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Monday, February 09, 2009

Jim Cleamons' "Mid-term" Report Card on Lakers' Defense

Early in the season, I offered readers A Closer Look at the Lakers' Defense Through the Eyes of Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Stu Lantz. Prior to the Lakers' 101-91 win at Cleveland, I caught up with Lakers assistant coach Cleamons and asked him a few questions about what he thinks of the Lakers' defense overall midway through this season; we also talked about the hot topic on everyone's minds, Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James. Here is the interview:

Friedman: "How do you feel about the team's overall progress defensively compared to last year? What would be your 'mid-term report'?"

Cleamons: "We have gotten better but there are certain areas that we definitely need to cover and become more proficient at if we really want to consider ourselves a contender for the title."

Friedman: "What would be the prime areas that have to be improved from your perspective?"

Cleamons: "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end than you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

Friedman: "Would you say that in a sense you and Cleveland are opposites? You are a very good offensive team that is capable of playing good defense, while Cleveland is a very good defensive team that is capable of playing good offense. They have that night in, night out defensive intensity for which you are striving. Would you agree with that assessment?"

Cleamons: "Looking at their defensive stats for the year and where they rank, they certainly are ahead of our curve. They've got some offensive problems. With (Delonte) West being out, that takes something out of their offense.

Mo Williams is a fantastic player; I've liked him since he came out of Alabama. They've got Gibson who can knock down shots and Ilgauskas is now back. They've got some weapons. They are going to stretch any team but your offense, until you really trust each other, is kind of going to be up and down. What they need to do know that night in and night out they are going to play as well offensively as they do on the defensive end. That is a young team just getting a good solid feel for each other."

It is worth mentioning here that despite Odom's performance, after the game LeBron James attributed Cleveland's loss more to offensive problems (the Cavs shot just .391 from the field) than defensive problems.

Friedman: "Of course, everybody is making LeBron-Kobe comparisons and you understandably have a bias because Kobe is on your team. Strictly from a coaching or scouting standpoint, what are some of the similarities and differences between those two players? If you look at them on film, what areas do you see Kobe being stronger in and what areas do you see LeBron having an edge?"

Cleamons: "The comparison is the fact that for their teams they both have the ball a lot of the time and they are the decision makers. One of the things that I would say off the top of my head is that--as the primary ballhandlers and decision makers--when both of these guys flow and get everyone else involved they probably have pretty good nights. But in the end of clock situations both of them probably dominate the basketball and they feel as if they have to do too much. That is when their teammates become stagnant and they stand around and watch them play because they (the teammates) really don't know what the next move is. Good players have to realize that they are entrusted with the ball to make good decisions for their team and for their teammates and that doesn't always mean that you (the superstar) get the shot. A lot of times, they have a far better chance (of success) in moving the ball early in the (shot) clock so that they can get the ball at the end of the clock. That way, their teammates now have had the feel and the touch of the ball and they (the superstar) have not dominated 16 of the 24 seconds in an offensive set. Once again, it boils down to star players realizing that they do have help, that they have good players around them and realizing the fact that their better games as a team are usually the result of sharing the basketball early on and then getting the ball back in the last seven or eight seconds."

Friedman: "I don't know if you saw this or heard about it, but on NBA TV they had a panel discussion with Eric Snow, Alonzo Mourning and Kenny Smith comparing Kobe and LeBron. A big difference that those guys cited is Kobe's ability to consistently make the outside shot. They said that elite defensive teams have to guard Kobe differently because of that, they have to push up on him at the three point line, whereas with LeBron you can sag off of him. Is that something that you notice as well and does that factor into not only the way that you will guard LeBron but also the way that you see teams guarding Kobe?"

Cleamons smiled wryly, because I'm pretty sure that he has not had anyone from the media ask him that question in that way and he wants to tell the truth without seeming to denigrate James. After a slight pause, he replied, "The fact is, Kobe at the end of clock situations--he's worked on his jumper. The book on LeBron is give him the jump shot. When LeBron makes his jump shot then he's got you between a rock and a hard place because with his size and quickness he can get to the hoop. So, if he's making his jump shot on any given night you really are caught between a rock and a hard place. Kobe has got a more complete game but having a more complete game on any day is a good thing but you still have to knock down those jump shots to keep the defense honest."

Any GM, coach or scout who is being honest will tell you the same thing about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, even if he couches it in diplomatic, conditional terms the way that Cleamons understandably did; Bryant still has the more complete game but James is already an absolute terror on those nights his jump shot is on and as those nights become more frequent occurrences he will become even more scary than he already is.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 PM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Monday, February 09, 2009 1:44:00 PM, Blogger luncandunc said...

Cleamons' comment about moving the ball early in the shot clock meshes with what I talked about a couple of posts back about end-of-game offense. I'd like to see the superstar give the ball up in those situations, run the normal offense, and then if nothing materializes, get the ball back with 7 or 8 seconds left on the clock and make something happen individually.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 7:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luncandunc:

Yes and I noted that in the other thread in my response to your comment.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 8:29:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Lamar Odom is deservedly getting a lot of praise for his play, but it's very telling the way Kobe's contributions in the Cavs game are getting swept under the rug.

Kobe still contributed 19 points, which gets a passing mention, but the way he scored them was indicative of his skill advantage over the Lebron. At least three jumpers Kobe made were with James guarding him closely, and there was one layup Kobe got that was under the basket with Kobe sealing off the supposedly much stronger James.

I'm glad you didn't focus too much on Kobe's eight baskets, as Lamar was the story, and I know that you are an objective observer, but at the same time, it's more than a little strange how Kobe's contributions are minimized in the big media outlets. Imagine if Kobe had played like Lebron, what a field day there would be of how Lebron outperformed Kobe.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 9:39:00 PM, Anonymous Jonty said...

David,

LO was great last night and I think the triangle works well with Gasol at center,than Bynum. I think Gasol is a better passer (Can you think of any other big man who has better passing abilities?) and a better post up player (at this stage of their careers) than Bynum.so I think people should not be surprised if their Offensive efficiency go up in the absence of Bynum.
The whole Gasol being soft and not good on defense was overblown by the media after the finals last year. The previous two playoff series (against Spurs and Jazz) I think Gasol did a pretty good job.I think in the series against the Celtics they were taken by surprise as to how physical they were and didn't know what hit them. This year even without Bynum they are better prepared..

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 11:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

As Fisher said, Kobe played a very "efficient" game. That is the perfect description; Kobe was not as active as usual but he was very effective at the things that he did. Once it became apparent how much he was really dragging in the fourth quarter I had a hunch that he was going to have one last burst and, as I said, it almost seemed like he saved up whatever he had left to hit that big shot over LeBron. That was the epitome of clutch.

As I've mentioned before, Kobe and LeBron have rarely played against each other with Kobe being fully healthy and both players having similarly talented supporting casts. Maybe we'll get to see that in this year's Finals.

As for the media ignoring Kobe's contributions, that is why I included the quotes from Fisher in my game recap.

Last season, the late showdown between the Lakers and Hornets was built up in the media as an MVP referendum but after the Lakers won the game the post game stories downplayed that aspect. I suspect that if the Hornets had won the game the media would have run a lot of Paul for MVP stories; it just seemed like Bryant was awarded the MVP begrudgingly, kind of like "he's clearly the best player and we're going to look dumb if he's never won an MVP, so let's give it to him this season." Einstein did not win his Nobel for relativity but for (comparatively) lesser breakthroughs because at some point the committee realized that they would look stupid historically if he never won the award.

I get the sense about the Lakers-Cavs game that if LeBron had dominated then we would hear that the MVP race is over.

As you know, I still think that Kobe is the best player but by no means have I said that the race is over and I fully realize that a good case can be made for either player. I am certainly open to LeBron proving his case to win the award but he has to prove it on the court, not in hype-fueled articles.

 
At Monday, February 09, 2009 11:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jonty:

I agree with your assessment of Gasol vs. Bynum as post players in the Triangle. Gasol is certainly among the best passing big men in the NBA.

I don't think that Gasol's issues versus the Celtics were overblown. You are right that he deserves credit for being very productive versus Utah and San Antonio, which is why before the Finals I thought that Gasol would do well--but without question he and Odom shrunk from the task versus Boston, as the L.A. coaching staff made very clear in their public comments about the series.

The Lakers do seem better prepared this year to stand up to Boston-Cleveland style physicality, as they showed by sweeping both teams.

 

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