Dialing the Help Line

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Pelton lost his treasured Seattle Supersonics this year. But there's an ancillary benefit for the rest of us -- Pelton will have more time to apply his otherworldly basketball analytics to the rest of the league. He's got a brilliant piece at Basketball Prospectus that breaks down the Lakers' retooled -- and very potent -- defense. I noticed on Wednesday night at Staples Center that the Lakers were employing an unusual number of halfcourt traps. Pelton explains why that is:

The biggest area where what the Lakers are doing diverges from conventional NBA wisdom is in terms of the so-called "help line." That's where defensive players on the weak side away from the ball are taught to go to be in position to offer help should the player with the ball beat his man off the dribble. The help line can be the hash mark located a few feet outside the outer edge of the key, but most teams generally use that boundary of the key to define help...

The Lakers are using a help line on the strong side near the basketball, which creates natural double-team traps on the ballhandler.

Pelton offers some nice visual aids that convey the central point -- the Lakers defense is making life miserable for opposing ballhandlers, and making ball movement much more difficult. As a result, the Lakers are forcing turnovers in huge numbers.

Pelton stipulates that a trapping-oriented defense isn't without its drawbacks. If your rotation isn't prompt, you're going to get burned. And with the help line all the way over on the strong side, teams with an ability to reverse the ball should be able to find open looks on the weak side. But thus far, the Lakers' length, quickness, and communication has been keeping those things from happening.

What's the long-term prognosis? Promising, says Pelton, particularly with Andrew Bynum healthy:

While expecting the Lakers to post the league's best defense all year as teams adjust might be a stretch, I believe their system can be very successful for them. The biggest reason might be a simple one: By working so much on the defense, the Lakers are committing to that end of the floor more than they have in recent seasons. Players are putting in the effort..

The other major reason is a big one literally--Bynum. Even if he did not possess a budding post-up game, Bynum would still be a very valuable player because of his defensive ability. Charting reveals just how much impact Bynum had against the Nuggets, forcing five-and-a-half misses without surrendering a single score. Add that to the turnovers Bynum forced and he dominated the game defensively. Bynum's quickness allows him to help and play the role of stopper while being able to recover and contest a shot attempt by a player cutting from the weak side.