Can an NBA team lose two players who had been honored as the league's top defenders and, in the process, become a better defensive unit?
That’s what the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to find out.
Now the Lakers will find out if less is more.
Not that L.A.’s defense was any good with the services of the three-time defensive player of the year in Howard and one-time DPOY winner in World Peace, anyway. The Lakers were tied with Brooklyn for 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Even with Howard patrolling the paint, L.A. ranked 22nd in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage inside of five feet, according to NBA.com Stats Cube (59.8 percent), and even with World Peace’s notoriously quick left hand, the Lakers were 26th in steals per game, generating just 7.0 a night.
“Their defense never really gave them a chance to win,” newly hired Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “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.
“You could see throughout most of their games, guys would turn their palms up to the sky, and it was like, ‘Is that my responsibility? Is that your responsibility? Who was supposed to do what?’ So, we’ve got to do a much better job of getting them so they can cover each others’ backs at that end of the floor.”
The reason that Rambis is back with the Lakers is not only because the team lost its two most talented defenders in Howard and World Peace, but because it lost its two most defensive-minded assistant coaches in Chuck Person, whose contract was not renewed, and Steve Clifford, who became the head coach in Charlotte.
Rambis, who assumed a defensive coordinator-type role in the final two seasons of his last run with the Lakers when Phil Jackson was head coach, said that Mike D’Antoni isn’t giving him the same label.
“(D’Antoni) said that all assistant coaches will be involved in all areas in our initial conversation,” Rambis explained. “Not that we have etched everything in stone, but to come back as a defensive coordinator, you can talk to Mike about whether there’s going to be any sort of designation on that. By my understanding, there isn’t going to be, but he just kind of wants all of the gaps to be covered so everybody is responsible for working with players and being involved in practices and being involved with games. But to have myself associated with the defense, that means that area is going to be covered.”
The Lakers have had a precipitous decline on the defensive end. After they held the Boston Celtics to just 79 points on 40.8 percent shooting in their Game 7 win in the 2010 Finals, their last three playoff appearances have ended in ugly fashion. First the Dallas Mavericks shot a blistering 46.2 percent on 3-pointers during a four-game sweep in 2011, amid Andrew Bynum decrying the team’s “trust issues” on the defensive end. Then the Oklahoma City Thunder scored 100 or more in three of their four wins against L.A. in their 2012 second-round series. Finally, in last season's first-round sweep by San Antonio, the Spurs shot a combined 53.0 percent from the floor in Games 2-4 after figuring out the Lakers' D that held them to just 37.6 percent shooting in Game 1 of the series.
“They never got connected defensively,” Rambis said of the 2012-13 season.
Having a full training camp to implement a clear defensive system and teach the terminology that goes with it could go a long way toward building that connective tissue. And having players who want to be in L.A. should help as well. As much of a beast as Howard was at times last season, if teammates can sense a player isn’t fully buying in, their motivation to do the little things -- like talk on defense or give the extra effort on help-side defense -- can wane.
It’s hard to make a fist with a broken thumb.
And while attitude might not be as big of a concern for the Lakers next season, there are still challenges among the remaining personnel that L.A. must overcome. Just look at the starting backcourt. Steve Nash is coming off a broken leg that caused lingering nerve damage all season long. He's 39 and, even in his back-to-back MVP days, struggled to guard opposing point guards because of his pedestrian foot speed and relatively small frame. Kobe Bryant is coming off a torn Achilles injury and turns 35 next month. Not to mention that his defense has already started to drop off in recent seasons. His string of six straight seasons on the NBA’s All-Defensive 1st Team came to an end in 2011-12 when he received second-team honors and then failed to make either team in ’12-13.
Then there are the injury concerns linked to a big man rotation of Pau Gasol (missed 33 games last season), Jordan Hill (missed 53) and Chris Kaman (missed 16), not that they’re considered a trio of terrific defenders when healthy in the first place.
The Lakers did their best to mitigate the losses of Howard, World Peace and Earl Clark, another capable defender, by adding younger, quicker athletes in Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson, but one player can't be expected to be a difference-maker if the whole team isn’t on the same page.
“It’s very difficult to defend people 1-on-1 in this league,” Rambis said. “You need all five guys to really stop pick-and-rolls, to stop isolations, to stop the upper echelon offensive players in this league. It’s rare that you have the guys on your team that match up well enough that you can just leave them out there on an island and they can defend people by themselves. It just doesn’t work out that way. 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.”
There is certainly room for improvement.