As Byron Scott talks big, Lakers’ defense sinks to historic depths

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BOSTON – Lakers forward Carlos Boozer has a mostly deserved reputation as a poor defender. But there must be a limit on his shortcomings, because, for four years in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau built excellent defenses with Boozer starting.

How did the Bulls do it?

Boozer says Chicago drilled its scheme daily, players actually moving through their defensive rotations to reinforce them.

“We just did it every day,” Boozer said. “Even if we did it for five minutes, 10 minutes.”

Every day? Is that hyperbole?

“Every day,” Boozer said. “In Chicago with Thibs, we drilled our defensive rotation every day. Every day. In the morning at shootaround, practice day – it’d obviously be a lot longer on the practice day. But every day, we drilled it to make sure we know where we were supposed to be at, what we were going to do.”

And in Los Angeles?

“We talk about it a lot,” Boozer said.

That the Lakers do.

“The main thing that I have to do right away is establish ourselves as a defensive basketball team,” first-year Lakers coach Byron Scott said at his introductory press conference.

“We’ll come ready to defend every single night,” he guaranteed.

In the months since, the Lakers coach has continued to emphasize defense. To many, his defensive focus is a breath of fresh air after Mike D’Antoni’s perceived indifference to that end of the floor. Under D’Antoni’s watch, the Lakers’ defensive rating slipped to 28th in the NBA last season as they went 27-55, their worst record since moving to Los Angeles.

But the 2014-15 Lakers not only rank last in the league in defensive rating, they’re historically bad.

This is a team with defensive woes everyone – from old-school holdouts to advanced-stats aficionados – can appreciate. The Lakers rank last in points allowed per 100 possessions (115.2) and points allowed per game (110.9). No team has hit that double whammy since the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics.

By allowing 115.2 points per 100 possessions, the Lakers are on pace to set the all-time record for worst defensive rating. The highest mark for a full season is 114.7 – done by the 2008-09 Kings, 1992-93 Mavericks and 1990-91 Nuggets.

Just how bad is the Lakers’ defense? It’s headed solidly in the right direction, but not once this season has it rated better than the worst ever. Here’s how the Lakers’ cumulative defensive rating (purple) has trended relative to the marks produced by the worst-ever defenses, the next-worst defense this season (Jazz), average defense this season and best defense this season (Warriors):

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The Lakers’ biggest defensive problem is simple. They lack good defenders.

Only one current Laker ranked in the top 170 of ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus last season, No. 98 Ed Davis. Davis is also the only Laker with an above-average mark in Basketball-Reference’s defensive box plus-minus this season.

It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that a team with Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Nick Young is struggling defensively.

Even Kobe Bryant’s most fervent fans must admit his defense has slipped from his All-Defensive prime, because Kobe himself acknowledges it. Kobe says his defensive approach is “more tailored, picking spots.”

“I find myself leaning on Wesley Johnson a little more and allowing him to take some of these top guys, let him chase them around and things like that,” Kobe said. “In the past, I used to do it all.”

Kobe’s mindset is illustrative of the Lakers’ bigger problem. They have gifted players who choose to expend more energy on offense than defense. That might be excusable for Kobe, who leads the NBA in scoring thanks to his incredible footwork and court vision. At 36, he’s probably no longer capable of defending at a high level for long stretches, even if he chose to flip his focus.

But what about everyone else?

The Lakers have been accepting their current setup, even if it leaves Davis as one of the few defensive-minded players on the roster and the team’s defense in the gutter as a result.

“You’ve still got to have guys that love to defend. No offense to guys who can score a lot. But a guy like Nick, we need him to give most of his energy on the offensive end. A guy like me, I’ve got to give my energy on the defensive end,” Davis said. “It obviously helps when you have a lot of defensive-minded guys on your team, but defense is something that everyone can do. You’ve just got to be willing to do it.”

Davis and others in the Lakers’ locker room point to the team’s lack of experience. Traditionally, defense is viewed as the side of the ball requiring more time to develop.

However, the Lakers are the NBA’s eighth-oldest team, weighted by playing time. This is not a young team unaccustomed to NBA play.

To be fair, there are a lot of new pieces. The Lakers have given just 53 percent of their minutes this season to players who played for the team last year, the league’s seventh-lowest mark.

There is a statistically significant correlation between percentage of minutes given to returners and a better defensive rating:

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Although the Lakers simply needing time to jell might be partially excuse their troubles, there’s a lot more going wrong here. Only the Jazz, based on the percentage of minutes given to returners, fall further from their project defensive rating.

The Lakers’ transition defense is woefully bad. They allow 15.6 fastbreak points per game (third-most in the league) despite surrendering just 6.2 steals per game (fifth-fewest in the league).

At least when the Lakers can set up in the halfcourt, they upgrade from incredibly awful to plainly lousy.

Jeremy Lin is far from a stopper, and when his man penetrates and the Lakers are forced to rotate, they often get scrambled. The problems often start there.

But even in the right spots, this team lacks the defensive talent to really make opponents sweat.

Jordan Hill might be the best defender among the Lakers’ regular starters. The center has a real skill for defending inside and out, and his mobility allows him to spend time on the perimeter without it being a liability in itself. However, that has left Boozer to protect the rim, a responsibility he simply cannot handle. Boozer has blocked only one shot all season. One! (Sorry, Blake Griffin, you’re Boozer’s lone victim.)

Unhappy with his players, Scott benched Boozer and Lin yesterday, moving Davis and Ronnie Price – a 31-year-old who played solid defense in his younger days but can no longer keep up like he once did (though his shoe sometimes can) – into the starting lineup.

The result? The Pelicans scoring 104 points, the 16th time in 21 games the Lakers have allowed more points per possession than the league average. Heck, the Lakers have allowed more points per possession than the all-time-worst season mark in 10 of their 21 games. They even let Mavericks score 155.6 points per 100 possessions in a game last month, the second-highest single-game mark since at least 1985-96.

Scott can blame his playersBoozer has been a (fair) target – but the Lakers’ upgrading their defensive personnel might not even be enough to solve this issue.  In his last coaching job, Scott led the Cavaliers 29th-, 26th- and 27th-best defensive ratings in the league. The next year, Mike Brown helped lift Cleveland to No. 19. There just isn’t much evidence Scott can design and install an effective defense in the modern NBA.

Beyond any concerns about Scott’s lack of understanding of how the game has evolved, there’s the big question about how he delivers his message.

Boozer said he’d follow Scott’s lead if the coach continues talking about defense more than drilling it. Will more talking eventually lift the Lakers from their defensive rut?

“Sometimes, it’s a process. You’ve got to give it time,” Boozer said before pausing. “Sometimes, you’ve got to switch stuff up a little bit.”

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?