Before the Los Angeles Lakers’ first official training camp practice, Frank Vogel and his staff gathered the team in their movie room for a PowerPoint presentation on what their defense would look like.
Vogel wanted them to be the most physical team in the league – echoes of the “smashmouth basketball” vision that led his Indiana Pacers teams. Each opponent’s shot was an invitation to hit someone in the rebound scrum. “He wanted us to destroy people legally, cleanly,” Jared Dudley reminded ESPN.
There would be no change of convenience – no “change of law” as Vogel calls it. Vogel told the team that he didn’t want to “reverse”
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“The [Golden State] Warriors made it seem like everyone had to change, “Danny Green told ESPN.” But there are still a lot of teams playing the kind of basketball where it’s not necessary. “
Vogel concluded with a metaphor: “Anyone who has built a house knows that you start with a project and make small changes along the way”. He had outlined the plan. He hoped the players would help with the changes.
The Lakers and Rob Pelinka, their GM and vice president of basketball operations, had stocked the roster around LeBron and Davis with proud veterans who boasted 12 appearances in combined All-Defensive teams: Howard, Green, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a good track record. Alex Caruso had emerged as an advantage. In making information, the Lakers learned that the opponents of Vogel’s Indiana teams had been impressed with his defensive adjustments. The foundation was there.
The Lakers and Vogel also realized that none of this would have mattered without LeBron’s buy-in. Vogel was determined to demand it. Vogel was perhaps the team’s third choice as head coach. When the Lakers added Jason Kidd to Vogel’s staff, you could see why skeptics wondered what Vogel’s take on the job was.
But Vogel had the security of a long-term contract. He is also confident. He had long since gotten rid of whatever imposter syndrome a former Division III player and a video room grunt might feel when he climbed to the top of practice. What did he have to lose? He would have coached the Lakers in his own way.
“I wanted to lead this team the way I have led my previous teams, regardless of any player’s stature,” said Vogel. “I train and evaluate the plays. It doesn’t matter what the name is on the back of the shirt.
When they reached the rehearsal room after that first meeting in the movie theater, it was clear that the players were available. There have been violent collisions, including one between LeBron and Caruso. The players dived for stray balls. Bradley resumed at court.
“When you see all of this, no one wants to be the weak link,” Dudley said.
LeBron was fighting as hard as anyone else. In his second stint in Cleveland and his first year in L.A., LeBron put his best effort into defense for the big moments. It was understandable given his age, career minutes and the Cavs’ ability to make it through the Eastern Conference playoffs regardless of seed. It was immediately clear that he had recalibrated his approach to this season. People in and around the Lakers have many theories as to why. Perhaps the lengthy layoff after LeBron’s first prolonged injury in his career refreshed his body and revived his hunger.
He heard the noise of how other superstars had passed him; LeBron finished third in ESPN’s annual NBArank, behind Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. LeBron sensed that those usurping anointings were concentrating on his defense to prove their thesis. “As a competitor at LeBron’s level, it’s important to you when you feel like there’s a lack of effort on both sides of the ball,” said Rich Paul, LeBron agent and CEO of Klutch Sports Group. “And given everything he’s accomplished, the willingness and motivation to enter this year with that mentality and then actually do it shows a lot of his character and respect for the game.”
Davis played a role on multiple levels. Teammates were surprised at first to hear Davis point out LeBron’s mistakes in practice, urging him to get it right next time around.
“There have been a couple of cases where they’ve had a little bit of back and forth,” Vogel said. “‘It’s up to you. Don’t try to deviate. This is your rotation.’ And LeBron would accept it. ” Davis and James are friends and they share an agent: Paul.
“They came with the expectation of holding each other accountable,” Green said.
LeBron surely understood that Davis was the best defender he had ever played with – that with Davis, the Lakers could build the kind of championship-level defense that had been unattainable in Cleveland. LeBron may not talk much about it, but he knows what another ring or two would mean for his legacy on the pitch.
Early workouts and games provided LeBron, Davis and everyone else with proof of concept. Everyone enters the preseason excited to engage in defense, or to play fast, or whatever the training camp cliché is. It only lasts if the players see the results.
“You really like it when you see it working,” Dudley said.
The Lakers started 17-2, with their defense battling for top spot in the league. LeBron still wasn’t watching opposing superstars that often, but he was spinning ferociously again – zooming into passing lanes, rushing to the edge to scare drivers. Remember: at his peak in Miami, LeBron was one of the most destructive wing defenders in league history – so ubiquitous, overcame the simulated “ghost” defenders by the Toronto Raptors analysis team programmed to play a perfect defense.
The Lakers’ early-season midfield offense might sound arrogant, but LeBron was thrilled with the other end. “Our attack will recover quickly,” he told teammates. The feedback loop was in motion.
(“Our defense is still ahead of our offense,” Green said this week.)
In the film sessions, Vogel caught LeBron’s mistakes, as he did for everyone else. LeBron replied.
“He’s the first to own it,” Vogel said. “‘I have to get there. I have to do it.’ It sets a great tone. “
On his second leg in Cleveland, you might catch LeBron slumping, rolling his eyes, or staring at teammates when they made mistakes on defense. He removed that stuff. Move on to the next game. When he detects a mistake worth correcting, he confronts it directly, as he did at the end of the first game of the Finals, when Rondo and Caldwell-Pope flipped a switch.
As the season progressed, LeBron made minor tweaks – design changes. At one point, he suggested changing the team’s weak side covers on the pick-and-roll to help defenders stay closer to corner shooters, instead of pivoting towards the winger if the first pass went there. , Vogel said.
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Vogel’s scheme requires that ball-carriers be forced into weak hands only in certain circumstances. LeBron pitched the idea of sending specific ball handlers – including Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz – to their weak hand at every lead, Vogel said. The coaches agreed. Other players, including Rondo and Davis, helped create changes.
The Lakers have added layers and patterns within the schemes. They did this mostly in film sessions and three-quarters of fast grenade drills – 2v2 to 5v5 – with coaches and video coordinators playing the roles of opposing players.
“Good thing, because we’re all too old to rush to court to figure it out,” Green said.
The layering paid off in the postseason; the Lakers alternated between different defenses for each of their four opponents, with dozens of small tweaks for specific players and sets.
The thing that stood out as much as the overwhelming size of L.A. it is their connectivity. The Lakers rotate in sync and in time. They know immediately when a full rotation of the aid is needed and when a flash in open space will slow the attack long enough for everyone to recover.
They rarely make mistakes. When they do – when two Lakers pivot on the same player or miss a switch – the other three cover them. The first two read this help and rotate in the right places. The errors do not occur in cascade.
The Lakers’ post-season defense was a symphony of slides, stunts, bullet train rotations from corners, switches, changes again, not switches. Maintaining that kind of integrity between four very different opponents and dozens of adjustments requires constant attention, vigilance, and physical effort. It’s exhausting.
They conceded 108.4 points for every 100 playoff possessions – sixth among post-season teams, and equivalent to No. 8 in the regular season. They did this against opposing offenses who finished third, fifth, sixth and seventh in the regular season.
Against the Portland Trail Blazers, their big men rushed over the 3-point line as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum circled the screens, even if that meant temporarily trapping and leaving three defenders to guard four Blazers. They are doing it in the finals against Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro; Howard crushed a Herro triple on Friday night in Game 2. It’s another step from Vogel’s Indiana project, which tied Roy Hibbert to the paint. The Lakers are particularly proud of a late February game against the New Orleans Pelicans in which JJ Redick failed to get even a shot in 20 minutes of play.
Seeing Howard stagger towards the shooters 30 feet from the basket leads to Vogel calling to downsize and move Davis to center. But Vogel has grown to prefer the Lakers’ bigger formations in those situations. Howard trap the ball means both Davis and James hide in the paint. The combined size and athleticism are legitimately unnerving. When Davis is in the middle and doubles up on the floor, the Lakers are smaller and more vulnerable behind the game.
“Actually that’s where I like to play big, when it’s 4 on 3 on the back,” Vogel said.
The same concept helped Vogel feel comfortable changing the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll in the conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, leaving a guard over Jokic and the Lakers center chasing Murray. This is the kind of switch Vogel vowed to avoid in the preseason, but powerful playoff offenses require adaptability. When Murray roasted Howard from dribbling, this is what he ran into:
Vogel often made Howard pass Jimmy Butler in Game 2 of the Finals, confident that Howard would be able to stay ahead of Butler and knowing that LeBron and Davis would be ready to inflict if Butler passed him. The Lakers felt no pressure to “go small” against Miami, even after the Heat attacked Howard early in Game 1 and flew for a 25-12 lead. Davis can walk away from Jae Crowder, vaporize the paint, and run back to contest the 3-point shots. Howard is 3-plus in the final 32 minutes after that slow start.
The Lakers cast a hybrid look at Murray, corralling him with man-to-man tactics as they zoned upward – with LeBron looming on the strong side – downward:
When the Lakers got stuck with their defense, Jokic sometimes tried to punish them by jumping for 3 seconds. The Lakers responded to several responses, including sending a third defender to Jokic. Green plays this role here:
Green’s man – Gary Harris – cuts through the back door. LeBron, on Jerami Grant on the corner, reads it and picks up Harris. Green anticipates the change of LeBron and will turn to Grant. One false half step and Grant has a clean lane or a 3. Grant drives; LeBron pauses to dissuade him. Grant stops and kicks Harris. LeBron rushes in there instead of assuming that Green will change again. Green digests it and stays still. Absolutely beautiful.
Under 1-0 in the second round against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers unleashed a sophisticated trap pattern on James Harden, which was based on perfect communication behind the trap. Vogel would not have been trapped like this in Indiana. Harden changed his mind by losing 60 points at Vogel’s Orlando Magic in January 2018. Vogel mentioned the possibility of trapping isolation markers in that pre-season PowerPoint.
The Lakers have suffocated Houston.
Look at Davis in the right corner. He passes Russell Westbrook in the paint and realizes that Robert Covington has replaced Westbrook on the corner. Davis spins and jumps to discourage a Covington 3, without flying out of bounds.
Davis’ all-court defense has reached a new level in the playoffs as the Lakers have asked him for more varied and urgent work. he is everywhere – focused like never before, a rambling menace the NBA has rarely seen.
He was extremely attentive to deadeye shooters:
Davis sees Rondo in trouble and abandons Paul Millsap to help. What happens next is just as important: Murray lunges at Millsap, but LeBron doesn’t rotate there. He knows that an open Harris 3 turn is more dangerous than the Millsap launch. Sometimes, a good defense consists of staying where you are: active inaction.
The Lakers have been on a tightrope the entire bubble:
Rondo helps LeBron, and then Caruso helps Rondo, but not enough to lose contact with Michael Porter Jr.
In an opening defeat of the season to the LA Clippers a year ago, the Lakers played Leonard primarily one-on-one as he set them on fire for 30 points. He ate at Vogel, but the Lakers hadn’t practiced very sophisticated aid schemes. They now perform basketball calculations 95 times per game.
“If you had asked me earlier in the year if we would end up being so connected, I would have said there was no chance,” Vogel said. “But everyone, starting with LeBron and AD, has been stuck throughout the season. And when that happens, you can keep adding and improving.”
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