The Lakers were for large stretches of the 2012-13 season a train wreck defensively, leading the league in none of the happy categories but dusting the competition in post-basket finger pointing, angry glares, confused stares, and upward facing palms. And as bad as things were overall, they were.
If you missed the memo, Howard has since moved on to Houston. Metta World Peace, the team”s best perimeter defender, is gone to New York.
While they”ve made themselves younger and more athletic by adding Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, Wes Johnson, and more, the Lakers will still have real liabilities on the perimeter (Steve Nash, and certainly until he”s healthy, Kobe Bryant) and lack intimidating paint protectors inside. Moreover, getting younger and more athletic doesn”t automatically mean improving defensively. Young, for example, has never wowed folks with his commitment to defensive excellence, and doesn”t exactly speak .
“I gave [the Lakers] my word I”m going to try (defensively).” he told ESPNLA 710 this summer, “But, they”re not bringing me here for what I don”t do — they brought me here for what I do.”
Bird”s gotta fly, right?
Johnson is built like someone who ought to play good defense, but his numbers with and say otherwise. These were the guys Kobe suggested Saturday at Media Day could take up the baton for MWP on the perimeter, something I can only attribute to lingering effects from Bryant”s post-op narcotics.
Point being, believing the Lakers can improve on last year”s defensive showing requires a fairly vivid imagination. Far more likely, it”s a matter of limiting the downside by maximizing what they have. The guy asked to make proverbial chicken salad from proverbial chicken poop is Kurt Rambis, returning to the Lakers staff after a disastrous head coaching stint in Minnesota followed by some solid work as a TV analyst. I spoke to him Saturday, and even given the natural optimism always present at the start of the year, Rambis seems very aware of what he”s got. Or more specifically, what he hasn”t got, and how they”ll have to compensate.
A portion of the conversation:
Q: Media types like me believe there is only so good this team can be defensively, given the personnel. How fair is that? Is there a ceiling here?
Rambis: ”It all comes down to communication, and it all comes down to guys being in sync in what they want to do, and adhere philosophically to what we want our guys to do. If we can get guys doing that, we could be pretty good. Everybody looks at defense, and you look at basket protectors, you look at individual defensive players. But even if you have individual defensive players and this guy might be denying this guy all over the court — well, that guy that”s denying somebody, he should have been part of the rotation. So yeah, this guy didn”t score but (the opposition) still got a layup out of it. So you still need all five guys functioning together out there on the court, so they understand who is responsible for what, who is covering who”s back, and who is supposed to be in help position all over the court. I think when you have players who are competitive and willing to work hard and you have intelligent ballplayers — because you have to read, you have to react, you have to anticipate — if we can get them in a system that they feel comfortable with and understand and the communication is there, and the work ethic is there, we can be ok.
The combination has to be what we can do offensively, and then what we can do defensively, too. Do we have to be a drop dead, stop-everybody-on-every-sequence down the floor? It may be hard to do that. But if we can force teams to take the shots we want them to take and function really well at the other end, we”re going to give ourselves a great chance to win games.”
Q: So you”re thinking of this in a holistic way, not necessarily looking to individual talent. It”s going to have to be the group.
Rambis: ”Absolutely. It even works well if you have great individual defenders when everyone is functioning well together.”
Q: But you don”t have that here. At least by reputation.
Rambis: “No, I think we have some really good, sometime-great-defenders. But if you”re talking about doing it individually all the time, we don”t have that kind of thing here. But I do think we have guys that understand basketball and have guys that will be willing to do the things we ask them to do. That”s going to be important. We”ve already worked a little bit with guys before training camp opened, and guys understand what we want them to do. It”s about getting them to be consistent with it, so they”re doing it all the time.”
The hope is that with a cohesive system to which everyone commits — something clearly lacking last season, even as things improved defensively over the second half — the team can be better than the sum of its parts. But Rambis essentially admits the Lakers don”t have the requisite physical talent (while promoting their basketball intangibles) and hope to be good enough to allow offense to carry the day. Maybe Rambis is just under-promising with the hope to over-deliver.