A Closer Look at the Lakers' Defense Through the Eyes of Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Stu LantzMuch has been said and written about the Lakers' "new defensive scheme." It seems like the chic thing to do is talk about the supposed intricacies of the Lakers' defense while ignoring simpler explanations for their improvement at that end of the court: Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza participated in their first training camp as Lakers and rebounder/shot blocker Andrew Bynum returned from injury to play alongside Gasol for the first time. Adding an agile, long armed wing defender and an agile, long armed post player is bound to improve a team's defense. Of course, it also does not hurt to have perennial All-Defensive Team member Kobe Bryant--who Boston Coach Doc Rivers called the best help defender since Scottie Pippen--on the roster, fresh off of being Team USA's defensive stopper in the Olympics.
It is worth remembering that years ago Phil Jackson adapted Tex Winter's Triangle Offense as his primary offensive scheme but Jackson has a defensive background dating back to his playing days with the Knicks when he was coached by the great Red Holzman; during Jackson's first season in his initial stint with the Lakers, they improved from 17th in defensive field goal percentage to leading the league in that category en route to winning 67 regular season games and the first of three straight championships. In other words, Jackson did not suddenly discover defense this offseason.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Lakers assistant coaches Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen about the Lakers' defense, getting their perspectives on what has changed (and why) and how this team's defense compares to some of the great defensive teams with which they have been associated during their time in the NBA. Cleamons was a rookie on the Lakers' 1972 championship team that won a record 33 straight regular season games. He was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson during four of the Chicago Bulls' championship seasons (1991-93, 1996) and three more L.A. Lakers' championship seasons (2000-02). Hamblen was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson during two of the Bulls' championship seasons (1997-98) and three Lakers' championship seasons (2000-02).
I also spoke with Stu Lantz, an eight year NBA veteran who averaged 20.6 ppg for the Rockets in 1970-71, played for the Lakers during his final NBA season in 1975-76 and has been a Lakers broadcaster since the 1987-88 season.
Note: I interviewed Cleamons, Hamblen and Lantz separately but my first question to each of them was the same, so I will list that question first and group together their answers:
Question: “How much of the defensive improvement for the Lakers this year is based on schematic changes and how much is based on having Bynum healthy, having Ariza for a full season and having Gasol in training camp?”
Lantz: “I think that they both go hand in hand because even with the change in the scheme of things without the players to run the schemes you just don’t have it (the improvement). Having that last line of defense with Andrew helps tremendously. Trevor, he just wreaks havoc regardless of the scheme. I think that it’s a combination but obviously they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing without the scheme being put into place so that has to be at the forefront and then having the players to do that comes second.”
Frank Hamblen: “From day one, we’ve emphasized the fact that we are going to play defense and that we are going to be better defensively. We’ve talked about that with the players and I think that (emphasis) is probably one of the biggest reasons. What we’re trying to do is load up one side, basically keep two guys between the ball and the basket. That helps us a lot. Having more length, with Andrew healthy—we have some long guys on our team with Andrew, Pau Gasol, Lamar, Trevor Ariza. We have some long, athletic guys, so that really helps us also.”
Jim Cleamons (chuckles): “How much, I don’t know, but let’s just say that we’re happy to have a full training camp with them and we are spending a little bit more time at the defensive end talking about what it is we want to do. So I think it’s a combination but I can’t give you a percentage. Let’s just say that things are working out well.”
Friedman: “From a schematic standpoint, how is this Lakers’ team different defensively from last year’s team and how is it different from the three Laker teams that won championships early in the 2000s?”
Lantz: “I think that the defensive schemes are different from the three-peat teams only because of the personnel. We didn’t swarm nearly as much in 2000, 2001, 2002 as we are doing now. If you watch us now, we will funnel the ball down one side and once he picks up his dribble then it is almost like an amoeba—they (the defenders) are all over the place. Also, when you look at differences between the championship teams and this one, that offensive unit that the three in a row champions had was pretty good too with the one-two punch of Kobe and Shaq. Now, they’ve got more than a one-two punch—they’ve actually got a four headed monster offensively. You never know which guy is going to come out and really be a pain to the opposition’s defense. Obviously, Kobe can do it every night and then you’ve got Pau, Lamar and Trevor and Derek and Andrew. They’ve got a lot of different weapons.”
Friedman: “How would you compare the defense that the Lakers are playing with the way that the Celtics played defense last year? Do you think that the Lakers have reached that level or is there still room for improvement?”
Lantz: “I think that the Lakers still have a step to go to get to that level. I really do like the Celtics’ defense because the Celtic defense is consistent for 48 minutes; regardless of the score, it is consistent for 48 minutes. Thus far this year, in the first 15 games the Lakers have had periods where they aren’t that consistent defensively and they allow teams to shoot 60% for a half or something like that. Then they decide that they better get after it again and they try to tighten the defensive screws but I think that they have a step to go to get to the Celtics’ level because of the consistency with which they play.”
Friedman: “What do you think causes the inconsistency that you described?”
Lantz: “I think it is more focus than anything. I think a lot of times it is because they have played so many games at home—you get that sense of relaxation at home, ‘We’re home, we’re going to win no matter what,’ so you don’t come out as focused. I think that getting out on the road is going to be good for them because they are going to have to be focused from the time the ball is thrown up at the opening tip until the final horn. I think that it has been more focus than anything else.”
Friedman: “Obviously, the Lakers only play Boston twice in the regular season. Do the guys on the team talk about that, about making some kind of statement in that game?”
Lantz: “No, not until that game comes around. You can’t look that far ahead. We’re still 23 days away from their first meeting, so they don’t talk about the 25th of December quite yet but as that day starts to get closer, yeah, they’ll start focusing on that day.”
Friedman: “There is no way to pretend that that is just another game.”
Friedman: “No one can even try to say that.”
Lantz: “Exactly. Those who say that it is just one of 82 are not telling you the truth.”
Friedman: “Whatever the Lakers’ record will be at that point—and it looks like it is going to be a fantastic record—everyone is going to look at that game and make decisions about whether the defense improved, whether the toughness improved, all the questions that came up in the Finals.”
Lantz: “Right. Exactly. All the questions are going to surface again, just like they did somewhat in the game that they lost to the Pistons, because the Pistons are a physical bunch who pretty much played our bigs man up, straight up, which means the perimeter (defenders) can lock in a little bit better, which makes it tougher. It’s going to be a very interesting game when it occurs on the 25th, to see where the Lakers stand in that regard and also to judge where their defense stands, because that is going to be a game where you are going to have two teams hopefully playing 48 minutes of just aggressive, encouraging type defense throughout. That is one that I am looking forward to even though it is 23 days away.”
Friedman: “The Pistons game was strange because that is one of the best games that Detroit has played this year. They have not exactly torn up the league since they got Iverson. That was one of their best games.”
Lantz: “That was the best game, there is no question in my mind. I have not seen all of their games but if they’ve played better than that I want to see that game. They played really well, not only defensively but they shot the ball extremely well. They had shots that they made. The final numbers can be very misleading because if a guy misses 10 out of 15 shots a lot of times people say that the defense did it but he might have just missed shots. In that game, guys were challenging shots but the Pistons were making shots. They shot the ball really well.”
Friedman: “In that game, Iverson and Rasheed Wallace seemed to be working well together. Iverson was collapsing the defense and then Sheed was hitting all of those outside shots. That looked like a good recipe for them but we haven’t seen much of that since then for them.”
Lantz: “Again, you have to remember that they’re playing the Lakers. When teams play the Lakers, even though the Lakers are not the defending champs it seems like other teams elevate their games tremendously. The Celtics realize that as well. They have to play 82 games in which they are defending the championship and teams play their ‘A’ game that night.”
Friedman: “Is what you are doing schematically based on some of the things that the Celtics did so well throughout last season and in the NBA Finals?”
Hamblen: “No, it’s not based so much on what the Celtics did. We just put a defense together of what we want to do and what we thought would help us shut things down. We try to keep the ball on one side and try to keep the ball down on that one side.”
Friedman: “How would you compare the level of defense that the Lakers are playing with the defense played by the Bulls’ championship teams when you were an assistant coach in Chicago? How is the scheme similar or different and how would you compare the overall defensive effectiveness of those teams?”
Hamblen: “With the Bulls, we had several players who had been on the All-Defensive Team. The level of defense was certainly good and that is one of the reasons why the Bulls won so many championships. Then you throw in a Luc Longley or Bill Cartwright to plug up the middle. Michael Jordan was a great defender, Ron Harper was a great defender. Scottie Pippen, of course, was a great defender. Dennis Rodman was a great defender. These guys made the All-Defensive Teams. I can’t really compare the Lakers to those Bulls’ teams defensively just because the Bulls were really good defensively; we’re trying to get to that level.”
Friedman: “Would it be fair to say that this Lakers team is blessed with a little more size than the Bulls in terms of having Gasol and Bynum, so your defense is based on funneling players to the shotblockers, while the Bulls were based more using their speed and being disruptive in the passing lanes?”
Hamblen: “The players on the Bulls took pride in their ability to lock guys down. We’re going to be more of a team defense where we’re going to be in help situations—‘I’ve got mine and half of yours’ type thing; that’s what we’re preaching now.”
Friedman: “So the Bulls were more of a one-on-one team defensively?”
Hamblen: “On the Bulls, each player could lock his guy down. Obviously, you always want to help if somebody gets beat, but they could contain their guys for the most part so we didn’t have to help as much. Here, we know that we are going to have to help, especially because we want to keep our big guys out of foul trouble so we have to do a good job of containing.”
Friedman: “During the Finals, Doc Rivers mentioned that he thought that Kobe Bryant might be the best help defender in the league since Scottie Pippen. How would you compare Kobe and Scottie as help defenders?”
Hamblen: “I think Kobe is a good weak side defender. He’ll take chances looking for steals and roaming. We know that he can lock guys down one on one defensively but he can also anticipate plays from the weak side. We just don’t want him gambling too much, which will hurt our defense; just pick your spots when you’re going to go.”
Friedman: “How much different is the scheme this year from last year? Last year you had a good defensive team but you were inconsistent. How much has what you are doing really changed in terms of how you are deploying the players defensively?”
Cleamons: “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.”
Friedman: “Were you not able to do that last year because of some of the personnel changes and injuries? What brought about the idea of making that change and providing more help?”
Cleamons (laughs): “The loss to Boston. It’s just a matter of the fact that you want to be competitive. You don’t have to do it but it is another weapon or scheme in your arsenal. We realize that when you go around the league that teams watch film just like we do so we can’t do it all the time but there are times that we can do it and get away with it. Players have to understand the scheme, you have to drill on it and have confidence in it and when you need it pull it out. If you don’t need it then you can get by without it for a couple games but you know that you have it as a weapon.”
Friedman: “You stormed through the Western Conference playoffs last year. Did it really come as a shock to the system not just that you lost to Boston but the way that those games went down, the big lead that you lost (in game four) and what happened in game six?”
Cleamons: “Let’s just say that we played well but not well enough. Boston was on a mission and we understand that. Give them all the credit in the world. They were the better team. It’s a new day and we would like to do the best that we can to get back there and I’m quite sure that they want to get back there. So we’ll see if next May/June we get that opportunity.”
Friedman: “I’d like you to make some comparisons based on your experiences in your playing career and your earlier coaching career. How would you compare the way that this team is playing to the 1972 Lakers and to the 1996 Bulls? I know that it is premature to talk about such things but in what areas does this team match up well with those teams and in what areas does this team still need to grow to be like one of those teams?”
Cleamons: “We’ve got a lot of growing to do. This team is talented, no doubt about it, but both those teams were on a mission. That’s not to say that we’re not on a mission but this team does not have that maturity at this point in time. Hopefully, we will get to that stage, but sitting here in December we’re not that mature. We haven’t seen too many tough teams yet and the one tough team we saw (Detroit) handed our hat back to us. That’s a learning process. Hopefully this team will grow and mature. We’ve got some tough games ahead of us before we finish out the year and we’ll see where we are.”
Friedman: “During the NBA Finals, Doc Rivers said that Kobe Bryant is the best help defender since Scottie Pippen. I know that you coached Pippen. How would you compare Kobe and Pippen as help defenders?”
Cleamons: “Well, Scottie Pippen in my estimation was probably the best. 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. Those guys (Pippen and Bryant) have certain instincts about what to do. That’s what you are looking for, guys who know how and when to come and give help and where they are going on their rotations.”
Friedman: “If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that when you have a Jordan, a Pippen and a Harper, those guys were so great defensively that you didn’t really have to give them a scheme explaining when and how to help: they just read the situations on the floor as they happened. With this Lakers team, you are finding things on film and showing the players that when they see this arrangement of players provide help and when you don’t then don’t come over to help; you are instructing them to play in a certain way instead of having them rely on natural defensive instincts.”
Cleamons: “With both groups you have to quote unquote teach them but some guys just have better instincts. These guys we are having to program a little bit but they’ll get it. When you are talking about defense on the floor, defense on the floor is about desire: you want to get there, you want to shut guys down, you want to shut teams down. That’s a killer instinct that you can’t teach.”
Friedman: “If you have a player who is not a defensive minded player you can give him all the schemes you want but can you really give him that desire if he doesn’t have it?”
Cleamons: “That’s very difficult. You earn your paycheck with that one.”
Readers are free to draw their own conclusions from these interviews but I think that these are the salient points:
1) The Jordan-Pippen Chicago Bulls were a great defensive team because they had multiple players who could "lock down" their man one on one.
2) In contrast, the current Lakers do not have nearly as many "lock down" defenders as the Bulls did, nor do most of their players have the tremendous defensive instincts that the Bulls did regarding when and how to play help defense.
3) The Lakers coaching staff realized that without providing some kind of formal structure regarding help principles several of their players would frequently be out of position defensively, leading to breakdowns. As Cleamons said, "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."
4) The "new" Lakers' defensive scheme is hardly "new" or revolutionary, as Cleamons candidly admitted; it mainly consists of formalizing sound defensive principles such as protecting the paint and providing help to weaker defenders and/or defenders who are overmatched. The "new" scheme simultaneously takes advantage of the Lakers' length and depth while also utilizing help principles to try to prevent the big men from getting into foul trouble.
5) Cleamons astutely pointed out that the Lakers lack the "maturity" that great teams possess. That became very evident last week when the Lakers blew a big lead at Indiana and almost blew a big lead at Washington.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM