Are the Lakers the worst 21-3 - oops, I mean 21-4, after losing to the lowly Heat - team ever? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The Lakers are a good team, but not a great team. They're merely a good team that got off to a hot start. Fortunately for the Lakers, they still stand a pretty good chance of getting out of the West, and once you're in the finals, anything can happen...right?
I know, Lakers fans are freaking out and the team is still 21-3. I know, there's still a lot of season left, and this team is still learning to play together. I know, the team is blessed with great depth and loaded with talent. But precisely becuase it is loaded with talent, this team may be the most frustrating Lakers squad I have ever followed in my life. On a team this loaded, nothing short of the title will be a success. The Lakers' offense has misfired recently, but that's not the major problem. After going to the Lakers-Knicks shootout with my family (Merry Xmas, guys) and watching the Lakers-Heat debacle, I'm convinced that this team has no chance of winning the title - zero - without a serious change in defensive philosophy, especially guarding the high screen and roll.
First, this article from Forum Blue and Gold sums up the issues very well. There are certainly some games where the Lakers don't seem to be playing very hard. However, in most of the games this year, I do think the players are trying. They are simply victims of a poor defensive strategy masterminded by Kurt Rambis.
Rambis has instituted a few wrinkles that I like. Shifting over the weak-side big to zone off guards successfully deters penetration, and the rotation back to cover skip passes is adequate. However, the Lakers screen-roll defense is atrocious becuase it is always the same. The Lakers always ask the big to show and to stay doubled on the guard, no matter what the situation. The Lakers almost never go under the screen, even if the guard is a poor shooter. If the screen is ineffective and the defending guard is back in position, the Lakers' big stays out on the guard. This scheme caught some teams by surprise at the start of the season, leading to songs of praise about the Lakers' length and steals forced. But guess what? Apparently NBA teams have "scouts" that devise tricky strategies like "ball reversal" and "weak-side cuts to the basket" that exploit the Lakers' predictable ball traps and hard doubles. The result is a steady diet of defensive confusion, wide-open threes, and 100 point games.
Let me give one example from tonight's game. Dwyane Wade has the ball and Haslem runs up to set an ineffective pick that Wade doesn't use. Kobe stays on Wade. Bynum, guarding Haslem, immediately shows on Wade and stays on Wade after Haslem rolls to the basket. However, Bynum is not in a hard double on Wade to force him to give the ball up. He's just sort of caught in no-man's land, shadowing Wade. Gasol is forced to rotate to Haslem, leaving the other Miami big (Joel Anthony) open underneath. Now a Laker guard (Fisher) has to sag into the lane to prevent a pass to Anthony, leaving a shooter open, or has to leave Gasol covering two men. Wade passes to the open guard, forcing Kobe to jump over and take Fisher's man. The guard immediately swings it back to Wade, leaving Bynum guarding Wade, one-on-one.
This exact turn of events also happened at the end of the Knicks game, leaving Nate Robinson vs. Bynum one-on-one at a critical juncture. Wade scored today; Robinson missed on Tuesday. Both plays are bad outcomes for the Lakers.
Because this is the first year that the Lakers have played defense this way, and they do it consistently (to the point of ridiculousness), it has to be a coaching problem and not just an execution problem. The fix should be easy. Don'd do the same thing every time! Show, half-show, or go under depending on the opponent. Get back to fundamentals, with scouting reports to help. In some situations, a hard show and trap can lead to turnovers. In others, it's inane. The Lakers' scheme is nothing but a gimmick. Forcing every big to show no matter what leads to terrible mismatches, defensive confusion, and easy buckets, IF THE OPPONENT KNOWS IT'S COMING. The strategy is easy to defeat because there are no surprises - the Lakers play every single screen-roll the same way. We need to stop this. The players are obviously confused, as you can see Bynum, Pau, and Odom helplessly glancing at the bench as they execute orders and give up points. It's not a natural way to play basketball, and it's not a smart way to play basketball.
At this point, Kurt, it's time to switch off your defensive masterpiece. Let the Lakers get back to playing solid man-to-man defense for a few games, so they remember what that is like. Then reinstitute the hard show at select times for select matchups, as one weapon in your defensive arsenal. In any sport, running the same strategy time after time will not work. In football, a good running game opens up the passing game, and vice versa. No team would blitz every single down, because opponents would just run screen plays. That's just common sense, right?
Why are the Lakers bringing the house on every single screen-roll of the 2008-09 season? It makes no sense, and may cause me to suffer an aneurysm before long. Fortunately, Gary Vitti will probably be able to tape me up and send me back in with blood spurting from my eyes.