Heat Read: Defense will make or break Mike Brown


Editor's note: Throughout the 2012-13 NBA season we'll be asking our colleagues at The Heat Index to weigh in on the progress of the Lakers' newly minted super group. This week, Brian Windhorst pinpoints the key issue for Lakers head coach Mike Brown. Hint: It's not the Princeton offense.

Here are two conversations with head coaches that put a little perspective on the situation the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in after a 1-4 start.

Early in the 2006-07 season, the Cleveland Cavs were in the midst of a losing skid in which they were struggling mightily to score. After going through a six-game span where they averaged just 84 points, LeBron James and Larry Hughes, then the team’s highest-paid player and second-most vital voice, were openly complaining about coach Mike Brown’s offensive schemes. It was the first serious internal player challenge to Brown as a head coach.

“The way we need to look at it is if we only score 84 points then we need to work hard enough on defense to only give up 83,” Brown said at the time.

This was Brown’s personality and coaching philosophy in a nutshell: Defense always came first and second. Correcting problems always started with focusing on defense, even when the concept seemed irrational. Blame it on Gregg Popovich and the “pound the rock” mantra in San Antonio; Brown pounded that defensive rock.

Later that season the Cavs reached the NBA Finals when they averaged just 87 points in regulation (there was a rather famous double-overtime game that skewed the stats a tad) in the Eastern Conference finals. The Detroit Pistons averaged 83 points.

Fast-forward to this fall and a conversation with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra during the second day of training camp. The topic was the conference finals series last season with the Boston Celtics when the Heat headed to Boston for Game 6 trailing 3-2 after three consecutive losses.

At the time, Spoelstra struck a confident pose, much as he did in the previous series when the Heat fell down to the Indiana Pacers 2-1 and suffered an injury to Chris Bosh. Spoelstra’s mood was pervasive, the entire Heat team seemed to buy into his lead and never looked worried as it came back to win the series.

“To be honest with you, nothing that we faced in the playoffs last year was as mentally challenging as the year before,” Spoelstra said. “Nothing was like 9-8.”

Put all of that into context with where the Brown-coached Lakers sit now.

At 1-4, their start has been beyond disappointing to those who expected instant greatness with a team stocked with future Hall of Famers. Such expectations -- the Lakers did little to discourage them, Metta World Peace publicly talking about winning 70 games -- after a radical roster overall can be quite taxing. This was a lesson the Heat, themselves a little too quick to assume everything would fall nicely into place, are still obviously harkening back to.

The Heat, as Spoelstra said, still have some scars from the internal and external pressures of starting the 2010-11 season 9-8, culminating in the LeBron James “bump” of Spoelstra during a loss in Dallas. Now the Lakers have a mirror image to examine with Kobe Bryant’s “stare down” of Brown late in Wednesday’s loss in Utah.

Dealing with the pressure to win big fast under heavy national attention while integrating new stars, no matter their experience and skill, is a challenge. It’s not impossible of course. The 2007-08 Celtics started 20-2 in their first season after trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The last time a Lakers team experienced such preseason hype was after the arrival of Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2003 and that squad started 18-3. But as the Heat showed, early success is not to be taken for granted.

There are numerous things dogging the Lakers, and it seems Brown specifically, at the moment. The most frequently cited is the installation of a Princeton-style offense, a decision it should be pointed out that was reached by the organization in full consultation with Bryant before Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were even acquired. There’s also the minutes issue, it’s still early and Nash is hurt but the fact that the aged Lakers have four players in the top 33 in minutes per game thus far is concerning and an indication that Brown is already pressing. Then there’s a constant issue that has been with Brown since his days in Cleveland, which is his ability to command respect when needed.

But the true alarm that has resulted in all the angst around Brown is what’s been happening with the Lakers defensively, that rock that Brown has always relied on. The Lakers are lagging behind badly there and it's removing the safe zone where Brown can usually run. Brown doesn’t seek or get much credit for it, but he has been one the league’s best defensive coaches for the past decade.

For all the talk about Princeton and how it meshes with Bryant, Howard, Nash and Pau Gasol, the Lakers are actually doing OK with the ball. They’re not dominating at that end, and that was indeed the expectation, but they are not struggling. Five games in, they rank fifth in the league in field goal percentage (47 percent) and fifth in the league in offensive efficiency, the number of points they score per 100 possessions (104 currently) and a useful tool for standardizing offensive performance across the league.

There is room for improvement and not having Nash because of his leg injury factors in as well. There have been some calls to abandon the new offense and in all likelihood the Lakers will temper it. Said one league insider: “When they were struggling a bit last year they went to a version of the triangle and it settled things down and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them phase that in again.”

The tale on the defensive end is bleaker and that is where Brown is a fair target. Last season the Lakers had some good defensive numbers, giving up 90 points a game and holding opponents to 41 percent shooting. They slipped a little bit in some of the defensive rankings from Phil Jackson’s final season, but overall they were considered a good defensive team, in keeping with Brown’s reputation.

In the early going this season, however, the Lakers’ defense has been troublesome. They rank 22nd in defensive efficiency, the amount of points they give up per 100 possessions, at 103. They are 19th in defensive field goal percentage at 45 percent. They are 18th in points allowed at 98.8, more than eight more per game than last season.

Among everything that Brown is dealing with, these are the real issues. This is supposed to be Brown’s safety net, the “shrink the floor” help defensive philosophy that he helped make popular in the league. The one he normally drills and drills, obsesses about in preparation and preaches about at length. Right now, it has abandoned the Lakers despite the addition of Howard, the type of athletic basket defender that usually allows all defenders to look better.

If Brown is going to pull the Lakers out of their early-season slump -- and they start a six-game homestand Friday against Golden State that offers opportunity -- it will be here. That is, after all, what got Brown this job, and it will be that defense that will save it or not.