It’s A Case of “I’d Rather Not Be Right”
Posted by hiphopmama on December 11, 2008
Was Mark Jackson over the top? Yes. Should Jack Nicholson have collared his ass out of the Staples Center mid-game? Sure – at least I would’ve liked to have seen it. But did he have a point? Darn skippy.
The Lakers’ apparent disregard for all things defensive is not a new topic on this blog, even when they were in the midst of their two long winning streaks. Contrary to all the “Chicken Little” accusations flying around the Lakers blogosphere, this isn’t a new topic that people are suddenly harping on, or at least it shouldn’t have been, because the signs were there all along even if the losses weren’t. The supposed Version 2.0 of the defense has looked suspect almost from the start, aside from a few good outings in the first seven games. As long as they were winning, though, it was essentially sacrilege to bring it up, especially since the Lakers were odds-on favorites to challenge for and even take the NBA title this year. Yet all along they were playing a game that looked remarkably similar to the Mavs and Suns of recent years: play fast, score lots, and bet it all on your offensive production. There was a slight twist, in that the Lakers were bum-rushing the passing lanes and getting deflections all over the place, allowing them to run their efficient offense. What it all boiled down to, however, was the defensive version of those all-offense teams, namely a strategy that cannot last over the course of 48 minutes, let alone an 82-game season.
The Suns, Mavs, and, going back even further, Kings all played lovely offensive games that were fluid and fun to watch. Their fatal flaw was that they were condemned to both live and die by the jump shot, and come playoff time you and I both know which they did. Because shooting is a streaky business, it is a given that percentages are going to eventually fall off and, if that’s all you’ve got, you’re in for a bit of trouble. They could all go on a helluva run here and there, but against the better teams it wasn’t enough. How many titles did this tactic result in? Oh, that’s right. Zero, and just one Finals appearance between them.
The Lakers’ defense this season is akin to that kind of offense in that it can produce great results for certain periods of time, but it’s not a viable strategy to rely on when you have a championship as your ultimate goal. Los Angeles has a talented, athletic, and very deep squad with a bench that could make the playoffs in its own right. What this depth and athleticism means is that they can rotate players much more than the opposition with little diminution of quality, keeping legs fresher and the energy level up. As a result, they can patrol the passing lanes all night long, dive in for deflections to start the break, and generally wreak havoc on the other team’s game plan. For a time, that is.
Just like jump shooting, forcing turnovers is a hit-or-miss endeavor that results in a feast-or-famine performance. When it’s clicking, the Lakers can do no wrong, and the up-tempo defense fuels the up-tempo offense and everything is hunky dory. Eventually, though, most teams will settle down some – and the better teams will be disciplined from the start – and this strategy will yield very little. When the other team isn’t turning the ball over, you need some other defensive tactic to tide you over, and the Lakers don’t have that. They don’t stop penetration worth a damn, and our front court players, particularly Bynum, are horrible at venturing out to guard big men who can shoot from the perimeter (both of which I have been whining about at least since the loss to Detroit). Furthermore, we’ve never been able to guard the pick and roll even though there is no reason with our current lineup that we shouldn’t be able to at least slow this move down. With two 7-footers, shot blocking is always a threat, and Bynum is excellent at swatting shots from both the weak and strong sides. But if teams can pull him away from the rim, the threat is effectively neutralized, as Kevin Ding recently noted in the OC Register.
None of this is new or surprising. It has been a thorn in the Lakers’ side all year long, although their all-cylinders offense and energetic overall play has allowed them to cruise past most teams. In the end, that may be more of a hindrance than a help because it seems to have convinced them that they don’t have to bother with such trivial matters as defense, and it’s finally starting to catch up with them.
Let me be clear. I take no pleasure in enumerating their flaws and worrying about the rematch with Boston that we all hope takes place, albeit with a different outcome. The Lakers are still a very good team with talent leaking out of their purple and gold asses (nice image, eh?) and they are easily the best team in the West, which incidentally isn’t as superior to the East as most seem to believe. I’m just concerned that, against the best of the best, the current play of the team won’t be enough to produce a different result from what we saw last year and I’m desperate to avoid that scenario. I know Kobe is spouting that Boston is the “real” test, whatever that means, but if they can’t perform up to snuff against an eight man Suns team, what chance to they stand against the Big Three of the Celtics?
The upside of the recent spate of bad games is that people are finally starting take notice, and not just worthless announcers like Mark Jackson. Assistant coach and defensive orchestrator Kurt Rambis excoriated his team for its complete lack of effort on the defensive end, which I hope is a sign of things to come. As Ding reported in his OC Register piece, the team moved to full defensive rotations after the loss in Sacramento, and they will likely need some time to adjust. If that’s the case, I’m all for a few growing pains. I’d much rather experience them at this point in the season than next June when we’re trying to unseat the Green Monster. There’s no reason to believe a team this talented and with such a good coach can’t turn it around, but as with addiction, acknowledging you have a problem is the first step. So repeat after me: I am powerless over the opponent’s offense and my defense has become unmanageable…