excuse to not have someone behind Clark when you have a total of four defenders guarding the same player.
Failure to space yourselves properly and set up a competent line of defense looks a little something like this:
The bright side? No one had their backs turned towards the play, which is more than I can say for what I'm about to show you.
Parker starts deep on his own end. Only Howard and Gasol are in the picture, meaning that everyone else has gotten back.
But don't compliment anyone just yet.
Here and now, everyone should know who they have to pick up. Everyone. No exceptions.
These are the Lakers, though. Nothing was ever easy with them on defense.
Gasol and World Peace have their backs turned toward their defender, because of course, and Nash isn't even in the same view as the man he needs to cover.
Onward to Exhibit C:
Nash at least has eyes on his man, unlike Gasol and World Peace. Can't believe I'm admitting this either, but Blake has a hold on where he needs to be as well. So does Howard.
Then this, Exhibit D:
Duncan doesn't set a screen so much as he meanders his way into view. That's enough separation for Parker, who goes left.
Fortunately, Howard is right where he should be, able to pick up Parker. We can't say the same for Gasol, who is so far away from Bonner, the Red Mamba could have taken a water break and come back later.
He's not the only one, though. Both Nash and World Peace are letting their man hover comfortably around the arc.
Seeing this, Parker kicks it to Bonner:
Since Gasol is about two Dwight Howards away from him, he has all the time in the world to put it up.
Wouldn't you know it, the ball finds the bottom of the net.
Go figure. When you don't get back on defense soon enough or fail to keep track of your man if you do, the other team scores. Crazy concept, I know.
This is the mass chaos Rambis and the rest of the Lakers head coaching staff is tasked with fixing. Pick-and-rolls and transition opportunities are in-game staples, two of the most important aspects of the game to defend against.
All of last season the Lakers couldn't, and look what it got them—an early playoff exit laced with future uncertainty.
"It just doesn’t work out that way," Rambis said of defending liberally. "So, with youth, with athleticism, some speed and quickness and getting guys more organized defensively, we should be able to do a much better job at that end.”
Whatever organization he speaks of, the Lakers better find it, master it and keep praying that they don't become helpless fodder for the Western Conference's opposing offenses.