Lakers' slump starts with defense
Here's one resolution that will need to be fulfilled if the Lakers want to have a parade down Figueroa in June: Get back to playing defense.
The triangle offense and Andrew Bynum's recent slump are problems, but the defense's Christmas vacation is the reason the team has gone 2-2 in its past four games.
Granted, the Lakers were 25-5 on New Year's Day last year, 9-4 on the road; this season they are 25-6 and 8-3 on the road. Basically, this season's team is on pace with the title team. Twenty-nine other teams would love to have the Lakers' "problems."
But last year the Lakers were an offensive juggernaut. They played defense when they wanted or needed to. This season the Lakers' offense has been good but not great, even sputtering at times. Defense has carried the team to the best record in the NBA.
When the Lakers faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 22, they were the best defensive team in the league, giving up an average of 98.7 points per 100 opponent possessions. (I like using points per possession to compare teams because at the end of a game both teams are going to have the same number of possessions, so we are measuring apples and apples.) What was crazy was how they were doing it: The Lakers' wing players were not stopping penetrating guards (we're looking at you, Derek Fisher). Opposing teams were getting 29.9 shots per game at the rim, the most any team in the league gives up.
But with the long arms of Pau Gasol and Bynum protecting the rim, those teams are shooting 57.5 percent on those shots. Think about that: The Lakers' length is forcing other teams to shoot less than 60 percent on layups, dunks and tip-ins. The Lakers also still have the best 3-point defense in the league; opposing teams are shooting just 30.7 percent. If you take away 3s and shots at the rim -- the two most efficient shots in basketball -- you're going to win a lot of games.
And the Lakers did win a lot of games. They had become a defensive force, and did it with a different style than last season, when Kurt Rambis' plan was to bring the big man over early to scare off penetration. This season the Lakers were just reacting to the penetration and then daring you to shoot over the redwood trees they had planted in the paint.
Then came the Thunder, and through the Golden State game every team the Lakers played has averaged more than 100 points per 100 possessions against them. The last three teams the Lakers played have broken the 100-point barrier.
The problems with the defense have been exacerbated because of Ron Artest's injury. But the problems were there before, on Christmas Day and against the Thunder.
There are a few things going on. The Lakers have reverted at times to an ineffective defense used in past seasons: everyone collapsing into the paint to help out. For example, early in the second half against the Suns, Steve Nash came down and ran a drag screen (a high screen-and-roll very early in the clock) but used it only to get a switch, so Lamar Odom was now on the much quicker Nash. Then Nash drove into the paint off an Amare Stoudemire high screen -- Odom went with him, both Bynum and Gasol slid over to take away the rim, Kobe slid in and was one foot out of the paint trying to guess a passing lane. That all left Derek Fisher trying to cover three men at the 3-point line. So he stood at the top of the key. With four Lakers in the paint it was an easy kick-out to Channing Frye, who had plenty of time to drain an uncontested 21-footer.
That's one play, but the Lakers have seen a lot of variants of it -- off penetration, the wing shooters are getting very open looks with nobody really contesting them.
There are mitigating factors. The Lakers have played a string of games where the other team's center -- Frye and Stoudemire for the Suns, everyone on Golden State, Zydrunas Ilgauskas for Cleveland, Spencer Hawes for Sacramento -- can make a midrange or deeper jumper. Bynum is long but cannot defend the rim and an 18-footer at the same time, so he has been pulled away from the paint.
The Lakers have stopped "helping the helper" consistently -- if Bynum or Gasol goes to the rim someone needs to rotate to the open man. The Lakers have also seen a string of teams that thrive on the pick-and-roll (which is one reason there has been more Gasol and less Bynum for the Lakers because Gasol defends it far better) and the Lakers have never really defended the pick-and-roll well.
Finally, the Lakers have played teams with shooters -- Nash in Phoenix, Tyreke Evans in Sacramento -- who can finish at the rim despite long arms in their way. Some guys have that knack (Allen Iverson made a career out of it) and the Lakers have run into a few lately.
All these issues are easily fixed. A few weeks ago the Lakers were doing all the right things, putting more energy and focus on that end of the floor. Artest will come back, locking down guys on the wing, which will be a boost. Things can and should return to normal for the Lakers on defense soon.
Of course, even when the defense does bounce back, there is one other pressing question: What happened to that Lakers offense? With the passing and the off-the-ball movement and the scoring at will?
The Lakers have fallen in love with the post game. With good reason: Bynum is hard to stop on the block, Gasol is the most skilled big man in the game with several moves to either hand, and Kobe Bryant spent the summer with Hakeem Olajuwon learning the Dream Shake.
But the Lakers are not making the off-the-ball cuts the triangle requires, or the passes out of double-teams that keep a defense honest. And, when the big men do make the pass out, the shot isn't falling often enough.
In the past 10 Lakers games Fisher has heated up (41.4 percent) from 3-point range, but Artest (30.8 percent), Farmar (23 percent) and Bryant at 25.5 percent are slowing down. As a team, the Lakers are shooting 29.8 percent from 3-point range in the past 10 games. Not one Laker is in the top 40 in the league in 3-point percentage this season.
Like the defense, this is not an insurmountable problem, just a matter of execution, which has a way of working itself out, especially on a Phil Jackson-coached team.