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.”

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.