While I suspect most teams don't enter a game with the idea of giving away as many free throws as possible, over the last few seasons the Lakers have been very successful at playing defense without fouling, helping keep the opposition off the stripe. This year, though, the Lakers have turned it into an art form. As noted by SI.com's Zach Lowe, over their final nine games L.A. has a chance to become the least whistled team the league has ever seen.
To gain more insight into how the Lakers do what they do, Thursday afternoon in El Segundo I tracked down assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Chuck Person (separately, though for the sake of continuity I'll put answers to similar questions together). Both emphasize how much attention goes into it from a teaching standpoint, particularly in practice. It can't hurt, too, having so many high IQ, experienced players on the same roster.Getty Images
Phil Jackson has been very free with his praise for the work of assistant coach Chuck Person, particularly his contributions to team defense.
Q: As a team, the Lakers have been incredibly effective keeping other teams off the free throw line, to the point you might actually set a record. Is this a philosophical thing?
SHAW: We teach defend without fouling, but it makes it easier when you have big guys inside like Pau [Gasol], Andrew [Bynum], and Lamar [Odom] that we can constantly sandwich the offensive players. We’re chasing them over screens, they’re coming to close up the space, so they’re having to shoot over. Our big guys do a pretty good job of gauging blocking shots as opposed to just taking up space. And then fouling at the right times. Using our fouls when we’re not in the bonus. If they have an advantage on the break, fouling, so that they don’t get an easy basket, but they have to take the ball out [to the sidelines].
PERSON: It’s a system of play that we have that we protect one another when we’re beat off the dribble, that we don’t have to foul out of necessity because we are responsible for a man and a half. We are consistently doing it on a game-by-game basis. We’ve had some games where teams get away from us, but for the most part guys are locked in to what we’re trying to do defensively. It also helps that we are very efficient offensively, which makes teams take the ball out a lot and lets us set ourselves defensively...
...We move our feet really well, we keep teams out of the middle of the floor, and we show our hands on defense. Those are the rules. If you can show your hands on defense and play with your body, those are clean defensive plays. That’s allowable under the rules, and our guys are really catching on to what those rules are.
Q: Some teams- Utah for example- have a history of piling up fouls as part of their style of defending. Does an active belief in not fouling mean there are times when players have to concede a shot or points in the larger interest? Because a play might be too far gone?
PERSON: We don’t concede anything. That’s the beauty of what we’re doing. We don’t concede anything. We challenge all shots, we challenge all shots at the rim. We just don't foul [to foul]. If we foul, it’s a side out foul. If [the opposition] has numbers on the break, we’ll come up and take the easy foul versus waiting until you get to the rim and taking that foul. We’ll foul up front and make you take it [on the sidelines]. Phil is very good at letting the players know how many team fouls we have, so if we need to waste one we will, but it won’t be in the act of shooting.
(Person speaks of a team philosophy. At no point should a shot go intentionally uncontested, save a moment when making a play will likely only result in a bad and-one opportunity. From a practical standpoint, Shaw acknowledges sometimes players acknowledge discretion as the better part of valor.)
SHAW: That happens. Some teams just won’t concede anything. Anytime anybody drives in there, you hear people say "No layups." Sometimes, it’s a big man coming over to contest a little guard, where he can probably block a shot or take a charge, but he just goes and lays a hard foul on him because the mentality is no layups. In a lot of cases- we don’t like to concede anything- but guys will kind of back up off a foul, and lightly challenge a shot as opposed to going over and just committing a foul and sending the player to the free throw line.Getty Images
Next year, when Brian Shaw explains stuff about the Lakers defense, it could be as the next head coach.
Sometimes it drives us crazy, when you see guys laying the ball up and people get the impression that our defense isn’t very good. But when you actually look at our numbers, not just in free throw defense but compared to everyone else in terms of percentage against three pointers, and overall defensive field goal percentage, we’re probably up at the top of the league.
On how success in other areas contributes to their ability to defend without fouling:
PERSON: It’s like how we don’t turn it over. That’s another one of those stats, where we lead the league in the least amount of turnovers. It also helps with the transition defense. We get a lot of offensive rebounds, which also helps in transition defense, so teams don’t run on you quite as much. They’re worried about us and our offensive rebounding, so they keep more players in on the backboard, which makes it hard to run out. You don’t get a bunch of run outs. All of it ties into our philosophy of why you have to run a good offense, because it helps our defense.
And then vice versa- when you defend better, you get more opportunities to execute offensively.
Q: The more structure you can build into it- the more you can play a structured, half-court defense, the less likely you are to have to foul in the first place.
PERSON: That’s correct. It’s a system of play that’s based on execution, based on both sides of the ball.
(Too often, fans and media alike treat offense and defense as their own autonomous hemispheres on the court, but Person does a great job illustrating why such thinking is so misguided. The two simply can't be separated.)
Q: At the risk of asking a question with an obvious answer, I’ll ask anyway: What does it do for the bottom line when you can keep teams off the line?
PERSON: The hidden points are at the free throw lines. Teams try to get there, try to get into the bonus early, so teams can’t be as aggressive defensively. Therefore, it’s one of those push-and-pull things. A team is trying to push you into getting fouls, and we resist because we show our hands a lot. We play with our hands out, but still keep bodies on their bodies. That’s one of our theories that we use. The terminology we use. Keep bodies on bodies, but show your hands.
SHAW: "A lot of times, free throws are the difference in the game.