Below is a recent Q&A I had with Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis, whose responsibility partly involves overseeing the team’s defense.
How would you evaluate how the team has executed on the defensive concepts so far?
Rambis: There’s a lot to put in. A lot of new concepts for players to try to digest. They’re better at it, but they have a long way to go. Communication is a big key to working your way through everything you have to figure out on your way out on the court. You have to be willing to make multiple defensive efforts and have to be willing to help each other multiple times. One of the things last year was their offensive execution and when they turned the ball over or shooting the ball, they weren’t good at our transition defense. Those are all areas we’re trying to correct. But there are so many defensive concepts to put in and there’s a lot of repetition and a lot of practice We’re on the right path. But we know we have a long way to go and a lot of stuff to put in.
What’s the first order of business?
Rambis: You want good offensive execution so you don’t turn the ball over. Then you start working through transition defense. Then you start working on your half-court defense. All the myriad of things – high screen and rolls, wing screen and rolls, angle screen and rolls, baseline rear picks and turnout action and post-ups, weakside pindowns, strongside pindowns. All of those things so everyone is on the same page so we know how to defend all of those actions.
We have all of these things we’re trying to put in and whatever this was seventh of eighth practice and we won’t be able to get everything in because we so have so many things on both ends of the floor. So it’s going to be an ongoing process as we go through the season. As players get better, we’ll see where we’re deficient, those are the things we’ll hit in practice. Then if they understand that, we’ll move on to something else. We still have a lot of stuff to put in.
Individually, guys have made improvements from guys who didn’t stunt are now stunting and guys who were stunting are stunting better. Guys are non verbal in their team defensive orientation are now communicating. It’s not going to go from zero to 100 overnight. But we expect to see our guys improve and we’re seeing that every night.
Is the improvement on pace with what you’d expect?
Rambis: I think everybody has done a good job. I’ve already seen a lot of improvement from Nick Young, Jodie Meeks understands things really well. Steve Blake understands things really well. Our bigs are doing a much better job in supporting our smalls in pick and rolls situations in terms of communicating so they know what’s going on. Wesley Johnson has been phenomenal with his foot speed and his arm length. His ability to cover a lot of space and a lot of ground quickly. We know we’re going to have to be a good defensive team for us to do anything. We don’t have guys we can just stick out there who are really good defensively that will just shut everybody down. We have to be a great communicating team and a great help team and a great multiple effort team.
Can you go into detail more with what improvements you saw Nick, Jodie, Steve and Wesley make?
Rambis: Nick is doing a much better job in terms of his stunting and understanding where he has to provide help from the weakside. In the beginning, he was basically just standing there guarding his guy. But you also have to guard your guy but half of somebody else’ s sometimes. He’s gotten better already. Jodie understands it already. He give great multiple efforts, just like Steve Blake does. They read and anticipate well. Their activity level, you’ll see them do four or five things on one defensive sequence because they’re quick and all over the floor. Same thing with Wes Johnson. His length and speed and quickness, he gets to places so quick, it’s amazing what he can do. We’re encouraging him to get in and get a lot of defensive rebounds and push the basketball. We envision him, but whether it comes out that way or not, we think he could play at the 4 spot. If he can come in, grab the rebound and push the ball, now you have somebody who’s being guarded theoretically a big. But that’s a stretch 4 on the other team as well. Then they’re running the ball, pushing the break and getting out and running.
So if the team adheres to how this principles, how good can the defense actually be?
I think they can be very good. I’d be stretching it if I said great. But we’re striving to get into the top 10 in terms of our defensive efficiency and efficiency as an offensive team. It’s rare you have somebody who’s a No. 1 points per possession offensive team and No. 1 points per possession defensive team. And being number one in both of those areas. It’s usually those that are at least in the top 10 win a championship. You may want to check on those numbers.
But you have to be pretty good on both ends of the floor. We feel we have a lot of offense out there and a lot of floor spacers and bigs that can shoot the basketball and play back to the basket, face the basket and put it on the floor some. So we like the versatility of different units that we got on the floor. The post up opportunities are quicker and more active unit getting up and down the floor a little bit quicker. Another unit has nice pace and rhythm to how they run. So many offensive weapons, the defensive team is like where am I helping off of. If I go to help, I’m leaving a good offensive guy open.
You got to look at defensive field goal percentage, but effective field goal percentage. That takes into account three-pointers, points per possession. They do points per possession based on 100 [possessions] because then it looks like everybody is the same. Not everyone gets 100 possessions in every single game. They use it as a baseline.
Why didn’t the Lakers do well on defense last season despite having Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace?
Rambis: Dwight did a good job protecting the basket and Metta when he was healthy was a very good individual player. But the way teams are playing now with using the three point line and spreading the floor and using pick and rolls, your team defense has to be really good. If Metta is shutting down his guy, but Metta is supposed to be a guy come from the weakside and help out, it doesn’t do any good if his guy doesn’t score because he gave a guy a layup. We saw a lot of multiple sequences in games where the defense just wasn’t connected.
You have all these new faces, all these new injuries and you don’t have a training camp. For Mike, it’s hard to put all these things in, all the concepts in and get across to the team because of different situations. Guys were in and out, there are different lineups. That didn’t make it conducive for everyone to get on the same page. You have to work at it. You can’t say it. You have to get it done and get through the paces.
What pace do you want this team to play to limit the turnovers?
Rambis: You always want a ideal pace for your team. If you’re playing too fast for your team, that creates turnovers because guys can’t make decisions. They can’t make shots or passes and they dribble the ball if they’re tryng to place too fast. You have to naturally find the pace that best suits it. If you have two different units that play a little bit faster and one that doesn’t play that, then that’s good. To be a fast-breaking team, to me it’s about consistency at playing at your pace. If that’s your pace. That’s the way you play it. You try to get up the floor before a defense gets a solid chance of getting set. Then you make them transition and then you have to make multiple decisions as well. If you can play faster than that pace with a different unit, you play at a faster pace. But you can’t play at a fast pace that you’re not productive at.
Is it true you want all your players to sprint back on defense after a shot even if it comes at the cost of getting an offensive rebound?
Rambis: You want your big guys – your 4 and your 5 man to offensive rebound. But sometimes the floor manw ill be far away from the basket. You have to make a decision – do I have a good shot at making that board? If I don’t, just get back. One, two and three cover for each other. If 4 or 5 shoot the ball, all 3 of them are back. If 1 (point guard) shoots the ball, 2 (shooting guard) and 3 (small forward) get back. This at least gets two guys back to start the transition defense. A lot of times last year, you would see two guys in the corner because other teams have shooters in the corner. A corner 3 point shot is a valuable shot and also pulls the defense down. They are a lot of reasons to have those corner shooters there. But when a shot goes up, they can’t stand. Both guys have to get out.
How should the bigs determine when to rebound or get back on defense after a shot?
Rambis: If he’s standing underneath the basket and standing in that painted area somewhere, then he has to do a good job of reading. If he’s on the right side and the someone takes a shot and someone is on the left side, there’s no sense in running over there. You run back. You see that and try to fight for an offensive rebound. The ball hits and runs. As soon as you see it go, you take off. If you can stop every transition point and not give them easy buckets, that’s where they get points in the paint in transition against your opponent. You can stop all of those, there’s a wider gap between what you give up in transition points and what you give up in offensive rebounds. You want to get back ondefense, make it a halfcourt set and make them play team basketball.
Percentage wise, how much of practices so far have been devoted to defense?
Rambis: That would be hard to say because we have chunks of our practice where we’re working on defense and chunks of practice where we’re working on offense. When we combine the two, then we’re working on both. It’s not like we’re focusing on the offense and neglect the defense. We’re working on both of them. They’ll have to defend the actions we want to run and traditional NBA sets they have to defend with multiple actions so they have to make a lot of decisions and a lot of movement. There has to be great communication with all that. We challenge them every day to have to defend a lot of difficult NBA sets. To give you a percentage would be hard?
But you guys are spending a lot of time on defense?
Rambis: Good chunk of it. But it’s always much more difficult to teach players how to play defense because everybody wants to play offense. How many guys out here are working on defense? (looks around the practice court). They’re all working on offense.
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