Throughout April and the playoffs, Mike Brown has periodically employed a backcourt of Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake, with the latter at the two and almost inevitably overwhelmed by his defensive assignment. The most recent example came in the first half of Game 4, where Andre Miller continually bullied Blake while matched against him. It's not Blake's fault he struggles in these situations. He's simply giving up a lot of size. All the while, Devin Ebanks, who proved himself capable at the spot while filling in for Kobe Bryant, sits on the bench watching. Land O' Lakers regulars are well aware of my recurrent frustration at Brown's unwillingness to use the bigger/longer Ebanks in these scenarios whenever possible.
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Coaches often operate through trust, and these two have Mike Brown's.
In the grand scheme of things, this is hardly the worst move Brown could make as a coach, but it's one I've nonetheless found curious. Thus, after Monday's practice in El Segundo, Brian and I got Brown's perspective on the matter. Below is a transcript of the conversation:
Land O' Lakers: What's the thinking behind keeping Sessions and Blake together, because it seems like, more defensively, it causes some problems? Andre Miller, for example, has been pushing Steve around, although he pushes a lot of people around.
Mike Brown: Yeah, he has. Steve has actually fought him fairly well. He's fought better than Sesh, to a certain degree. But we do that because [it's] more ball handling, more ball skilled guys out on the floor. If you look at last year's NBA champions, the Dallas Mavericks, they played with even two smaller guards in J.J. Barea and Jason Terry. So to have two ball-skilled guys out there, especially with the second unit at times, is good for us.
Part of it, too, is because we know Denver is doubling often and when they double right now, Steve is shooting a little bit better than Matt (Barnes) and/or Ebanks. So that is another reason we do it, because we don't feel like we drop dramatically on the defensive end when we have Steve on the floor instead of Ebanks or Matt.
LO'L: Even in those situations where someone like Miller has that size advantage?
MB: Well, he hasn't done a good enough job to -- knock on wood -- hurt us down the stretch for it to be effective. He hit a couple of buckets [Sunday night] that I thought were extremely tough. Like the one he drove and kind of threw up the play.
LO'L: Sure. Down the stretch, it was much different than during the first half.
MB: Correct. But the first half, stuff's gonna happen over the course of the game. We watched [film] today with the team, if we would have doubled [Miller] the correct way or at least helped out on him the correct way in the first half like we did in second half, then he wouldn't have had the first half that he had. Our first half defense, and in particular our first quarter defense, was not good. That was one of the things I talked with our guys about. Guys didn't do what they were supposed to do defensively in guarding the pick-and-roll, the post-up and pin-downs. We kind of made up our own coverages at times and we paid the price. That's why it was 28-26 in the first quarter, but if you watch the game, every quarter we got better and better, because we got tighter with our coverages and we did it without fouling.
(Editor's note: Later, Brown actually led Brian and I onto the court, and walked us through situations where doubles didn't arrive. He also noted how doubling off a non-scoring big like Kenneth Faried was an option often available, and how generally uncomplicated the approach was.)
LO'L: Does the predictability of Steve rather than Devin or someone young play into the decision?
MB: Yeah, that helps. Being a veteran and being here before. Not only with the comfort level from [his teammates] and the staff, but I think even with the opponent. The Nuggets, maybe they see a young kid in Ebanks or they see a guy in Matt that hasn't shot the ball particularly well, now that might them really aggressive on our other guys. Steve hits a shot or two, and now it's like, "Okay, we gotta guard this kid or we gotta find out where he is." Not only that, he can catch, you get a close out, now he can make a basketball play or he can play pick-and-roll on the backside to keep the offense flowing.
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Ebanks' length and defensive potential alone won't earn him the benefit of the doubt.
We have two choices with the second unit. We can play small at the guard spot with Sessions and Blake or we can play bigger with Ebanks and right now, I felt like a better combination overall is Sessions and Blake. Now if you think back, when Metta (World Peace) was playing there's time where it was Blake, Matt and Metta. So a lot of it depends on how I feel that combination is playing together and how I feel each guy is playing individually.
We might not be able to play those guys against, off the top of my head, Memphis, where they run their guys for a long time and O.J. Mayo is a big two-guard.
LO'L: And James Harden's hurt Blake when he's tried to guard him.
MB: That's another one. If they played (Derek Fisher), Harden and (Kevin) Durant, now that's something else that could bother us. But right now, we can kind of get away with it.
LO'L: Is Miller about as big a guard as you could get away with having Steve guard?
MB: Probably. He's borderline. He's strong as heck and he's a post-up guard.
LO'L: There are times watching Steve guard Miler, it doesn't look like he's having fun.
MB: But that's what helps him. He's fearless and he works his tail off.
It was an interesting explanation -- if basically the one expected -- and the logic makes sense in a vacuum. Brown also certainly wouldn't be the first coach to err on the side of a veteran. Plus, as he noted, there's an onus on Blake's teammates to properly help him. And the decision to play Blake and Sessions together late in the fourth quarter against Denver indisputably paid off. In the meantime, Ebanks, strong performance against Kevin Durant in a regular season double OT win notwithstanding, certainly doesn't have an established track record defensively. He may very well struggle against a guy like Miller, one of the league's craftiest players who knows every trick in the book.
On the other hand, we already know Blake likely will struggle in these situations anyway. Even if Ebanks' superior size and length don't translate into a showing considerably better, it's hard to imagine him faring much worse. If Ebanks can handle the assignment solo, the overall D as a result might tighten. In the meantime, it's fair to question how much the Lakers would lose offensively. Ebanks is basically putting up the same points as Blake in fewer minutes. Devin's often less reluctant to shoot, and if his range is inferior to Blake's, that's offset by being more of a threat around the rim. As a play-maker, he certainly lags behind Blake, but he'd theoretically be on the court at times with Session, Pau Gasol and maybe even Kobe, so the facilitating duties would be covered. To some degree, Ebanks' offensive deficiencies could be viewed as theoretical, whereas the defensive issues with Blake are well established.
In any event, there's a tradeoff in play and I obviously question whether that deal with the devil doesn't sometimes make contests more difficult than necessary. For every Game 4 fourth quarter triumph, there are even more (in my opinion) problematic stretches. At the very least, I wish Brown might consider splitting the baby in half, going with Ebanks at the two earlier in games, then leaning on the veteran Blake in crunch-time.
But at the end of the day, Brown's decision is hardly crippling the Lakers. For that matter, this post isn't meant as a fierce criticism of Brown, but rather a deeper examination of a difference in opinion. If nothing else, it's interesting to hear a coach so defensively-oriented allowing the offensive upside to primarily guide his decision. About a month ago, Brown noted discovering around mid-season how the Lakers defense is typically dictated by its offense, whereas most teams operate in reverse. Brown labeled this one of the most important things he's learned about the Lakers, and has been mindful of it ever since.
With that in mind, the Sessions-Blake backcourt could perhaps reflect an admirable evolution and flexibility on Brown's part as a coach, even while handing a situation differently than I'd prefer.