TrueHoop: Jim Cleamons

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

There have been calls throughout the postseason for Pau Gasol to see more opportunities to score down on the low block. Gasol himself hadn't been one of those critics. The Lakers' big man is a harmonious sort who trusts the Lakers' triangle offense without reservation. This makes a lot of sense because the system is ideally suited to Gasol's talents as one of the game's best high post players. 

Pau Gasol
If it were up to Pau Gasol, we'd see this kind of thing a little more often. (Ronald Martinez/NBAE via Getty Images)

So it came as a bit of a surprise on Wednesday when Gasol conveyed to the media that the offense wasn't generating the kinds of looks he'd like to be seeing. Gasol went 9-11 from the field Tuesday night in Game 3, with three additional possessions resulting in trips to the foul line.

Here is some of the exchange with the media:


Should you have gotten more shots last night? You didn't get a lot of looks.
I don't know. I mean, I got what I got, and that's what it is.  Should I have got more, should I have got less? It is what it is. It happened the way it happened. I was effective with the looks that I got, and I hope that I get, I don't know, the same or more next game. I mean, I can't really control all that.  Just try to make the right play and try to be aggressive when I get a chance to, and that's just the way it is.

Can you demand the ball, I don't know if that's the right word, but is that in your nature? We've never seen you really demand it. Can you do that?  Is that allowed in this offense? Are you not allowed to do that?

I try. For the most part when you get the big men in the offense first you become a passer because there's a lot of cutting, a lot of cutting from the wings, a lot of cutting from the weak side, so there's always something going on unless we decide that we're going to be in isolation for the guy on the post. Some of my looks or half of my looks in the post are going to have some action going on around me, and it doesn't really allow me to attack the way I would like to. But that also gives us motion in our offense, and it gives us energy and flow. So it's something that has worked for us, and I'm a good passer, I feel comfortable passing the ball, I'm a willing passer and I want to get my teammates shots and lay‑ups. It's fine with me, obviously. Like I said, I'm all about winning, I'm all about being effective and contributing, and that's what I'm going to do.

On the subject of you getting more touches and scoring more, I believe in the Denver series this subject came up and magically the next game you got more touches and more points. Do you expect that same thing to happen for Game 4 now?

It kind of came up every series to be honest with you. It came up a little bit in the Utah series but we did well and we were winning, so it was cool. It came up in the Houston series, and when we had those big games, Games 5 and 7, we did go to the post more and it worked out and we won well. Then it happened in the Denver series. Again it worked out, it went well. Hopefully it will continue. It's just got to be a part of our offense and emphasis, a conscious effort that this works, okay, let's make it work a little more often, because it's given us a good plus out there. I'm ready always to be there and compete and deliver, so that's what I like to do.


Gasol was on the floor for 73 possessions in Game 3. He touched the ball in 33 of those possessions. When you remove what can be referred to as "incidental touches" -- instances when Gasol receives a pass out on the perimeter which he immediately gives up -- that number falls to 25. Here's the breakdown of those 25 possessions when Gasol touched the ball in legitimate playmaking situations:

  • 9 successful field goals for Gasol. [18 points]
  • 2 missed Gasol field goal attempts. [0 points]
  • 3 trips to the line for Gasol (He went 5-6). [5 points] 
  • 9 shots attempts by teammates (3-8 FGAs, 1-3 FTs), including one assist by Gasol.[7 points]
  • 2 turnovers by teammates. [0 points]

Let's parse Gasol's remarks with those numbers in mind. As Gasol mentioned, he was successful with the shots he got, working 23 points out of his 14 shot possessions. In the 11 possessions when Gasol gave up the ball in "scoring position" -- whether he was passing out of the post, handing it off, or hitting a cutter -- the Lakers converted only seven points.

The most interesting item in Gasol's remarks, though, was the delineation he drew between possessions during which he worked in isolation, and the possessions where there was "some action going on" in close proximity. The latter kind of set, "doesn't really allow me to attack the way I would like to," Gasol said.

Here's more specifically what Gasol was talking about: 

  • [1st Quarter, 3:39] Gasol started the game with an easy dunk off a post set in isolation against Rashard Lewis, and he's been hungry for more ever since. Here, Trevor Ariza feeds Gasol just off the left block. Gasol's back is to Lewis, as Ariza swings around Gasol's right hip for a possible handoff. Gasol keeps the ball, and immediately from the weak side, Kobe Bryant makes a sharp basket cut down the heart of the lane. Gasol swings a pinpoint perfect pass across his body to Bryant, who catches it in motion. Bryant's wild two-handed heave at the basket is no good (He was looking for contact). 

Gasol never really got a chance to operate against Lewis on that set, which is probably frustrating to him since he has an advantage against the shorter, slighter Lewis down on the block. At times, the Lakers have appeared as if they'd finally showcase that matchup, but they've yet to make it a linchpin of their offensive attack. 

It's important to recognize that Gasol acknowledged the strength of the Lakers' overall offensive strategy. "[The offensive system] also gives us motion in our offense, and it gives us energy and flow," Gasol said. "So it's something that has worked for us, and I'm a good passer, I feel comfortable passing the ball, I'm a willing passer and I want to get my teammates shots and lay‑ups."

An illustration: 

  • [3rd Quarter, 4:42] Derek Fisher delivers the ball to Gasol at the pinch post on the left side. After doing so, Fisher sets a screen at the top of the key to free up Ariza to swing in front of Gasol for a handoff. The screen by Fisher is a good one, as Ariza has a full head of steam as he takes the ball from Gasol and slashes through Orlando's back line for an acrobatic layup.

Textbook triangle. In his comments, Gasol appreciated that this kind of action is vital to the Lakers' offensive cohesion, though the Lakers weren't all that successful running the offense through Gasol Tuesday night to manufacture shots for others. They were much better off letting Gasol go one-on-one against the Magic bigs:

  • [3rd Quarter, 11:16] Off an inbounds pass, Gasol moves over the weak side block where he gets the ball in isolation against Lewis. Gasol backs him down with his left hand and right shoulder. Hedo Turkoglu flirts with a double-team, but never fully commits. Gasol fakes a pass back out to the top of circle, then spins away as he elevates f
    or the righty hook that falls through.

There were very few incidents of Lewis effectively deterring Gasol in the post [3rd Quarter, 9:55, the possible exception], which might be the source of Gasol's temperate frustration on Wednesday. Another would be the fourth quarter. Bryant spent the first seven possessions of the period on the bench, yet Gasol didn't touch the ball a single time in the first six possessions. The Lakers squeezed seven points out of the six possessions [3-3 FG, 1-2 FT, 2 turnovers], but the Lakers never earnestly looked for Gasol down on the block. Even though Gasol never took a breather in the fourth quarter, he got only four meaningful touches in 22 possessions. Gasol converted three of them into six points for himself, while the fourth touch resulted in a field goal by Jordan Farmar. 

I don't think it's fair to interpret Gasol's words as a wholesale expression of discontent. Gasol was very careful to couch his concerns with deference to the system. As Lakers' assistant coach Jim Cleamons has often pointed out, there's nothing about the triangle that discourages isolation sets in the post for the Lakers' big men. Negligence of Gasol on the block isn't a systemic problem, it's a situational one. Given Gasol's performance over the first three games of the series (23-37 FGs, 17-19 FTs, 21.0 ppg), expect that to change Thursday night. 

How the Lakers Play Defense

March, 26, 2009

There is a mini-war brewing in the basketball blogosphere today, with lines being drawn over advanced basketball statistics.

I could write 50,000 words about how silly it is to be opposed to advances in statistics. (Make lists of names! Two decades from now, when box scores have changed forever, and we all understand the game in far richer detail, it will be fun to tease the people who never wanted that change.) No, I'm not saying every advance is useful, and no I'm not saying statistics should be the driving force behind basketball decisions.

But hell yes, I am saying that if you want to be as smart as possible about basketball, you have to make it your business to understand the things that used to be unmeasurable, but now can be measured.

Saying you want to keep basketball information locked in its 1982 state is like standing around in some small town a century ago, seeing the first Model T ever to roll into town, and swearing your lifelong allegiance to commuting on horseback. It's not that the Model T is so magnificent -- it's an early model, rife with flaws. It's just that it's so blatantly the way things are headed. They will figure this stats thing out, just like they figured the car thing out.

In any case, one of those cranky anti-advanced stats posts from David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout. (It's largely in response to a Knickerblogger post.) In a classic bit of praising the horse, Friedman makes a claim that in measuring defense, points per game allowed is way more important than this hokey upstart points per possession. (Let's say my team allows your team to score 100% of the time. If we shoot every five seconds, you'll score a zillion points in a game. If we shoot every 20 seconds, you'll score roughly a quarter of a zillion of a points. So, the measure of points per game is suggesting that our team -- with the same zero percent stop rate -- just got four times better at defense! Isn't it smarter to ask: How many times did the other team have the ball? How many times did we stop them? But I digress.)

Then, however, the conversation changes entirely. In making his case, Friedman gets into what he's really good at -- collecting insight from practitioners of hoops.

Jim CleamonsIn this case, Laker assistant Jim Cleamons is quote talking about how the Lakers play defense.

Their D has been praised all year by scouts and experts. Right now they're sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and first in offense. When you watch, you can often see that it is good. And being first in team efficiency rankings, and high in another, is usually enough to win a championship. (Cleveland is fourth in offense and third in defense at the moment. Boston is first in defense and fifth in offense -- last year's title winning team was first in defense and ninth in offense.)

I bring this up because how well the Lakers play defense could well determine who wins this year's NBA title. Here's Friedman, quoting Cleamons, who sounds like he thinks the Lakers could get better at playing defense:

"The only thing we're doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we're sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There's no big secret about it; that's what we're trying to do: give more help when we can and we've been fortunate thus far."

When I followed up by asking Cleamons to compare the current Lakers' defense with the 1996 Bulls championship team (for whom he was also an assistant coach), he replied, "That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That's why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don't know how to help-when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn't have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did" (emphasis added). In other words, the truth about the Lakers' defense is precisely the opposite of what Pelton wrote: the so-called "new" scheme was not some kind of defensive revolution but rather the coaching staff's attempt to organize the defensive efforts of some players who do not have great defensive instincts. As the Lakers have faced stronger teams and more road games, it has become apparent that their defense is not as great as Pelton suggested.

A couple months after my first interview with Cleamons, I caught up with him again and asked him to give a "mid-term" report card on the Lakers' defense. He said, "Anyone who watches film and is a student of the game would see that we don't play with the same intensity day in and day out, game in and game out. If you are going to be a championship caliber team, your defense is the one area that doesn't waver. We aren't good enough on a game by game basis to do what we need to do to say that we are going to be accountable in the end. Then, our rotations are not always what I like to call 'on point.' Sometimes, they are nonexistent, sometimes they are a little bit slow. If you are a good defensive team, then you play better on the defensive end then you do on the offensive end, because that (defense) is where you are really linked together; (in that case) the team has a feeling of when they have to help and a sense and a presence of how they need to get there so that when the ball moves and flows your defense is not always reacting. You are kind of ahead or you arrive right on the catch so the offense knows that you are there and there are no gaps in your rotations."

(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)