The season- for the moment- is treading water for no other reason than the defense. The last five opponents have scored 100 points or more. The Lakers have won only two of those games. Their lethargy on defense has allowed games to slip away. While it seems understandable to blame D’Antoni on this point, he is the preparer, the players have to assume a level of culpability as well. They are the professionals expected to have an innate sense of the moment, of what is at stake. Games come down to those last dramatic moments of urgency. Strange as it may seem, a lack of urgency, not intention, is often the reason games are lost. A rebound slips through someone’s fingers and away. A missed steal which would have tied the game is a cross over and dunk. Or no one steps in for a charge. Attention to detail is the difference in the end, the final arbiter in a winning defensive culture or the last nail that closes the coffin shut.
If things were equal the Lakers would be able use their length and size to prevent their opponents from scoring in the paint but they don’t have much length or size to speak of besides Gasol, a finesse player who is allergic to physicality or Wes Johnson, an improving but undersized defender with a frame that is easily pushed around when he plays against power forwards. The Lakers want to use their speed and athleticism to rotate quickly, get into passing lanes, contest shots and covert defensive possessions into offensive baskets but they do not have the type of speed of a Miami Heat so that is out too. The Lakers want to feed off their toughness to push back all comers in the paint but their toughest player is their oldest player returning from an Achilles injury and he plays on the perimeter. So they end up playing defense almost by accident, as if they have been told this is what wins games and yet they react as if they have just left the morgue; they are lifeless and inattentive. They guard shooters rather than contest shots, they rotate too slowly or not at all, they don’t consistently rebound or pressure the ball, they flee the paint rather than stand in there and inflict punishment, they do not communicate. It is a recipe for failure.
The blame D’Antoni crowd has history on their side. At the root of his coaching failures is a consistent pattern of defensive neglect. When he coached the Phoenix Suns his defenses were ranked last, second to last, 23rd and 25th. When he coached the New York Knicks his defenses were ranked 28th for three straight years. This year with the Lakers his defense is ranked 27th. Only the Knicks, Cleveland and the 76ers give up more points. Part of the problem is D’Antoni’s intoxication with pace, pushing the ball, creating a fast tempo. That particular style of basketball nirvana may create offense extraordinaire but at the same time it inhibits defensive toughness because it inhibits the collective identity of what the game really means. To D’Antoni the game is about scoring and possessions more than it is about exerting your will in the paint and stopping scoring.
Perhaps this was what Dr. Jerry Buss was desperate to see again, a hyper tempo offense, shooters running to spots, assists, points, breathlessness. But in this current era of professional basketball the high tempo offense is one of those sexy and entertaining toys that are a shiny but empty vessel with few rewards. It is the math. There are too many athletic and explosive players who interrupt the speed of the game with their own speed. The pace the Lakers play at is third highest in the league. Only Minnesota and the 76ers play at a faster pace. All three teams have struggling records. No team in the past decade has played at a high pace and competed for a title. The past five champions have averaged 94.4 possessions per game. This Lakers team averages 100 possessions per game. The last team to average 100 possessions or more in a season were the 2010 Golden State Warriors who won 26 games that year. They scored 108 points a game and gave up 112. They had Steph Curry and Monta Ellis as their gunslingers which led them absolutely nowhere.
“We’re going to have to toughen up”, D’Antoni said post game following the loss to the Suns. “It’s going to be a dogfight out there for a while.” And yet this was hours after he changed the lineup, taking out his best wing defender in order to accommodate the offense. If the offense is not a dogfight of players scoring in the post and at the rim, the defense is not going to be a dogfight either. There has to be a commitment to one identity, to who you are and what you stand for and how you plan to stop the other team from doing what they want. It is a legitimate question to ask how much defensive game planning occupies D’Antoni’s practices? Unlike a lot of coaches he has plenty of light practices or no practice at all. His predecessor, Mike Brown had demanding practices. In D’Antoni’s case less is not more.
Forget about what the Lakers don’t do. The best defensive team in the league is the Indiana Pacers and it is by design. They promoted an assistant coach to the head coaching position in 2011, the year after they drafted Paul George. Frank Vogel’s identity is of defense and grit. When a Pacers opponent misses a shot their guards jam the paint fighting with the forwards for the rebound. Lance Stephenson, averages six rebounds a game. But it is not their numbers that puts the Pacers above the rest, in a particularly unique category. It is their collective embrace of defense as a means to an end. To their way of thinking it is the only reason they will be the last one standing in June. They look at being scored upon as someone slapping them in the face. The Pacers instruction to their star David West is to stop the opposing power forward or else. Do the Pacers have mental errors throughout the game? Sure. Basketball has never been a game of perfection. But the Pacers mental errors are quickly absorbed, remembered and then followed by a collective intensity to defend the rim and the paint and perimeter shooters.
The rarefied air of a good defense is about commitment as much as it is about higher learning. The Lakers indulge in offensive possessions. Their success is relative to their production. If they make 10 three point shots a game they win. If they don’t they lose. It is a slippery slope, an ineffective way to orchestrate an offense because there are days when the shots just don’t fall. But the Lakers can’t depend on their defense. There are some who believe there is a secret to playing defense. Or, if not a secret than a vow between players. But really, defense is the one area of the game that is talent neutral. It is all about energy and intensity and hustle and how bad you want it. It is also about trust. You help your teammate because you trust he is going to help you. You lean into it and if you don’t the effect is repulsive like not trying or not caring.
Not playing defense is hardly a rarity, very few teams do it with a consistent intensity, but those that do sacrifice their own egos and are the ones that compete throughout the playoffs which incidentally is where the Lakers say they hope to be. A long time ago someone once asked: how do you get into Julliard. The famed New York music school, Julliard, prepares elite musicians to study the cello or the piano or musical composition. The competition for entry is intense. But the answer to the age old question of how do you get into Julliard was a simple truth: you practice. The same can be said of basketball, of defensive fundamentals and schematics. How do you get good at it? Well, of course, you practice. You practice.
Someone please tell Mike D’Antoni.