The Lakers’ Best Defense is a Good Offense

The Lakers are 0-2 since Kobe Bryant‘s return, and while their defense is certainly a problem, it’s existed all year. However, LA’s offense has slowed down and generated fewer three point attempts with Kobe in the lineup, magnifying the effects of their poor interior defense.

Here is the Lakers’ shot chart for this season:
Lakers shot chart

Most of LAL’s shots come in the paint and beyond the arc, and they are WAY above average from three point range. In fact, their three point shooting is so good, it allows them to overcome poor transition and interior defense. The other team scores two, and the Lakers come right back with a three. It’s not my favorite type of basketball, but with this roster, the Lakers won more than they lost playing that way.

The Lakers’ interior defense has been awful all year, and let’s face it, it’s not getting better any time soon. Earlier this year, the Detroit Pistons scored 76 points in the paint against LA, and took TWENTY more shots than the Lakers, yet the Lakers WON. LA prevailed by making 14 threes, shooting 45% from downtown. Despite their defensive ineptitude, the Lakers can still win games by pushing the pace and making threes.

However, since Kobe’s debut, the Lakers’ pace and three point advantage has gone away, and they have two losses to show for it. Their pace has slowed from 99.69 without Kobe to 98.53 with him. The Lakers generated more and better shot attempts before Kobe came back, attempting 86.2 shots (26.3 3PT attempts) in the first 19 games, and just 79.5 shot attempts (20.6 3PT attempts) in two games with Bryant.

Because of the Lakers poor ball handling and rebounding, their opponents shoot more than them. During the first 19 games, the Lakers minimized this effect by running the ball to generate more possessions, and taking more threes. Opponents shot 87.7 shots per game to the Lakers 86.2, but the Lakers’ overcame that difference to the tune of a winning record by out-shooting their opposition from three. The Lakers averaged 10.7 three point makes on 26.3 attempts (40.7%), compared to 20.6 three point attempts from their opponents (5.7 less attempts than the Lakers).

In the two games with Kobe, the shooting discrepancy grew. Opponents are shooting four more times per game than the Lakers (83.5 vs. 79.5) with Kobe in the lineup rather than simply 1.5 more times (87.7 vs. 86.2) in the first 19 games. More troubling, opponents are now shooting more threes than the Lakers, taking away LAL’s great equalizer. In Kobe’s two games Laker opponents shot 24.5 3 point attempts, while the Lakers only shot 23.5 times from distance. Instead of taking 5.7 more threes than their opponents, the Kobe-led Lakers now shoot one fewer three than their opponents, effectively erasing their greatest strength. Without beating teams from deep, the Lakers cannot overcome their poor defense to win games.

The Suns shot 7-23 from three in Kobe’s second game back, compared to 5-19 from the Lakers, and Phoenix won the game by 6 points. In order for the Lakers to continue to win games, they have to push the ball and shoot (and make) more threes than their opponent.

Kobe himself was effective offensively, but his and Pau’s style conflicts with the Lakers’ overall offense. Kobe and Pau combined for 39 points on 12-22 shooting against Phoenix, but the Lakers offense stagnated from running plays for their stars that slowed the game down and generated two point shots.

In the screenshot below, Kobe isolates against PJ Tucker, and gets a dunk. In a vacuum, it’s a good play. However, the play took 16 seconds, led to a two point attempt, and only two players (Kobe, Pau) touched the ball. The other three Lakers literally stood still and watched for 16 seconds.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Plays like this slow the Lakers’ offense, making it hard for them to overcome their poor defense. They are minimizing offensive possessions, while not minimizing the opponents’ scoring opportunities.

Here’s another good shot Kobe got.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Pau Gasol set a back-screen to free Kobe, and Steve Blake found him for an easy layup. But look at the clock: 7 seconds remain when the ball goes through the hoop. Not exactly a quick score.

These plays are OK when the Lakers score but can be disastrous when they do not.

Below, Kobe isolates for an off balance shot, and the Suns push the ball off the miss. Again, Kobe shoots inside (this time contested) with the shot clock in single digits. As Kobe shoots, Pau and Shawne Williams are in poor position to recover on defense.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

The Suns collect the rebound and now have a three on two break while three Lakers trail the play (including Kobe, who is off-screen).

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Here’s an isolation play for Pau that comes late in the clock, and results in poor spacing for LA. Pau gets the ball with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, and goes one on one, shooting a contested 15 footer with 8 seconds on the clock. Steve Blake and Kobe are standing just feet from each other, making them both non-threats, and allowing the Suns defense to converge on Gasol.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Sometimes these shots are necessary if the Lakers cannot generate a quality attempt early in the clock, but the Lakers will struggle if they take 17-18 seconds to create a two point shot attempt while their opponents attack the Lakers’ poor transition defense in 5-8 seconds.

The Lakers are much more effective pushing the pace and shooting before the defense is set.

On this trip, Steve Blake gets into the lane and shoots with :17 left on the shot clock. He misses, but because he attacked quickly the Suns are scrambled, allowing Pau to collect the rebound and dunk the ball.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Compare that to late in the fourth quarter as the Lakers again slow the game down and post up Pau.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Pau catches the ball with 17 on the clock, and takes his man one on one, shooting with 14 seconds left. While he doesn’t score, it is a quality shot.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Unfortunately, four Lakers are standing from the free throw line in, and Pau, Nick Young, and Xavier Henry are all headed towards the Lakers’ basket as the Suns gain possession.

Bledsoe collects the rebound, pushes the ball up and finds Dragic for a layup in just three seconds, before the Lakers’ lone big man (Gasol) reaches half-court.

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

Photo Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet

If the Lakers had more reliable defenders, post up options, and a system that favored playing inside and out, slowing the game down might be the way to go. This season they do not. The Lakers have a bunch of young perimeter players who can run the floor and shoot threes and a coach that can get the most out of them, so they have to rely on those strengths to overcome their weaknesses.

Don’t expect the defense to get better any time soon. Right now the Lakers’ best defense is a good offense. In order to improve they have to find a way to maximize Kobe’s offensive talents without sacrificing their speed and three point shooting.