Following Thursday's win over New York, Lakers coach Mike Brown praised his team's weakside help near the basket, detalining how it has contributed to a string of strong defensive efforts in the second half against Chicago, then Utah, and now New York.
Brown credited his big, from Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy, to Pau Gasol. "Our weakside has been extremely active. The weakside blocks that we've gotten, when the guy catches the ball right off the post, that's hard to do," he said "Guys are in the right spot. They're coming across and getting blocks. Josh has a few blocks like that. Pau has a few blocks like that. So for those guys to have that type of understanding in terms of positioning defensively and activity defensively, knock on wood hopefully that doesn't go away because that's what we need to have in order to continue to excel on that end of the floor."
From there, Brown worked his way into a larger point about team defense.
"When I took the job, everybody told me, well, [Derek Fisher] can't guard opposing point guards anymore. My philosophy has [always] been, there's nobody in my opinion that can guard and NBA starting point guard one on one. You can't do that. If you understand where your help is going to be and you understand defensive positioning, in my opinion anybody can guard anybody."
While an assistant in San Antonio, he said, the Spurs started Danny Ferry at small forward. "Right now, I'm quicker than Danny Ferry ever was in his career, right now, at my size and weight," Brown said, totally serious. Yet they were effective having Ferry match up with stars like Paul Pierce because the team's defensive structures were so strong, and Ferry knew where his support was coming from.
Lakers fans should love this answer. The emphasis on one-on-one defense, particularly at the point guard position, while hardly irrelevant is often misguided. Obviously a player needs a certain level of skill and athleticism to play there effectively (often satisfied by having made it to the NBA) and some guys are better than others, but Brown's point is spot on. In the aggregate, matched up man to man, none of these guys can guard each other. Don't believe me? Count the number of times Fisher, widely considered the slowest point guard in the league and among it's least effective dribble penetrators, is able to blow by guys. It happens pretty frequently.
Add in a screen, and the job of defending opposing 1's gets even tougher. No point guard can be expected to stick his man through a pick without help around him.
What matters is how a team defends as a group. It's why continuity on that end is so important, and why the confusion against Sacramento was so problematic. Brown said the next day at shootaround some guys were relapsing into last season's defensive strategies, while others were following this year's playbook. In that situation, even a group of vibrant, young, springy Bruce Bowens wouldn't get the job done. It's how the group moves as a whole. Assuming each player on the floor is giving effort and working in concert with his teammates, there can be success.
This year's Lakers team is evidence. They've played Fisher, Murphy, McRoberts, Steve Blake, Andrew Goudelock, Devin Ebanks, and Jason Kapono. None of them have great reputations as defenders, and some (Murphy, for example) are considered flat out bad. Yet as a group, the Lakers have had success, just as they had success on their end during the last few seasons.
It certainly helps a great deal to have plus defenders who can help compensate for the weaker links. While overall Kobe Bryant's defensive presence has grown overrated through the last few seasons, he's still capable of being a stopper. Metta World Peace's defensive metrics last year were strong. Gasol, particularly at power forward, is a solid defender, and obviously Andrew Bynum can be a difference maker. The versatility of a Matt Barnes makes it easier for Brown to deploy his less athletic players. That the Spurs teams Brown references had Tim Duncan and David Robinson certainly helped paper over Ferry's deficiencies.
This year's Lakers can, and likely will, effectively keep points off the board despite perceived shortcomings with a guy like Fisher-- he tends to hurt them much more on offense than defense-- or the belief as a team they're simply too old. Successful enough to win a title? Who knows. (Certainly a lot has to go right, and the margin for error is small.) The Lakers have to buy in and everyone needs to be on the same page, but early returns are strong and it has all been done without, no pun intended, their defensive centerpiece.