How the Lakers Play Defense

There is a mini-war brewing in the basketball blogosphere today, with lines being drawn over advanced basketball statistics.

I could write 50,000 words about how silly it is to be opposed to advances in statistics. (Make lists of names! Two decades from now, when box scores have changed forever, and we all understand the game in far richer detail, it will be fun to tease the people who never wanted that change.) No, I'm not saying every advance is useful, and no I'm not saying statistics should be the driving force behind basketball decisions.

But hell yes, I am saying that if you want to be as smart as possible about basketball, you have to make it your business to understand the things that used to be unmeasurable, but now can be measured.

Saying you want to keep basketball information locked in its 1982 state is like standing around in some small town a century ago, seeing the first Model T ever to roll into town, and swearing your lifelong allegiance to commuting on horseback. It's not that the Model T is so magnificent -- it's an early model, rife with flaws. It's just that it's so blatantly the way things are headed. They will figure this stats thing out, just like they figured the car thing out.

In any case, one of those cranky anti-advanced stats posts from David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout. (It's largely in response to a Knickerblogger post.) In a classic bit of praising the horse, Friedman makes a claim that in measuring defense, points per game allowed is way more important than this hokey upstart points per possession. (Let's say my team allows your team to score 100% of the time. If we shoot every five seconds, you'll score a zillion points in a game. If we shoot every 20 seconds, you'll score roughly a quarter of a zillion of a points. So, the measure of points per game is suggesting that our team -- with the same zero percent stop rate -- just got four times better at defense! Isn't it smarter to ask: How many times did the other team have the ball? How many times did we stop them? But I digress.)

Then, however, the conversation changes entirely. In making his case, Friedman gets into what he's really good at -- collecting insight from practitioners of hoops.

Jim CleamonsIn this case, Laker assistant Jim Cleamons is quote talking about how the Lakers play defense.

Their D has been praised all year by scouts and experts. Right now they're sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and first in offense. When you watch, you can often see that it is good. And being first in team efficiency rankings, and high in another, is usually enough to win a championship. (Cleveland is fourth in offense and third in defense at the moment. Boston is first in defense and fifth in offense -- last year's title winning team was first in defense and ninth in offense.)

I bring this up because how well the Lakers play defense could well determine who wins this year's NBA title. Here's Friedman, quoting Cleamons, who sounds like he thinks the Lakers could get better at playing defense:

"The only thing we're doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we're sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There's no big secret about it; that's what we're trying to do: give more help when we can and we've been fortunate thus far."

When I followed up by asking Cleamons to compare the current Lakers' defense with the 1996 Bulls championship team (for whom he was also an assistant coach), he replied, "That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That's why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don't know how to help-when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn't have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did" (emphasis added). In other words, the truth about the Lakers' defense is precisely the opposite of what Pelton wrote: the so-called "new" scheme was not some kind of defensive revolution but rather the coaching staff's attempt to organize the defensive efforts of some players who do not have great defensive instincts. As the Lakers have faced stronger teams and more road games, it has become apparent that their defense is not as great as Pelton suggested.

A couple months after my first interview with Cleamons, I caught up with him again and asked him to give a "mid-term" report card on the Lakers' defense. He said, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end then you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)